Sunday, March 14, 2010
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 14, 2010)
“A Tale of Two Sons” (Luke 15:11-32)
Adapted from a sermon by Jerald Joersz in The Concordia Pulpit 1977
When a boy stays home and obeys his father, we call him a “good boy.” When a boy runs away from home and does all sorts of naughty things, we call him a “bad boy.” You wouldn’t think that it would be the other way around. You wouldn’t think that the good boy is the bad one and the bad boy is the good one.
Yet that is exactly what Jesus seems to suggest in his “Tale of Two Sons” …although, as we will see, both sons are really “bad.” You know this story as “The Prodigal Son.” The return of the “bad” son gets most of the attention. But Jesus also tells us about the reaction of the so-called “good son” following his brother’s return.
At the beginning of the chapter where we find this parable, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were upset with Jesus. They “grumbled” about the way in which Jesus socialized and ate and drank with sinful people. They thought that only “good” sons could claim God as Father, while “bad” sons had no place in the Father’s house. The Pharisees and scribes thought that they were God’s good, obedient sons. And so Jesus told them this story to confront them with one of the deepest mysteries of the Kingdom of God: The Father in heaven turns his forgiving heart toward disobedient sons.
The mystery of this “Tale of Two Sons” is revealed in their Father. The main point is not the goodness or badness of the sons. Rather, it is how a forgiving Father acts toward disobedient sons. Moreover, we learn that God the Father’s arms are open to each and every one of us. We are each disobedient sons who at different times are a lot like both sons in the story.
In contrast to the recklessness of the younger brother, the elder son makes one point very clear to his father: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” When you look at this elder son’s life, how can you blame him for getting upset at his brother’s foolish deeds? How can you blame him for wondering why this clown gets a homecoming party? The younger son says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” The older son would heartily agree with that and go on to add, “Hey, Dad! I AM worthy to be called your son! Treat me the same way you are treating this lowlife son of yours!” The elder son believed he had a right to his father’s favor and kindness. “I am obedient,” he thinks to himself. “Therefore, my father must bless me and love me more than my brother, who doesn’t deserve what he’s getting.”
The Pharisees and teachers of the law were just like the older son. They defined their sonship under the Father in heaven as pure and simple obedience to the Law. They thought they were worthy, while the other disobedient people with whom Jesus was spending time were not worthy. Today, this parable is spoken to everyone who is stuck on his or her own worthiness before God. The problem of being stuck on your own worthiness before the Father in heaven becomes most troublesome when the time comes to forgive a wayward brother or sister who wants to come back home to the arms of the Father.
A self-righteous sinner has difficulty practicing forgiveness because he hasn’t really understood what it means to be forgiven. And so, it’s no surprise when he deals harshly with a repentant brother or sister. Like a prideful Pharisee, the self-righteous sinner’s attitude implies that the Son of God really didn’t know what he was doing when he spoke from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The refusal to forgive is not merely a weakness in one’s personality. It is the very rupture of our relationship with God. If we refuse to forgive someone because of our own self-righteousness, it means we fail to see with what depth of love and compassion the Father has for us. It means we fail to appreciate to what lengths Jesus went in order to redeem us.
Our sense of fairness and justice, however, asks, “Was the runaway son in the parable really any better than his obedient brother?” The youngest son comes to his senses and practices his speech before he returns home: “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.” However, no matter how much he may practice this speech, the younger son’s sin is no less serious than the self-righteousness of his older brother. He was right when he said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He was like the rest of all the other sinners in the world. The younger son had set out on a course of rebellion against his father. He had planned his departure from his father and his entrance into a life of satisfying the desires of his flesh. The younger son is a picture of the rest of mankind: dead because of sin, following the course of this world, following the prince of darkness, the one who is at work in the “sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:1-3) He is a picture of those who live in the passions of their sinful flesh, following the desires of body and mind. And God’s Word describes these “sons of disobedience” as “children of wrath.” They are those upon whose God’s anger rests and are already separated from him.
When all is said and done, both sons have the same problem. The only difference was that the younger son spoke the truth about himself … which is the truth about all mankind. The younger son’s confession did not earn him the right to be called a son, any more than did the older son’s obedience. The bottom line in this story is that being a son is not based on the goodness or the badness of the son. If a father cannot love his son despite his badness, then there is no hope for that relationship. In God’s kingdom, being a son is based on the Father’s grace and kindness alone. The younger son in this parable recognized that he had done nothing to earn his father’s favor. That realization brought him close to the kingdom, close enough for the father’s forgiving arms to be placed around him.
This “Tale of Two Sons” begins to touch all of us when we recognize that no one is “worthy” of the favor of our Father in heaven. The only road back to the Father is the road of unworthiness, the road of repentance. And our Father in heaven rejoices over the return of lost sinners.
After hearing this parable, we need to lift our eyes from the question about our worth in the sight of God and place them on the One who was worthy for us. Jesus is the one in whom we are declared worthy in God’s sight and made to be his sons.
In Jesus Christ, the mystery of the parable of the Prodigal Son is fully revealed. Jesus was truly the perfectly obedient Son. Owned by the Father’s love, Jesus obeyed his Father’s will. To fulfill his Father’s loving pleasure, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became our brother, not in pomp or popwer, but in the form of a servant. As a servant, he voluntarily experienced the pain and suffering which all wayward sons deserve: the agony of total abandonment from the Father. And at a place where the mystery of God’s kingdom seemed least likely to be manifested – on a bloodly, splinter-laden cross – the Son of God died. He died to bear the blame that rightfully belongs to every Runaway Son and every Self-Righteous Son. His love for the Father, which was perfect, moved him to die so that God’s mercy would triumph over guilt. Triumphant over our guilt, Jesus won for us full pardon for our sins, and still distributes that pardon today through Word and Sacrament.
Repentance is nothing other than turning to the Father and receiving the forgiveness and eternal “worthiness” or “righteousness” earned for you by Jesus. The Father makes us worthy through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and gives us, as St. John puts it, “the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
The resulting joy of the story is emphasized by the father: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” And each of God’s baptized children has become a part of that story. God the Father forgives penitent sinners. That being so, we can celebrate and be glad that we who were once dead are now alive in Christ. We who were once lost have been found in Christ.
Not only for our own sake do we celebrate, but also for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can celebrate and be glad when other brothers and sisters once dead come alive, once lost are found. We can celebrate and be glad and place the arms of forgiveness around them so that they, too, can see how the Father’s heart is turned towards them.
And this brings me, in conclusion, to my favorite part of the parable. Notice that before the younger son even got close to the house, the father saw him. The text says, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” That father must have been standing at the doorway every day, looking off into the distance and hoping and waiting for his son to come home. And that is the way our Heavenly Father is with us. Though we stray from him, he is always watching and waiting, eagerly anticipating our return. What’s more, he sent his only Son to go out to rescue us. Through the working of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel, he brings us back in repentant trust. Our Father is filled with compassion and runs to us and welcomes us with his loving arms. He places the best robe upon us, the robe of righteousness that our Lord Jesus bought and paid for at the cross. And he prepares a feast for us, sits us down as the guest of honor, and feeds us with the very body and blood that earned our place at that feast.