Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees could hardly believe their eyes. Here was Jesus, who was presenting himself as a rabbi, as a holy man, as a teacher of Israel, and yet he was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were considered the worst kind of sinner in Jesus’ time. First, they bid on contracts from the Romans to have the right to collect taxes on their behalf. Collaborating with this reviled pagan enemy was bad enough, but then they went on to use their role as tax collectors to squeeze every last dime out of their own people with exorbitant “service fees.” They were swindlers and traitors and everyone despised them for it.
There were other kinds of sinners Jesus spent time with too. We aren’t told what kind of sins they were up to. You can probably imagine – though I don’t recommend spending too much time thinking about it.
Jesus not only welcomed tax collectors and other sinners into his company, he also ate with them. He reclined on their couches. He dipped his bread in their bowls. He lingered among them for long after-dinner conversations. Who you ate with in the ancient world mattered. It mattered a lot! Eating with someone meant you had a relationship with them, a connection. We see a reflection of this in our English word “companion,” which literally means “the one with whom you break bread.” By eating with these tax collectors and other sinners Jesus was sending the signal that he considered them his companions, his friends even!
The Pharisees grumbled about this, and in response to their grumbling Jesus told three stories, three parables. He told the parable of the lost sheep, he told the parable of the lost coin, and then he told the parable we hear today, which I like to call the parable of the lost sons.
You’ve probably heard this parable before. Some of you know it very well. It is probably Jesus’ most widely known and most loved parable. Most people know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I like to call it the parable of the lost sons because it connects it to the two “lost” parables that come before it, and also because it calls our attention to the fact that there are two sons in this parable, each of whom are lost in their own way.
First there is the son who left. He went to his father and demanded his inheritance ahead of time, essentially treating his father as though he was already dead. This son took his share of the family estate and left town. He traveled to a distant country, where he would be free from the expectations of his family and his community. He would be free from his responsibilities to others. And there in that distant country, he squandered all that money away on “dissolute living.” He spent it all in wasteful and extravagant and immoral ways. His father was so gracious in giving him that money, and he wasted it all chasing momentary pleasures. We don’t get the specifics, but you can probably imagine – though, again, I don’t recommend spending too much time thinking about it.
Just when the money ran out, the economy tanked. A famine plagued the land. This son went to work for a Gentile employer, caring for his pigs. Now many of us are blessed to know and love some hog farmers. Many of us know them as wonderful people. Some of us even consider them to be workers of minor miracles, because they take grain and slop and turn it into bacon! But for Jewish people, pigs were filthy, unclean animals. As this Jewish son worked these hogs, so desperate and hungry that he drooled over the pigs’ food, it represented rock bottom.
At this point Jesus says this son “came to himself.” He realized his need to return to his father. So he headed home, hoping to at least get hired on as one of his father’s workers. Off he went, rehearsing his apology speech all the way home.
And here is where things get really interesting. You see, the father had been watching for his son. The father had been staring out at the horizon, hoping and praying for the day his son would come home. And then it happened! He saw him! Then come the six most wonderful words in the whole parable: “while he was still far off….” Yes, the son had “come to himself,” yes, the son had turned away from his sinful lifestyle, yes, the son had repented in the truest sense – he had turned around and come home – but he wasn’t there yet! While he was still far off, the father was filled with compassion! While he was still far off, the father ran to him! While he was still far off, the father found him. And when he did, he put his arms around him and kissed him. The son made his confession. He said he wasn’t worthy to be called his son. But before he could offer himself as a servant, as an employee, his father was already clothing him in the best robe, placing the family ring on his finger and putting new sandals on his feet. This dad didn’t want another employee. He wanted his son. And now that he was home, it was time to fire up the barbecue and the band and have a party.
But there was another son too. This son never left home. He was faithful and loyal and obedient. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He didn’t head off to Daytona Beach to blow his dad’s money on a wild and wooly spring break like his kid brother did. But make no mistake about it. He was lost too.
This older brother saw his younger brother being welcomed back into the family with a big party and he became angry. “I’ve been faithful! I’ve been good! I never left! I never disobeyed you! Where’s my party?” This son was lost in a haze of resentment. He was lost in a fog of self-righteousness. He was lost in that he couldn’t find his way into the joy his father was experiencing. He couldn’t even call his brother his brother. Instead he said to his father, “This son of yours…”
But here’s another amazing thing: the father blesses this son too! Even in the midst of this son’s anger, his resentment, his self-righteousness, the father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” What a gracious thing for a father to say to a pouting son! “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father explains why he has thrown this party. “We had to celebrate,” he says, “for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”
I think the meaning of the parable would have been pretty obvious to the Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus’ little dinner parties with sinners. Those sinners were like the younger son who had come to himself. They had hit rock bottom spiritually and morally and now they were stumbling towards home. While they were still far off, Jesus had gone to meet them. They had been welcomed back as God’s children, and now it was time to celebrate.
Likewise, the Pharisees probably understood very well that Jesus was casting them as the older son. Jesus was suggesting that they were grumbling because, in their own way, they were lost too. They couldn’t let go of their anger, their resentment, their self-righteousness. They couldn’t let go of their disgust and see these sinners as their brothers who had come home.
Jesus used this parable to describe his ministry to them. He had come to reach out to the lost, even while they were still far off. He had come to bring them home to God. But he had an invitation for the Pharisees too: Stop grumbling and join the party!
Where we find ourselves in this parable is perhaps a little more complicated.
Sometimes we are the younger son. We take the grace God has given us and we squander it. We come here on Sunday mornings to get our share of the inheritance, and then we spend Monday through Saturday living in wasteful and extravagant and immoral ways, chasing momentary pleasures. Instead of seeking to faithfully serve our loving Father, we go our own way and serve ourselves, thinking we’ve found freedom when we’ve really found a bondage of our own making. We try to live by our own rules until we’re so filthy and hungry that we start to long for home.
Other times we are the older son. We take a little too much pride in our supposed faithfulness, our supposed obedience. In our self-righteousness we look down our noses at those whose sins are more public and scandalous, refusing to acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters, refusing to share in God’s joy when they come home.
There’s more than one way to get lost, and we seem determined to try them all at one time or another. The good news is that this parable isn’t just about two lost sons, it is about a loving Father. In this parable, Jesus reveals the will of our Heavenly Father towards us. Even while we are still far off, God comes to us. Even while we are still far off, God is full of compassion and love towards us. As we turn to him, God welcomes us home with joy, clothing us not as mere servants, but as beloved sons and daughters. And when we grumble and are resentful and insist on stewing in our own self-righteousness, even then God says to us, “You are always with me, and whatever is mine is yours.” God invites us to celebrate his work in the world and to share in his joy.
We continue to get lost, but thankfully Jesus continues to eat with sinners. He eats with us today, renewing us in his forgiveness and making us his companions, his friends. Because of him, we can always come home. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church