Today's Gospel comes from the lost and found chapter of the Bible. The lost and found chapter of the Bible is really one big parable made from three stories. If you look carefully at the reference for today's Gospel, you will see that we read the introduction to the chapter in verses 1-3 and then skipped down to verse 11. In between these two readings are the stories of the shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep among the hundred and the woman who searches for the one lost coin among the ten. Each of these stories ends with celebration in heaven over the one lost sinner who repents as opposed to the many who needed no repentance.
The first few verses of today's Gospel give us valuable context for these lost and found stories. Jesus had been hanging out with tax collectors and sinners again. The scribes and Pharisees thought this was absolutely scandalous behavior for a respectable rabbi. They hoped to drag Jesus' name through the mud by pointing out the poor reputation of his associates. They were saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." They hoped that these words would somehow bring shame to Jesus.
The tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus because He gave them hope. The rest of their culture continuously told them that they were unworthy. They were beyond redemption. Their sins were so terrible that God would never forgive them. These people had come to the point where they were beginning to believe that there was no hope for them before God. Then Jesus came and gave them hope.
Jesus pointed to the books of Moses and showed that God had plans to redeem people from sin. Yes, the books of Moses taught the law. But they also taught the grace of God. Jesus taught the law in all its fierceness, but then He taught forgiveness in all its comfort. For all those who despaired of their sin, Jesus is the only way to a right standing before God.
The scribes and Pharisees had the opposite problem. They had diluted the Law of Moses so that it seemed doable. They had surrounded each of God's laws with a buffer zone of lesser laws. These lesser laws were set up so that someone could feel like they had kept God's law even if he did what he wanted to do instead of what God commanded. The scribes and Pharisees made it look like they were keeping God's law. In fact, they were only keeping their own traditions.
Jesus told the lost and found stories to teach both groups. He told them to comfort the tax collectors and sinners and He told them to afflict the scribes and Pharisees. He told the tax collectors and sinners that God seeks them out and rescues them. He told the scribes and Pharisees that they would miss out if they continued to refuse God's grace.
Today's Gospel encourages us to focus on the third story of the lost and found parable. This story is commonly called the story of the Prodigal Son.
As we focus in on this story, it is helpful to remember the conclusions that Jesus made from the previous two stories. The story of the shepherd searching for the sheep reaches the following conclusion: [Luke 15:7] "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. The story of the woman searching for the lost coin reaches a similar conclusion: [Luke 15:10] "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Each of these three stories compares those who repent with the self righteous who believe they do not need to repent. Jesus comforts those who repent and warns those who are self righteous. Is it any wonder that the first of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses reads as follows?
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent," He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance?
Very often, the key to understanding the stories used in a parable is to figure out who does not conform to the expected behavior of the day. In this third story, it is the father. When the younger son asked for the inheritance, the father granted his request. When the younger son returned in total disgrace, the father welcomed him with an astonishing generosity. This father is willing to suffer shame and degradation in so many ways. The father in this story is a picture of how the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is willing to suffer humiliation in order to search for us and bring us back into the family of believers.
As Jesus began telling this story, He described the younger son in absolutely shameful terms. By asking for his inheritance, the younger son basically told his father to hurry up and die so that he can get his hands on his share of the estate. Then the younger son wasted his entire inheritance in a foreign land. The Son ultimately hit rock bottom when he wound up as a hired hand who cared for pigs and even wanted to eat the pig's food. When we remember that pigs are an unclean animal, we realize that Jesus has described one of the most disgusting people to ever live.
When the son came to his senses, he came up with a plan to at least be near his father. He knew he was not good enough to get back into the family, but he thought he could at least get hired on as a servant somehow. In his desperation and despair, he returned to his father's house, not to become a son, but to be a lowly hired hand. He had this speech all prepared for his father. He planned to say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants." He did not ever expect to be part of the family again.
Jesus took the story completely out of the culture as He told about the homecoming. The father acted against every tradition of that culture. When a son did what this son did and then showed up asking for work, the typical father of that day would have said, "Don't call us. We'll call you." Instead, we find a father who was on the look out for this son. The father ran to his son in total embarrassment, for as Aristotle said, "Great men never run in public." Finally, the father would have nothing to do with hiring the son as a servant. In fact, the father never even allowed the son to ask for employment. Instead, the father fell on his neck with kisses, replaced his rags with royal robes, placed the ring of authority on his hand, and invited the community to a welcome home party. Instead of being a hired hand, the son found himself back in the family. In fact, the father had never stopped thinking of him as his son.
Jesus' description of the father's actions is a portrait of complete and total grace, of unconditional love. The father's actions overwhelmed the son. Those who listened were probably fascinated by the totally unconventional actions of this father.
Like the father of the parable, God humiliates Himself to bring us into His family. He washes us in baptism and covers us with the righteousness that Jesus Christ earned with His death on the cross. He humbles Himself in order to announce that we are His beloved children. He invites us to celebrate with the holy meal of the Lord's Table that strengthens our starving faith. We become heirs once again to a new covenant of grace that supersedes the covenant of the law. Like the father in the story, God will not allow us to earn our way into heaven. Instead, He overwhelms us with His loves and restores us into His family.
This story has great comfort for tax collectors and sinners, but what does it say to the scribes and Pharisees? Now that Jesus had comforted the afflicted, it was time for Him to afflict the comfortable. The story now changes focus to the older son. The older son refused to rejoice over the repentance of his younger brother. The older son was extremely angry. The older son stood ready to reject the joy of celebration simply because he didn't get his own way.
Here is where the father endured one last episode of humiliation. The father actually pleaded with the son to attend the party. The elder son actually responded by loudly accusing the father of treating him unfairly. The elder son insulted the father by arguing with him in public and by not addressing him as father. The elder son even refused to claim the other son as his brother instead calling him, "Your Son." Furthermore, he refused to celebrate with his father and brother. The older brother all but disowned both his brother and his father.
Now here is where Jesus leaves us dangling. He does not tell us what finally happened to the older brother. Does the older son insist on his own way and miss out or does the older brother also repent and join in the fun? Does the older brother disown his family or are they reconciled? It all depends on who you are.
Some of the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus would later repent. The Holy Spirit would work faith in them. They would join the celebration of heaven. They would be reconciled into the family of God.
Other Pharisees will remain stubbornly obstinate for the remainder of their lives. They disowned their place in God's family. They missed out. They were cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Notice that the father did not send the older son out of the house. If the older son missed out on the party, it is because he decided to stay away. In a similar way, God does not send people to hell. If people miss out on heaven, it is because they refuse God's invitation to eternal joy.
Not only does that older brother represent the scribes and the Pharisees, but he also represents many people who live today. This story even causes us to ask some hard questions about ourselves. How does our pride make us like the older brother? Are we willing to miss out on God's gifts because we don't get our own way? Do we actually think that our agenda is superior to God's agenda? Is the agenda of the culture around us more important than the agenda laid out in God's Word? How will the story end for us?
God humiliated Himself in love for us. He sacrificed His only begotten and beloved Son for us. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write that Jesus was [Philippians 2:8] found in human form, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. He has promised with the resurrection of His Son from the dead that we have a home with Him.
We who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior from sin know how the story turns out for us. As God the Son serves us with His Divine Service, He brings heaven to earth. He Himself is the host and the feast as He gives us His body and blood. We regularly join the heavenly hosts at the feast of the Lord's Table and look forward to the day when we will never leave the eternal feast of the Lamb of God. For those older brothers who repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we can literally end this story with the words, "And he went in with joy to celebrate with his Father and brother and they lived …" not "happily ever after," but "happily forever and ever." Amen
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