March 24-26, 2007
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
5th Sunday in Lent
Pastor Tim Smith
15 Now the tax collectors and â€œsinnersâ€ were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, â€œThis man welcomes sinners and eats with them.â€ 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 11b â€œThere was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, â€˜Father, give me my share of the estate.â€™ So he divided his property between them.
Â Â 13 â€œNot long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Â Â 17 â€œWhen he came to his senses, he said, â€˜How many of my fatherâ€™s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.â€™ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
Â Â â€œBut while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Â Â 21 â€œThe son said to him, â€˜Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.â€™
Â Â 22 â€œBut the father said to his servants, â€˜Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Letâ€™s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.â€™ So they began to celebrate.
Â Â 25 â€œMeanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 â€˜Your brother has come,â€™ he replied, â€˜and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.â€™
Â Â 28 â€œThe older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, â€˜Look! All these years Iâ€™ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!â€™
Â Â 31 â€â€˜My son,â€™ the father said, â€˜you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.â€™â€ (NIV)
The word â€œprodigalâ€ means â€œsinfully wasteful,â€ and itâ€™s been a nickname for this parable for so long that it almost never occurs in English anymore except as a reference to this pearl of parables, this (as it is called) â€œgospel within the Gospel,â€ this earthly story with a heavenly meaning: the Parable of the Lost Son.
Earlier in this chapter Jesus described the efforts and reactions of people who had lost a sheep and a coin. Those parables tell us who the father is in this story. He is the one who lost a son. We could spend time on the details about the father â€“ humanly speaking, we might accuse him of being a prodigal father, since he should never have let his child get away with what this young man gets away with, but the most important comparison with the father is not with human parents, but with God.
We begin this parable by seeing that we have a relationship â€“ a father/child relationship â€“ with God. Whether you happen to be a son or a daughter regarding your gender, you are an heir, and in First Century Palestinian terms, therefore you are a son of God. But like us, the son in the parable was a sinner.
The younger son told his father to give him his share of the inheritance and he left. It should have been the share he got when his father died, and the demand itself was sinful. We sons and daughters like to play fast and loose with our inheritance. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden we want even more than what God has given us.
He lived a wild, prodigal life. â€œSinfully wastefulâ€ is how I defined it earlier; and thatâ€™s the idea behind the Greek words translated â€œwild living;â€ he lived like someone who is not saved, who has left the path of faith.
And then the money ran out. Did he know his money was running out? Probably. This isnâ€™t a detail Jesus really covers in the parable, but he hints at the problem, because not only did the son spend all the money, but a famine happened. Even if he had made friends by spending his cash, the times got so hard that his new friends had to look out for themselves.
He went and got a job feeding pigs. For a Jew, whom God had forbidden from eating any meat from a pig, this had to have been one of the worst jobs imaginable. And still the son was having trouble finding even enough food to live on.
His eyes looked up to the waterless, rainless sky, and his thirst was overwhelming. His hand found its way to his empty pocket, and he had no hope of buying anything. He had hired himself out, glued himself to this stranger who was used to living apart from God, who was a citizen of this faraway country, but the son didnâ€™t think he was even going to make it to payday. His ears were filled with the strange oinks and grunts of these forbidden animals. His reaction to the pigs must have been the disgust that was bred into him from childhood. But then his starving, hunger-crazed eye fell to the manger; the feeding trough sitting there in the dust in the pigpen.
The pig food! The carob pods our text refers to are still used for animal fodder today in the Middle East. They were the most common source of sugar for candy before sugarcane was discovered. The long green-bean shaped pods are resistant to drought, and can last on the tree for years. (Incidentally, the little seeds inside carob pods are so uniform in size and weight and so common throughout the Middle East, that they became the standard unit by which DIAMONDS are weighed â€“ we get our word carat from the seeds of this carob plantÂ¹). But back to our boy, all he wanted to do was sink his teeth into the pig food.
But did he? Again, Jesus leaves that detail to our imagination, since all we know is that he longed to fill his stomach with this food that, if youâ€™ll permit one more detail, is used chiefly today as a mild laxative.
And this is where the miracle happened. This runaway son was flatlining in Godâ€™s E.R. when the paddles of the law and the medicine of the Gospel did their work. God calls out to the hovering angels of mercy, â€œClear!â€ And THUMP THUMP, the heart of faith begins beating once again.
How does it happen? How are we turned from death to life? A nurse or a physician would explain how this is possible in a fibrillating human heart. But the heart of faith? This is a miracle that only God can explain. When the running, the wandering, the lost, the prodigal, is turned to look back home again.
The son calculates: Iâ€™d be better off working as a servant for dad than out here starving as a slave of death. A roof, steady pay even if itâ€™s humble pay, protection from the elements of the world, finally just something to eat â€“ these basics are where I need to focus all my attention.
When God permits disaster to strike at us, when as it happened to Job the roof caves in and the thieves and marauding armies steal and plunder and even our health leaves us like a rat jumping from a sinking ship then the Lord turns us to the basics. What do I really need?
At this point, the long hard days and weeks of starvation vanish in a single word: HOME. The prodigal impulses are buried in repentance. The sorry heart even practices what it will say to the Father: I have sinned against heaven and against you.
But scarcely have his feet been aimed homeward than the eyes of the searching father fasten on the son, and it is the fatherâ€™s feet we are amazed by. I didnâ€™t know the old guy could still move like that! The father rushes to the son, and embraces him, and the miracle of repentance has led to the greater still miracle of forgiveness, and son is truly and completely home. His rehearsed speech goes unfinished. His humble request is brushed aside. A robe! A ring! New Nikes! The fatted calf! Bring them all on! THIS SON OF MINE WAS DEAD AND IS ALIVE AGAIN. HE WAS LOST AND IS FOUND. And like the other parables in this chapter, â€œthey began to celebrate.â€But the other parables in Luke 15, the lost sheep and the lost coin, are about Godâ€™s reaction to finding lost lambs and valuable treasures like, well, like us. But here in the story of the lost son, there is another lost brother.
The older brother doesnâ€™t really judge his kid brotherâ€™s shenanigans. When the younger brother wanted his cash, the older brother didnâ€™t take him aside and warn him that it wasnâ€™t a good idea. Instead, he lets the boy go. With him out of the way, maybe dad will focus more on me.
The older brother was looking for a reward for being faithful. He is angry. He has obeyed the fatherâ€™s commandments. Has he even gotten a cheap party with a few friends? But he has missed the point of the celebration. The celebration isnâ€™t about the sonâ€™s good deeds. It isnâ€™t about the sonâ€™s obedience. Itâ€™s simply about the sonâ€™s return.
The lost younger son hasnâ€™t deserved the lavish love of the father. But rather than grumble about the way he is treated, weâ€™re amazed, not only by what he is given, but we pull back from the narrative and remember that this is a parable and that therefore God is talking about us!
The father gives the robe â€“ like the coat of many colors given to Joseph by Israel himself, not because he was a more obedient boy or a more faithful boy or even because he was an especially deserving boy. He gave this sign of his favor because, and only because, he loved him. The robe of righteousness that we have been given was not given because we obeyed or were faithful or because we deserved it â€“ anything but â€“ but it was given to because of grace, simply because God loves us.
The father gives the ring â€“ a sign of authority like the ring Pharaoh gave to that same Joseph Â² now in Egypt, to carry out the fatherâ€™s will in the world. And we have the authority from God to carry his gospel into the world, not because we have special worthiness, but because of grace, simply because God loves us.
The father gives the shoes, the sandals â€“ a sign that the son was not to go barefoot as the servants did, but that he was certainly once again a part of his household. The boy who was lost was once again the fatherâ€™s son. And we are sons and daughters of our heavenly father, with all the privileges that go with that status, not least of which is the miracle of prayer, to be able to speak and know that God himself listens to you and me, and he also promises to give us an answer to every one of our prayers. Not because we deserve to be listened to as if we have wisdom God wants to hear, but because of grace, simply because God loves us.
And the father gives the meal â€“ a way for the son and those with him to actually eat and drink in the forgiveness of the father. And God has given us a meal that is a way for us to eat and drink down his forgiveness; a way for us to experience with all of our senses the miraculous truth of forgiveness. Our bodies and our souls are fed by the Lordâ€™s Supper as the pledge from God that we are his dear children, forgiven, restored, and welcomed home, not because of anything we have done, but because of grace, simple because God loves us. Amen.
Â¹ Source: Wikipedia.com
Â² Genesis 41:42.