Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity September 28, 1997
279, 384, 32, 558
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found So far the holy Word.
In Christ Jesus, in whose name we find forgiveness, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
There’s a rule among fiction writers: in order for a story to be interesting, it must be believable. Some time ago I watched a drama on TV about a concerned father’s struggle with his college-aged daughter, who was a drug addict. The story was very interesting, because it seemed gritty and real. To me it was very believable. Or I should say: it was believable up to a certain point. The girl wrecked their family by first dropping out of school, then stealing her parents’ money, then running away to live a hopeless existence from one drug fix to another. Up to that point I believed it. But then she returned home, and her desperate father accepted her back with the words, “I love you unconditionally. All I want is to have you back with me!” That’s when I woke up and remembered that this was fiction; somebody made this story up. That part at the end was just a little too much to believe!
Some stories are simply unbelievable. Try as you might, you just can’t convince yourself that things like that could actually happen in the real world. Our text for this eveing is a story like that. It’s a parable Jesus told to illustrate the unbelievable depth of man’s sin, and the unbelievable heights of God’s mercy. And even though Jesus made it up, even though it seems impossible, this is a true story—and you and I are the main characters! Our theme tonight is…
The reason this parable seems unbelievable is not because it’s complicated. It’s not complicated. It’s simple. A simple story for the plain people Jesus was talking to. As you know, Jesus didn’t take His message primarily to the high and mighty, the royal families and religious leaders. He preached first of all to the poor and lowly, the despised tax collectors and the people the Pharisees lumped together under the contemptuous term “sinners.” And right there was one of the problems Jesus was trying to address with this parable: people who thought they were righteous enough the way they were. People like the Pharisees, who wouldn’t admit that they, too, were sinful and needed forgiveness. To them Jesus said, with divine sarcasm, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” —Mark 2:17.
So He tells this parable, this unbelievable story. The reason it’s so unbelievable is that the characters in it are so extreme. Take the son, for instance. Could there ever be a “son” this bad?
We all know how young people can be. We’re all familiar with families where sons or daughters have “gone bad,” or have done something that has brought shame to the family. But this kid in the parable—he’s the bottom of the barrel. He’s the worst. He decides he’s had enough of farm life. He wants his independence. He wants to see the world and have “fun.” So he comes to his father with an outrageous demand: “Give me my half of the farm. I’d inherit it eventually anyway, but I want it right now!” Incredibly, the father agrees. He liquidates half of his living, and turns it over to his son. As soon as he’s able to turn the property into cash, the young man leaves. He heads out for parts unknown, with a smile on his face. Now you tell me, what could be worse than that?
Well, even worse than that is the way he spent his money. Our text says, Not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. The Greek text reveals that he scattered his money, like a handful of seed, to the four winds. He made lots of “friends,” he threw parties, he got drunk, he paid for the company of women. One by one he broke every commandment there was, and then he went back to the beginning and started over again. “Whoever loves wisdom makes his father rejoice,’ says Solomon, ‘but a companion of harlots wastes his wealth.” —Prov 29:3. Well, he was…and he did. Before long, the money ran through his fingers, as it always does, and he found himself flat broke. Even though he got a miserable job feeding pigs, still he was starving to death. He’d have gladly filled up on the husks the pigs were eating, but nobody would even give him that.
Could there ever be a son this bad? Oh, yes. This story is perfectly true, as far as that goes! In fact, it describes you and me right down to the ground. By nature, you were just as lost as that young man. Before the Holy Spirit put faith in your heart, you were just as blind, just as perverse and wicked as him. Even now, as Christians, we still have that sinful nature dogging us. It tempts us to rebel against God at every step. We still feel the pull, isn’t it true? -We want to strike out on our own, be independent, leave God and church and the commandments behind. And every day, in one way or another, we sin. I don’t have to name those sins for you; I’m sure you can come up with plenty of examples from your own life.
Then the Law kicks in. The Bible and our own conscience tells us that we’re wretched sinners, and they’re right. We are. Unbelievable as it may seem, God’s mighty Law reveals to us the fact that we’re not one bit better than the prodigal son. That’s what the Law is supposed to do, as Paul says, “Scripture has confined all under sin.” —Gal 4:22. Could there ever be a “son” this bad? Yes. That sinful son is me. That sinful son is you.
In the parable, the young man finally figured out that this great “independence” from his father wasn’t so great after all. Sin is always so beautiful and alluring at first, so bitter and wretched in the end. Sitting there starving in the pig pen, he literally “came to his senses.” He decided to return to his father. He could never be a son again—that went without saying—but maybe he’d give him a job as a hired man. Then at least he’d have food to eat.
If you ask me, this is where the story really gets bizarre. The ragged, starving youth tops the last hill and looks down on the home place. His father catches sight of him. What happens next? Well, if I were writing a realistic ending to the story, I’d have the father charge angrily up the hill with a pitchfork, and chase him off the place with bitter threats and curses. That’s what he deserved, after all. Maybe the father would even kill him!
But Jesus’ ending to the story seems absolutely unbelievable: When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
We’re supposed to believe that?! Not only did he forgive the young man on the spot, he joyfully received him back! Not as a hired man, either, but as his very own son! The father willingly gave his son back everything he’d forfeited in his sinfulness. The sin is forgiven and forgotten, and in its place is a celebration of joy.
Could there ever be a “father” this good? By now, you know the answer to that question. Yes—our Heavenly Father is exactly this good to us! When we’ve turned away from Him, broken His commandments, and struck out on our own sinful path, our Heavenly Father receives us back not only with forgiveness, but with great joy. When we’ve sinned, and come to Him in humble repentance, we don’t see a stern face. We don’t hear an angry rebuke. What we hear is the gentle voice of the Lord’s reassurance, “Fear not, for I have put away your sin!” We don’t have to wait a certain amount of time. We don’t have to go through any probationary period to see if we’re really sincere. We’re simply forgiven.
And why? Because the punishment that our sin deserves has already been paid by Jesus. Just like that father in the parable, our Heavenly Father had compassion. Such great compassion, that He decided to allow Jesus to bear our sins in His body on the cross. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” —Jn 3:16. And now, rather than being lowly day-laborers, God has given us the exalted position of members of the royal household, with all the rights and privileges of sons. Instead of guilt and fear and doubt, God gives us righteousness and peace and confidence through our Lord Jesus. Instead of eternal death, we look forward with absolute certainty to a life of eternal happiness in heaven.
What an incredible story! Could there ever be a “son” this bad? Could there ever be a “father” this good? Can we really sing, with the hymnist: “Chief of sinners though I be…Jesus shed His blood for ME”? Oh, each of us knows in his heart that the first part is true. But thanks to the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, we believe the second part is true as well. Unbelievable as it seems, this is our story. Jesus did shed His blood for us. All is forgiven. Today, as you bow before the Lord’s altar and confess your many sins, your Heavenly Father has only two words for you…WELCOME HOME! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.