What a Dad!
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a good thing on Father's Day to give thanks for our earthly fathers and to show them appreciation. But it's even better to learn from Jesus this morning about the depth of our Heavenly Father's love for us, what a Dad He is!
Tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus teach, and Jesus was receiving these sinners and eating with them. Tax collecting isn't wrong in itself (though often we feel like it should be), but in Jesus' day tax collectors were notorious for corruption; many lined their own pocketbooks through extortion or graft. Other public sinners besides tax collectors were coming to Jesus as well; we know from the Gospels that Jesus conversed with prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, and perhaps even murderers. So Jesus didn't just receive generic sinners, but notorious ones. To get the impact of what St. Luke describes here, we should picture Jesus at the table eating with those who had committed rape or molestation or drug-dealing or terrorism. We should imagine him sitting down with Hitler, Bin Laden, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Shocking, isn't it?
Jesus did not turn such sinners away, but welcomed them to sit down at the table so that He could preach to them. Of course, He didn't tell them that what they had done was okay; He didn't justify their sins; He didn't tell them they could keep living a wicked life. He called them to repent and turn to Him to receive the forgiveness of sins He would win on the cross for them. And the result of His preaching would be joy in heaven over each sinner who repented by believing the Gospel of complete forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus and then living a new life in Christ.
But the Pharisees took offense at this, and we Pharisees are offended as well. It makes us uncomfortable to think of a child pornographer who has repented being forgiven, doesn't it? The thought of someone who committed murder sitting next to us in the pew is scandalous, isn't it? How could such sinners be forgiven and saved, much less now be members in good standing of the church?
At this point we should remember that God's great man David had fallen into adultery and murder before repenting and writing Psalm 51, and the great apostle Paul had persecuted the Church and participated in the stoning of Stephen before coming to repentance and becoming an Apostle. But God loves to bring sinners to repentance and faith, as St. Paul says, "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15).
Yet a Pharisee chokes on such words because Pharisees don't think they need repentance; instead, they are confident of their own righteousness. They are morally good people; they pay their taxes and scrupulously avoid breaking the ten commandments outwardly. They are model citizens and great church members. Who could find fault with them?
Jesus could. He said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:27-28). Might we ever be Pharisees, too? Could Jesus also be addressing us pious church-going Christians, who think of ourselves as better than others because we have not committed notorious sins, yet inside our hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lust and hatred of our neighbor?
Repent. Jesus calls us out for hypocrisy, too, because Jesus loves Pharisees like us and wants to bring us to repentance. So He tells us the parable of the Prodigal Son (prodigal means wasteful) and his Forgiving Father in order to teach Pharisees of all times that the grace of God stops short of no man, that God does not desire the death of a sinner but rather he turn from his ways and live, that God desires all to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth. So let's step into the world of the Prodigal Son and his Forgiving Father and marvel at our Father's grace, a perfect text, by the way, for Father's Day, to remind us of "what a Dad" we have.
When the wasteful son took his inheritance and ran, he wasted more than material goods; he wasted his father's love for him. In Jesus' day, it was unheard-of for a father in good health to give his inheritance to his sons while he was still alive. So when the younger son asks for his inheritance early he basically was saying to his father, "I wish you were dead. I want no part of life with you anymore. I'd rather go off and spend my time and money with people I don't even know." When Jesus told this story, the people who heard it would have expected the father to blow up at the son in anger and deny his request. But the father did not; he graciously granted his son's wishes.
The son quickly liquidated his share of the inheritance and headed to a foreign land with lots of cash in hand. He squandered it all, living recklessly. After the money was gone, the son was so desperate he became a servant for a foreigner just to survive, doing something that a good Hebrew would have found unthinkable: feeding pigs (the Old Testament deems pigs unclean, and Israelites couldn't eat or touch them). This fact shows the depths of degradation the son went to. He found himself broke and starving in another land, but finally came to his senses. He realized that his father's hired servants were much better off than he was, so he planned to return, groveling, and make a deal with his father: he would give up the title of "son" in exchange for a position of servant in his father's house. It wouldn't be ideal, but that way at least he wouldn't be starving and bro-ke. His plan was to cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.
Sounds pretty sensible, doesn't it? But do you think he was truly sorry for his wastefulness and mistreatment of his father? Perhaps he was just "sorry" about how badly things had turned out for him. Several clues in the story show that he still had his own best interests in mind at that point and just wanted to continue to take advantage of his father. Listen to the words that he rehearsed to tell his father. "Treat me as one of your hired servants." It's a command, not a prayer. This smells of "bargain talk": "Dad, I know I messed up, but give me a break and let me work off my debt."
So the son headed home to grovel and bargain for acceptance, but his father's behavior was totally unexpected. He still loved his son and even stood outside gazing longingly into the distance, hoping for his son's return. And when he saw the son on the horizon, the father was so moved with compassion that he ran to embrace and kiss his son. In that culture it would have been humiliating for a noble man to run: Aristotle wrote that "Great men never run in public." But the father was so overjoyed to see his son that he tossed societal convention aside, and embraced and kissed him. And remember what the son was doing before he came back? He was a pig herder, so he was filthy and smelly, yet the father didn't care. He loved the son anyway. He was just delighted to have his lost son home again.
And then a miracle happened. The father's love moved his son to true repentance. He confessed his sin and unworthiness as planned but didn't end up trying to strike the bargain to become a hired servant. When he saw his father's great love and willingness to forgive He simply made a humble confession of guilt. And then you don't hear a peep out of the son the rest of the story. This parable's all about the father's wasteful, unconditional, forgiving love. The sin is covered. What a Dad!
Now all was made right again between the father and the prodigal son. The father restored the son to full sonship in the household, not servanthood. Without even making the son wash up, the father put the very best robe on him, covering his shame. He put the family's signet ring on his finger, signifying full authority over the family property. The servants put sandals on the son's feet, signifying that he is in a position of authority over the servants—he is not a slave, but a free son. And finally, the father killed the fattened calf and threw a great party to celebrate his return.
So who is the prodigal son? "Surely not I, Lord?" Yes, it is you. Read yourself into this parable. You didn't birth yourself into the Father's household, but even when you were dead in sin, He made you His child by baptizing you into His Son, giving you a place in His eternal home. But have you responded with complete gratitude and obedience and love for the Father, or have you despised Him and His gifts by wandering into sin? You are the prodigal. By your sins you have said to Him, "I wish you were dead; I want no part of life with you; I'd rather go be elsewhere." But how does the Father respond to your sinful efforts to run away from Him? He stands waiting with open arms, longing for your return, because He has already slaughtered His Lamb, His only-begotten Son, in order to atone for all your sinful straying. He has no wrath toward you. All He wants is for you to come home, so through His Word He sends His Holy Spirit out to call you to your senses, to call you to repent and return home.
When you come back to His house, He embraces you and absolves you: "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." He again places Christ's robe of righteousness upon you, covering your sin and restoring you to the household as a son of God. You have the rights to all of Christ's riches, as if you had never gone astray. God has appointed His servants, the holy angels, to minister to you always. And since the Lamb has already been slaughtered, now the Father invites you again to the feast of joy in the Divine Service where you may rejoice in His salvation and receive the true body and blood of the Lamb of God at this altar, for the forgiveness of your sins.
God has shown you sinners extravagant love and forgiveness just as the father showed his wayward son. But the parable was not over. Jesus tells the sad story of the elder son's lack of love for his father and younger brother. He had nothing but resentment for his brother. He wouldn't go in to the party but throws himself a pity party outside. The father again ran out to meet a wayward son. In that culture, it would have been humiliating for a nobleman to be called away from a feast by a son who refused to enter, but again, the father was willing to bear humiliation for the sake of his sons. The elder son had long been jealous of his brother's opportunity to sow his wild oats, and so he resented his father's graciousness in restoring the prodigal son to the household. He said to his father, "I have slaved for you and you never even gave me a goat so that I could party with my friends, but you'll go all out for this sinner?" The other son's words revealed that he didn't really want to spend time with his father anyway, but only with his friends. He'd rather party with them than spend time with his father. And he viewed himself as a slave, rather than a son, always begrudgingly doing exactly what the father instructed to and hating every moment of it.
But the father loved him too. He said, "You're my son. I love to have you with me always. Everything I have is yours. Everything. But look! Your brother was dead and now is alive; he was lost and now is found! We have to celebrate because one more has been added to our family. We now have more opportunity to love and serve each other. We have one more person to celebrate with and enjoy!"
Who is the elder brother in this parable? He is the Pharisee of all times and all places, the one who begrudges the Father of His kindness toward sinners. Pharisees find no joy in the repentance of a sinner but would rather have them get what they deserve. And Pharisees live not as free sons, but as slaves, thinking of their calling as a bunch of "have-tos" rather than "get-tos."
It's easy to become a Pharisee, isn't it? It is very easy to forget the mercy that has been shown to us, to forget that we are really prodigals. It is easy for Christians to find themselves acting like slaves of God, rather than sons, looking at our vocations as burdens rather than blessings. Perhaps we look at coming to our Father's house as a chore rather than a cherished gift from Him. Perhaps we long to liquidate our inheritance and go back to squandering the Father's love. Maybe we compare ourselves to others and say, "The reason God loves me is that I'm not as bad a sinner, like such and such." Or worst of all, perhaps we view our congregation as a members-only club where people with checkered pasts aren't welcome.
But is God's call to repentance for only a select group of people who have already cleaned up their act? No, the parable of the prodigal son teaches us that God loves all sinners and wants to gather them into His household, where He forgives their sins, grants salvation, and sets them free from slavery to sin, death, and hell.
And you older brothers in the Church, listen what God the Father says to you: "My child, come to the feast! Celebrate in my salvation! You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We have to celebrate and be glad when those who are lost are found." Jesus Himself said, "I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). This rejoicing over those who repent goes on right here, too. Jesus continues to receive us sinners at His Table, where He gives His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all of your sins, so that you may rejoice with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven at the glorious news that although you were once lost, Jesus has found you, though you were once dead in your sins, you are now alive, and God your heavenly Father says to you, "You are with me always, and everything I have is yours." What a Dad, indeed! In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.