A parable is an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. The earthly part is familiar, isn’t it? You’ve maybe lived – or are living it right now. Jesus told this parable to people who were grumbling about the company he kept. He had the audacity to hang out with the society’s outcasts, the riff-raff, the tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and beggars. They were not good, upstanding, church-going folk; they were sinners…dirty, despicable sinners. They were the last people anyone expected to see in church, much less heaven. But Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. And they hated him for it. So he took them on a trip to the lost and found. It’s actually the third of three related parables. The first two set up the third. In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for and save one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he calls his neighbors and throws a party. Then a woman loses a coin and turns the whole house upside down looking for it, and when she finds it she calls her neighbors and friends and…throws a party. (Luke 15:8-10) The pattern is set: something is lost, then it’s found, and there is rejoicing and a party.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger son couldn’t wait for his father to die. He said Father, give me my share of the estate. In other words, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive, and since you seem unlikely to check out any time soon, just sign over the inheritance check now so I can get out from under your eye and get on with living life my way.” And the father did. He signed over the inheritance to the younger, gave the farm to the older, and kicked back into retirement.
Not long after that the younger son hit the road to a far-off country…far from home and family – far from all the rules and guidance and accountability – this younger son did what so many people do in the same situation: he squandered his wealth. How? Wild living, Luke says. Was it alcohol, women, gambling? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that his father’s money, his livelihood was now gone.
To make matters worse, there was a severe famine in that whole country. That part is familiar too, isn’t it? Problems tend to pile up. You lose your job and your health insurance at the same time you need surgery and the furnace breaks down and the car needs new tires. The young man has no money and no food; he’s homeless and broke. But he’s still not broken. He’s still determined to prove that he doesn’t need his father or his love and especially his rules. So he goes to work in that far-off country feeding pigs. That’s about as shameful as it gets for a Jewish boy. Pigs were unclean, off-limits. (Leviticus 11:7) Things go so desperate that he craved the pods that the pigs were eating. Even that was off-limits. If you’ve ever wondered what rock-bottom looks like, this is it.
Hungry, broke, lost in a foreign country and reeking of pigs, Jesus says, [the younger son] came to his senses. His proud, independent, rebellious will is starting to crack. ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! So he makes a plan. I’ll set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men. And off he went.
He probably rehearsed his little speech on the road. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” He probably wondered if his father would acknowledge him or just lock the door in his face, as he deserved. In this earthly story, there were no guarantees that his plan would work. All he knew was that after he had tried his hand at making his way through this world on his terms – and the world had coldly used him up and spit him out – he was all out of options; it was either die with the pigs in a foreign country or go home to his father’s house and beg for mercy.
Maybe you’ve been there. You’ve tried living life on your terms. You’ve done things your way with no regard for the will of the one who gave you life, gave you his love and a place in his family, and gave you everything you needed for this life and the promise of even more in the next. You’ve looked for happiness and fulfillment in all the places your Father told you not to go. You tried to find yourself in the world and ended up getting lost. You’re broken and alone and out of options – but to go back to your Father’s house with your tail between your legs.
This is a picture of repentance. Repentance is not an act of human will – it is God’s act of breaking the human will. We don’t work repentance. God does. And he does it in a variety of ways. He begins it at the Baptismal font, where he drowns our sinful nature under the waters of his forgiveness. He does it through parents and pastors and teachers and spouses and friends – who lovingly point out our sins to us. He does it regularly through the invitation to repent and the proclamation of the Law in worship. When all else fails he does it through the church’s declaration of excommunication. But quite often God does it through life. When we run away from him he allows us to fail, to suffer, to be humiliated and broken by this cold world. He lets us learn Psalm 32 firsthand: many are the woes of the wicked. (Psalm 32:10) However God does it his message is the same: apart from him we are not only lost, we are as good as dead – now and eternally. And because it is really God’s hand at work in every case, we know that no matter how painful it is, his goal is that we repent and throw ourselves on his grace, his undeserved love.
Undeserved love is what we see in the parable. When the younger son was still far off, still little more than a speck on the horizon, his father saw him. Clearly, he’d been watching, waiting, hoping his son would finally see the error of his ways and come home. And when he finally saw him, he didn’t wait, he took off sprinting towards his son (something no self-respecting adult male would do), wrapping him up in his arms, kissing him – this boy that smelled like pig manure. The boy can only get half of his speech out before his father smothers him and orders the servants to bring out the finest robe and family ring and shoes for his blistered feet. And then, following the pattern, he says “let’s throw a party.” For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
Here’s the other side of repentance…when God has broken us, when he’s led us to see our lost condition, he won’t have us come to him trying to work out a deal. “Father, if you forgive me now I will turn my life over to you. Give me a chance to earn my way back into your family.” Repentance is not a negotiation. Repentance doesn’t earn forgiveness. In fact, true repentance understands that God’s grace is so deep that we are forgiven before we utter a word. We don’t ever earn our way home, we are received purely by unearned, undeserved grace.
And then there’s the older brother. He’s still out in the field working. He hears the music, the dancing, the singing. He comes near to the house and asks a servant, “Hey, what’s going on?” Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. And he’s absolutely furious. He refuses to join the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t go. He says Look! All these years I’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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! In other words, “I’ll be damned before I celebrate your love along with that undeserving son of yours.” And right there you see the problem, right? This son thought he had earned his father’s love.
But the father won’t let him off so easily: my son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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. And there the story ends. At the end of the parable, which son is lost? Who finds himself outside of the party? Not the one you’d expect. The good, responsible, upstanding one. The one who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And in the end, what keeps him out of the party? Not his brother’s wild living or his Father’s reckless love. Nothing but his own stubborn self-righteousness. In the end, self-righteousness is the reason so many people will find themselves lost in hell forever. They don’t think they need God’s undeserved love because they imagine they’ve earned it. To imagine yourself too good for God’s grace is to be truly lost.
What is this parable about? First, it’s about the third son, the one telling the story. The Son who left his royal throne, the home of his Father, emptied himself of all the perks of being the only Son of God, took on our human flesh and humbled himself to be born of a virgin. But there are two big, glaring differences. He didn’t squander his Father’s inheritance, we did. We stole God’s blessings of life and health and wealth and used them to pursue our own selfish, pleasure-seeking purposes. We are why Jesus was born in the pig-pen of this world, surrounded by the slop of sin and death. We are why he was hung between criminals on a cross, mocked and jeered at by the rabble of the streets. We are why he was lost in a way we could never imagine when his Father abandoned him to hell. And unlike the son in the parable, he had to earn his Father’s love. He not only had to live a perfectly obedient life, he had to carry the sins of the world to the cross and hell and die to earn his Father’s favor. And only when he had done it all, perfectly, did God exalt him to his rightful place at the head of heaven’s feast where he rules all things.
This parable is about us, too. We were all born as lost sons. Lost in sin. Doomed to die and be lost in hell forever. But God found us. He found us in Baptism, washed away our sins, adopted us into his family, gave us a place in his house, gave us all the rights and privileges of true sons and daughters. And how have we repaid him? How many times have we said, “No, Father, I don’t like your rules or really care about your love. The path you would have me walk is too restrictive and I’d rather run free. I can do without the gifts you offer in Word and Sacrament. Just give me your blessings and go away.” And yet, while God often lets us go our own way – his house is not a prison, he forces no one to stay – he never gives up on us. He never stops working to lead us to repentance – whether through the hammer of the Law or the sheer hopelessness and despair of life in this world apart from him. And the most amazing thing is that no matter how many times we run away he’s always there waiting to welcome us home. Always ready to cover our sinfulness with the robe of Jesus’ perfect righteousness. No matter how far, how long, how badly, how shamefully we have treated our Father – he always, always, always welcomes us back. No questions, no conditions, just full and immediate restoration.
Jesus told this parable to those who imagined that they were “in” with God, that they didn’t need to repent, didn’t need to be forgiven and who looked down on those who did. We life-long Christians, who have grown up in the Father’s house, who attend faithfully and give generously and volunteer regularly, run the same risk of finding ourselves on the outside if we ever begin to imagine that the Father’s grace is something we’ve earned rather than something we’ve been freely given.
In the end, this parable isn’t really about the lost sons but about the Father’s endless grace. Whether we can more closely identify with the younger son who squandered his Father’s love or the older one who imagined that he had earned his Father’s love – the point of the parable is clear: it’s not about what you think you deserve. Jesus took our place under God’s wrath so that we could take his seat at his Father’s party. The Father sacrificed the Lamb for us. That’s grace. We don’t ever find out if the older son realized his lost condition and went in to celebrate his Father’s boundless love. I think Jesus ends there on purpose. It forces us to ask ourselves: will we? Amen.