Lent 4C

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel, which was read earlier.

Leave it to Pharisees to be Pharisees. They just can’t handle the idea that Jesus is who He says that He is. Whenever there is a chance to go off on Jesus, to downplay His credibility, to put an end to Jesus’ nuisance, they take it. In today’s Gospel reading, we see just that: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.””

Besides Jesus being Jesus, which is a problem of its own, the problem we see today is that Jesus associates Himself with the low-lifers of tax collectors and sinners. I don’t say that lightly, because that is exactly how they are seen in the eyes of the Pharisees. Anyone who doesn’t live up to the Pharisee’s standards is a third or fourth-class citizen. If there’s anyone who doesn’t live up to those standards, it’s a tax collector and a sinner. Sinner here means anyone who doesn’t keep the Law like the Pharisees do. And the fact that Jesus, or anyone for that matter, would associate themselves with the likes of these people, well, it’s an outrageous abomination!

How easy it is for the Pharisees to snub their noses at everyone because they aren’t a Pharisee. How easy it is for us to snub our noses at someone because they’re not as good as we are. Yes, I just put us in the Pharisee camp because we like to be all judgey to people, comparing them and their behavior to our more clearly better behavior. But to do that seeks to hide the fact that we are a sinner, just like they are, just like everyone else.

To combat this line of Pharisaical thinking, Jesus tells them a series of parables. Here, we hear the parable of the prodigal son. For the sake of time, here’s the synopsis. A man has two sons. One of the sons tells his father that he wants the share of property that belongs to him. The father gives him his share, he goes and wastes it in reckless living. When he is reduced to wanting to eat the slop he feeds the pigs, he decides he’s going to go home and ask his father to make him like on of the servants because they are treated better than the life he has now.

As he is making his way home, the father sees him from a distance and runs and throws his arms around him, welcoming the son home again. And because he has his son back, he throws a huge party with the best of food, including the fattened calf to celebrate. Donning on a robe ring, and shoes, the son is elevated back to the position of being a son again. But the older brother who has stayed at home and done everything gets all jealous and upset at the father because he was the good son and never got a party or any recognition like this. The father ends by saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

This is a great parable for a host of reasons. Jesus doesn’t tell this in flowery language to the point that you can’t understand the message behind it. Rather, it is as plain as plain could be, and yet it is a difficult parable for some to understand.

While we might be able to understand this parable, it was beyond the Pharisee’s understanding. The father acts out of character for a man of his age and stature. No one would do for the son like the father did in real life. While it might be a good parable, it just isn’t all that accurate, and quite frankly, it’s a work of fiction.

And if that’s what you’re thinking, well, you’re wrong as wrong could be. This is a beautiful account of how you have treated God and how God treats you. Man has taken the image of God and thrown it away by giving into temptation. We have lived the reckless life of sin, and lived as if God doesn’t matter, because He doesn’t. We have squandered all that He gave us in the Garden and exchanged it for a brutal existence that culminates in death… or does it?

Your God goes seeking after you. Your God is there, waiting for you to wise up to your sinfulness and to confess your sins. He stands, literally with the arms of His Son stretched out, to redeem you, to restore you, to make you as you once were. There is nothing that your heavenly Father won’t do to redeem you, to buy you back, from the devastating effects of sin. He has welcomed you back with loving arms of a Father who has His son or daughter returned.

For you and I, our heavenly Father does nothing short of a grand celebration for us. He gives to us the “best robe” as we are robed in Christ’s righteousness. You and I receive from God the gift of His name in our Baptism, marking us as those who have been redeemed by Christ. We are given that sonship that the young son had given up before his journey. We receive the fattened calf that was killed for the party, but we don’t receive it in the form of a calf. We receive it in the form of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This Lamb of God was slaughtered for us upon Calvary, His blood washing over us to forgive us all of our sins in His sacrifice for us. The words that the father uses in the parable are descriptive of us as well: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” That’s us. Dead in our trespasses of sin, but made alive in the waters of Baptism. The image of God lost upon us in the Fall, but found and restored again by Christ’s death and resurrection.

What the parable of the prodigal son tells us, what it tells you, is that you can go back home! In fact, when a sinner repents and returns to the Father, it is a happy day, a glorious day, a day to celebrate, a day to rejoice and give thanks. Indeed, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The sacrifice has been offered and the banquet table has been set because you are home in the house of your father!

Today we celebrate and partake in the foretaste of the heavenly feast to come. Better than any fatted calf, the Lamb of God has been slain, once for all. The Lamb of God, who once was dead, now lives and reigns victorious, and today we feast on this Lamb with the King of Kings Himself as baptized and restored children of His heavenly, royal household! Today our Lord of lords and King of kings deigns to not only feast with us, but to serve us with His very Body and Blood. Here He lavishly welcomes, embraces, kisses, and feeds all His children with His free and undeserved gifts of Fatherly divine goodness, mercy, love, and peace.

God our heavenly Father has the last word in all of this. He is the one who never turns His back on the children who turn their backs on Him. He is the Father who comes running to us after we have run away from Him. There is always hope for the prodigal son and so there is hope for us as well. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.