Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
Can you believe what he did? Of all the parables Jesus ever told, the one we have before us today has got to be the most well-known. Maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan would come close, but I think the parable of the Prodigal Son still tops the popularity charts, even among those people who have never step foot in a church. It’s a story about rebellion and redemption; a tale of a family rift and healing; a real-life relatable saga of sons and their father, brokenness and forgiveness. So people have said. It’s a beautiful story that has inspired literature, film, poetry, and art. This is one of, if not the best known of all the parables of Jesus, but when you take a step back and look at the details, does it leave you asking yourself that question, “Can you believe what he did?” Does it almost seem inaccessible? Nobody in the parable does what you think they should or would do. It’s no coincidence – this is one of the most well-known parables of Jesus and it’s the most excessive and scandalous story he ever told.
What precipitated this profound teachable moment was a beautiful statement of the gospel that was intended to be the sharpest criticism, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The religious elites could not fathom the promised Messiah of God slumming around with the societal dregs like tax collectors and ‘sinners.’ They couldn’t stomach the utter blasphemy of Jesus proclaiming forgiveness to those wretches who hadn’t been tithing, who hadn’t been observing Torah and its traditions, these sinners who had not made one iota of lifestyle improvement to show God how serious they were. What a joke! So, in the most indirectly direct way possible Jesus invites the entire crowd – sinner or sanctimonious, disciple of undecided – to hear a story. There was a man who had two sons…and you know the rest, don’t you?
It’s the parable of the “Prodigal Son,” right? Can you believe what he did? The younger son makes the unbelievable request, Give me my share of the inheritance. In other words, “Dad, I’m tired of waiting for you to die. I’ll take my stuff now.” Then came the trip, the cheap thrills that cost him everything, the pigs, the pods, and the pondering. How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I’ll go back, and I’ll work my way back into dad’s good graces. I’ll become one of his servants, and I’ll chip away at the debt I owe. Can you believe what he did? That younger son had everything. He was a member of a good family, all his needs were provided for, his father obviously loved him in spite of his obnoxious request, and he still ran off. He had everything, but he threw it all away. Can you believe what he did? Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the parable of the “Prodigal Son” isn’t really about the prodigal son.
What about big brother? Can you believe what he did? As the older son, his share of the inheritance would’ve been twice as large as his younger brother’s cut. So, for him to get so upset almost seems unjustified. Big brother was the responsible one, the one who stayed and obeyed. He did the right things, unlike his little brother who was just a bag full of problems. And when baby brother came crawling back to dad, big brother was waiting for the reparations to start rolling in, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he was welcomed back into the family. Big brother couldn’t believe it. Maybe he was a little jealous that he never got to go off and sew his wild oats, funded by dad’s credit card. Surely, he took for granted the tremendous blessing that was his, as his father said, My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. It’s something that’s easy to take for granted – never knowing what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. He refused to welcome his brother back, and held a grudge against his father because he was loving. Can you believe what he did? Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the parable of the “Prodigal Son” isn’t primarily about either of the sons.
So, where do you find yourself in the story? That’s the question many will ask when preaching this parable, and it’s not entirely unhelpful. Maybe you’ve had the experience of living on the wild side, away from the watchful eye of mom and dad, throwing caution and decency to the wind in the name of youthful independence, until it landed you in a pig sty, eyeballing their dinner because you were so desperate. You’ve had the kind of life that when people hear about it, they ask their friends, “Can you believe what he did?” Or, maybe that’s not you; maybe you’ve been here all along. You were the one who stayed. You did the right things, you went to church, you never mouthed off to mom and dad much less ever dreamed of emancipating yourself at their expense. You’re one of the good ones, and it always rubbed you wrong when the same word of forgiveness that was spoken over you is extended to the person whose life is a total mess. It cheapens the whole thing, you think. They don’t deserve it, but I do. And you’re probably the first one to ask, “Can you believe what he did?” Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the parable of the “Prodigal Son” isn’t about the younger son; it isn’t about the older son; and it isn’t about you.
So how about dear old dad? After all, Jesus led off with the important detail, There was a man who had two sons…and can you believe what he did? His own flesh and blood came to him with a request that hit him like a punch in the gut. Give me my inheritance…and he actually does. After that family destroying demand and the wasteful, brazen sinfulness of his son, can you believe what the father did? He took back the son who had thrown away his property…freely, no conditions, no probation, no lecture, just forgiveness. Did you notice that? The younger son had a plan: I’ll 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. This was the plan - I’ll go back. I’ll apologize. I’ll beg to be hired on. I’ll work it off. The whole thing is entirely ego-centric. I, I, I, but then he sees dad running his way, tears flowing, arms outstretched. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. He doesn’t even get to finish his plan – no reparations no resolutions, just repentance. And the father is overjoyed. Can you believe what he did? Jesus wants to use this earthly story to express a heavenly truth. He wants you to see in the love of this father the kind of love that God the Father has for you. His intent is to reveal the beating heart of the gospel – the love that God has for people in Christ. Can you believe what he did?
You can hear the logical sounding objections, can’t you? You can’t just give that away! But he did. And he does. How many times have you said or thought just the opposite? You’ve got to EARN my trust, my forgiveness, my acceptance…All the while I set myself up nicely as a higher court than the God of the universe himself. We’ve got a long road ahead of us and if you take the right steps… Not a word of that from the father to his son! Instead of a lecture, he got a robe. In place of probation, dad slipped a ring on his finger. No back-breaking works of penance, just a banquet spread unlike any he’d ever seen. He’s home, and dad couldn’t be happier. This is the love that God has for you in Christ. Do you see the “risk” that God takes? Always risking it – you can’t just tell people they’re free, it’ll be anarchy! Nobody will get serious, everybody will abuse it, that’s not the way it works! That’s not the way I’d set it up, but I’m not God. And thank God I’m not God. Instead of waiting for sinners to earn their way to God (which could never happen), God tells another story of a Son who ventured far from home – from heaven to earth. He was the one never once wallowed in the world’s filth or looked down his nose in self-righteousness at the sinners all around him. Instead, this Son, Jesus, went to the cross to undo the damning work of your sin. God didn’t just ignore sin; he punished it once for all in Christ, instead of you. The Son of God died so that his heavenly Father (and yours) could run after you and wrap you up in his arms and say the three words that every sinner in this world is literally dying to hear: I forgive you. Can you believe what he did? He did it for you!
In this parable about the father’s love, we see a clear illustration of God’s love for you. The father receives his child back, forgives him, embraces him, and lavishes good things on him as though he’s the only person in the world. God deals with the repentant sinner in the same way…just for you, straight to you. Have you ever noticed that? How the gospel is universal in scope, but individual in application? We talk about the blood of Jesus covering over the sins of the whole world, and you’re part of the world, so it covers your sins, too. But then Jesus comes along and with his own hand makes you his own through the water and word of your Baptism, putting a robe of righteousness on you, welcoming you home. Just for you. We talk about Jesus laying down his life for the sins of the world, and that means you, too. But then Jesus comes along and spreads a banquet unlike anything you could imagine – his own body and blood in your hands and on your lips, to show you that this body and this blood are given and shed not just for the world’s forgiveness, but for your forgiveness, just you. People talk about forgiveness as some sort of ethereal, “out there” kind of possibility, but then you confess your sins whether in worship or privately, and it’s as though Christ himself looks you in the eye, puts his hand on your shoulder, and says, “I forgive you all your sins,” so you can know without a shadow of a doubt, this is for you. Can you believe what he did? What he does? For you!
This kind of love is frightening to the careful, reprehensible to the legalist, and downright dangerous to the moralist. But this is exactly the love that God has for you in Christ. Hear the father’s joy and his answer to why he did what he did, We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. It is the love of the Father that brings you from death to life. Standing at that font, gathered at this table, hearing the declaration of your forgiveness – that’s life in the face of death. That’s sinners who once were dead made alive again in Christ.
This has got to be one of Jesus’ best known parables, and I don’t know what to call it – the Prodigal Son? The Older Brother? The Father’s Love? God’s undeserved love for runaway sinners; God’s undeserved love for stay-at-home self-righteous sinners; God’s undeserved love even for you. Can you believe what he did? In Christ, believe it. He did it for you!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.