The fifteenth chapter of Luke is the great "lost and found" chapter. In this chapter, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep that was lost and found, the coin that was lost and found and, finally, the son that was lost and found. In each of these stories, the lost animal, thing, or person represents us, the sinner, who is lost in sin, without God. In each of these stories there is a hero who searches in humility for the thing, animal, or person who was lost. In each of these stories there is a celebration that the lost has been found. The fifteenth chapter of Luke teaches us that God is in the business of finding the lost and returning them to their rightful places and that there is great rejoicing in Heaven whenever God rescues one of the lost.
Jesus told these three stories to a mixed crowd. First of all, there were the tax collectors and sinners who hung on every word that Jesus spoke. Then there were the Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for hanging out with such riff-raff. All three of the "Lost and Found" parables provide great comfort to those tax collectors and sinners who understand that they are lost and in need of God's grace. It is not until the last parable that Jesus adds a third major character as a warning to the Pharisees and scribes who were comfortable in their self-righteousness.
Today's gospel invites us to set the first two parables aside for another time and concentrate on that last parable of the "Lost and Found" chapter. Most of us are familiar with this story as the parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable is the climax of the "Lost and Found" chapter.
This parable is also a real bargain because we get two for the price of one. That is, Jesus used this one parable to make two points. He introduced a father and two sons. Then he made one point with the younger son and another point with the older son. The younger son provides comfort and then the older son provides a warning.
Jesus often made major points in His parables by having someone do something unusual. The unusual person in today's Gospel is the father. He is humiliated and degraded 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.
The humiliation began when the younger son asked for his inheritance. In effect, the younger son told his father to hurry up and die so that he can get his hands on his share of the estate. Did the father chastise his son for making such an outrageous demand? No, the father agreed and divided the estate while he was still living. This is an unbelievable response. The community must have thought that the father was insane.
This action on the part of the father is even more unusual in that both sons are so evil. The wicked nature of the younger son is readily apparent, but don't overlook the fact that the elder son agreed with the distribution. The fact that the elder son agreed indicates that he too is alienated from the father. He may not have said it as bluntly as his little brother, but his agreement shows that he was thinking along the same lines as his little brother. As the oldest, he would receive a double portion of the estate and become the boss of the family business. The spoken words of the younger son and the willing agreement of the eldest indicate that this is a very dysfunctional family indeed.
Never the less, this is an accurate picture of God and His dealings with His children. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, [Matthew 5:45]"He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Martin Luther built on that thought in the explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer, "God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people …" In His grace, God provides the inheritance of creation, our needs of body and soul, to all people. The most wicked person on this earth still has food, clothing, shelter, and an opportunity to come to the knowledge of the truth. The world sees this as insanity. The believer sees this as God's grace.
The next humiliation is the father's action to take the younger son back into the family. An oriental nobleman with flowing robes never runs anywhere. To do so is humiliating. The great philosopher Aristotle is supposed to have said, "Great men never run in public." Yet here we have this father running to his son, falling on his neck with kisses, replacing his rags with royal robes, placing the ring of authority on his hand, and inviting the community to a welcome home party.
Furthermore, the father saw the son returning from a distance. This indicates that the father was in the habit of actively looking for his son. The father was able to run to his son and overwhelm him with grace before the son could get one word of repentance out of his mouth. Jesus' description of the father's actions is a portrait of complete and total grace, of unconditional love. The father's actions would overwhelm the son and totally surprise those who were listening to the parable.
The Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to write, [Isaiah 64:6] "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." Never the less, 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.
The final humiliation of the father happens in His gracious reaction to the elder son's anger. The father actually pleads with the son to attend the party. The elder son actually responds by loudly accusing the father of treating him unfairly. The elder son insults the father by arguing with him in public and by not addressing him as father. The elder son even refuses to claim the other son as his brother instead calling him, "Your Son." Furthermore, he refused to celebrate with his father and brother.
Never the less, in the face of this furious attack from the older son, the father graciously and affectionately replied with a repetition of the invitation. This son who is furious with him is still his child. He is still welcome at the feast. The father is the absolute picture of unbelievable love and grace.
Jesus never told what happened to the older son. This is very appropriate, for the Pharisees and the scribes would recognize themselves in the story. They would realize that the end of the story has not yet happened. God is willing to humiliate Himself in love for them. God still invites them to the feast. Will they rejoice over the dead who are alive again - the lost who are found? Will they see that the celebration is also for them? How will the story end for them?
We have a gracious God who loves us so much that 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. There are many who have not heard this - people you and I know. How will the story end for them? There are many others who have heard and do not yet believe. Will they reject the invitation of a gracious God who humiliated Himself in love for all people? Will their anger, their stubbornness, their pride, and their other excuses lead them to reject the greatest of all gifts? How will the story end?
We have a loving God who gladly suffered humiliation for us. 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. We regularly enter heaven 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 our heavenly Father. For the believer, 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 happily forever after." Amen.
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