“Reckless Living … Extravagant Love” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
Reckless driving. If you’ve ever spent any time on the freeway, you have encountered this. Drivers zooming by in the lane next to you. Weaving in and out of traffic, barely missing the bumpers of cars in front and behind. Slamming on brakes as they approach slow traffic ahead. They are absolutely unconcerned about the consequences. They speed through traffic without concern for their own safety or the safety of others.
Reckless living. That’s how our text describes the way in which the younger son squandered away his inheritance. He was unconcerned about how he might hurt himself or others. And this is evident even before his trip to the far country. He was rather demanding of his father: “Give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Under normal circumstances, an inheritance is received after the death of a parent. So, in essence, this son was saying “Dad, I wish you were dead.” The father grants the request, dividing his property between his two sons. The younger son heads off, ends up destitute, saving nothing of his father’s bequest. His last job before he comes to his senses is feeding pigs, not a happy job for a Jew. What those unclean beasts eat begin to look good to him. But even hog feed was beyond his reach. No one was willing to give him anything.
You may think the older son who stayed home is much more sensible. But you might say that he lived recklessly, too. He appears to be just as selfishly motivated as his brother, albeit in a more respectable fashion. He gladly took the inheritance that his father divided, even though dad was not dead yet. When his brother returned home, he shows his true colors. Ungrateful. Taking dad for granted. Expecting blessings from his father as a reward for his good behavior: “Look, old man! I’ve been with you all this time! All these years I’ve served you! Where’s my fatted calf? Where’s my ring? Where are my fancy clothes?” Notice also how he disdainfully describes his brother to his father: “This son of yours.” It’s as if he’s denying that this is even his brother.
Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled about the way in which Jesus treated manifest sinners … those cheating, traitorous tax collectors and other well-known transgressors. Jesus loved them. They drew near to him. He welcomed them. He received them and sat down to eat with them … in those days a way of showing true friendship and close fellowship. The respectable Pharisees and scribes are like the older brother, unwilling to welcome back and forgive reckless sinners. Their unforgiving hearts show that they themselves are being reckless with God’s mercy and grace.
You and I can be like both sons at various times in our life. Like the younger son, we can squander God’s gifts recklessly, wasting our time and our money on things that do not eternally satisfy. We can ignore God’s Word to our peril, with sinful hearts that wish he was dead, that wish he would stop poking his nosy Law into “my business.”
But you and I can be like the older son, too. We can take God’s gifts for granted. We view ourselves as respectable, church-going people and look down our noses at those who we think are not. We often expect God to bless us for our good behavior. And when trouble comes into our life, our first thought is, “Why are you doing this to me, God? All these years I’ve served you, and this is the thanks I get?”
Destitute, with nothing saved from what his father had given him, the reckless-living son returns in repentance. In his heart, he devises a somewhat reckless plan. After all, for all he knows, his father might tell him to take a hike. But it was worth a shot. And he concludes, “I will throw myself down at the mercy of my father. I will acknowledge that I have sinned against and offended God. I will acknowledge that I have sinned against and deeply hurt my father. And I no longer care whether I will be treated as a son. I will tell my father to treat me as one of his hired servants. I will work for him to repay the debt I owe him, to show him I wish to pay back all that he gave me.”
The reckless living son heads home. The grumbling son watches the scene unfold. Both discover the extravagant love of their father. The father throws all decorum aside and recklessly runs to greet his son whom he saw approaching in the distance. This was quite a show. A public declaration of love and acceptance. With no attempt at forced groveling. He doesn’t even let his son finish his well-rehearsed speech. “My lost son has been found! My dead son is alive! Start the celebration!”
Likewise, when the older brother complained about all this, the father could have said, “Hey, I gave you your share. Why don’t you just shut your trap and enjoy it!” But he has a gracious response for him, too: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
In the younger son’s darkest moments, no one gave him anything. But the father gave him everything. In your darkest moments, lost and dead in sin, your Heavenly Father gives you everything, all the riches of heaven because of the reckless way in which he saved you. God’s Son left the safety and security of heaven and plunged headlong into this far country full of suffering, pain, and death without any concern for his own life. He knew that his life would be taken away from him at the cross. But this was not completely reckless. He did all this because he was completely concerned about your life. Jesus put himself in danger in order to deliver you. Jesus gave his life over into death so that you might live. Jesus spent his life so that you might be saved. Jesus “became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Did you notice, too, how the compassion of the father preceded any repentance on the part of the son? Verse 20 is significant. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion…” Dad was peering out the front door every day, watching and waiting for his son to return. And when he saw him, he was moved to the depths of his being with extravagant love. And that’s exactly the way it is with our Heavenly Father. He sees you “while you are a long way off.” He has compassion on you. And he runs to you and wraps his loving arms around you when you return to him in repentant trust.
The reckless son repentantly confesses, but before the son finishes his speech, the father bestows the rights of sonship on him again. He clothes him with new clothes. He puts a ring on his finger, probably a signet ring with the symbol of the family engraved on it. And he prepares a meal of fattened calf, a sumptuous feast indeed to celebrate on this joyful occasion.
The right of sonship was bestowed upon you in Holy Baptism. In Holy Absolution, you return back to those baptismal promises and are reminded of your status as a child in God’s family. And this is all a gift of his extravagant love. It is complete, total grace. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. Like the reckless-living son, repentance that tries to work to pay off any debt to God is not only reckless … it is feckless. Useless. Ineffective. Irresponsible and an insult to God’s grace. We come before him empty handed: “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to Thy cross I cling” (LSB 761.3). We pray right along with the Psalmist in Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1). God’s mercy and forgiveness is given to you not according to the strength of your faith, not according to the merit of your works, but according to his mercy … because the Father loves you and sent his Son to pay your debt with his perfect life and sacrificial death.
As a son, your Father clothes you with new clothes … the holiness and righteousness of Christ that covers all your reckless sin. He puts a ring on your finger, signifying that all that Christ inherited as God’s Son is yours, too … resurrection, unending life, eternal joy in the presence of God. St. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
And finally, remember the meal that your Father has prepared for you … you who were once lost but now are found, you who were once dead but are now alive in Christ. Here, Jesus your Faithful Brother receives you and welcomes you. Set before you is a meal not of fattened calf, but of Spotless Lamb. The Holy One who offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin now invites you to draw near and receive his Body and Blood in a foretaste of the eternal celebration of the return of all prodigals.