Sermons, Uncategorized

While Still a Long Way Off

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot

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“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one demands his father give him his inheritance now. Amazingly, the father honors this brash request, and divides his property between his two sons. Not many days later, the younger son gathers up everything he now has and takes a journey to a far country. There he squanders it all in reckless living, whatever that might be.

A famine arises, and the life of a penniless foreigner is especially difficult when there is little food around. It gets so bad he hires himself out to a pig farmer. He’s so hungry that the pig slop starts to look appetizing.

Finally, he comes to his senses. He realizes that his father’s hired servants have it a lot better than he does. They have more than enough bread, while he is wasting away from hunger. So, he hatches a plan. He will return to his father and beg for mercy. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

And so he heads back home.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The young man doesn’t even have the chance to beg to be his father’s hired servant, when the father begins reestablishing his sonship in the eyes of the community. “Bring the best robe, and put it on him,” he tells his servants. “Put a signet ring on his hand! Get him a new pair of shoes! Bring a fattened calf for a feast! For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found! It’s time to celebrate!”

One of the keys to understanding any of the parables is to look for the point where it departs from regular everyday life. In this parable, there are many departures from everyday life, almost to the point of absurdity.

What the younger son does in asking for the father to give him his share of the inheritance is a most outrageous request in first-century Israel, and for that matter, in any culture, even our own. Inheritance was only handed over at the father’s death or in some other extraordinary situation, but never at the request of the younger son. This request amounts to asking the father to “die” so that the younger son might freely take what would be bequeathed to him.

The possibility exists that the father might tell the older and younger sons how he would divide the inheritance, usually two-thirds for the eldest son and the remaining third for the other sons minus the dowries for any daughters. But the father would never grant the sons the ability to dispose of their inheritance, that is, to sell it. Yet that is exactly what this father does! He divides the property between both sons, between the younger and the older son. This is an unbelievable response, one that would be considered by his community as scandalous, even verging on insanity, but one that we, hopefully, would recognize as an expression of the father’s love and mercy, as an undeserved gift beyond compare.

This is the first of three extraordinary acts of love by the father that would have shocked the community and shown them that this was a most unusual circumstance. But the community would also note that the elder brother received his inheritance, and his consent to his father’s division of the property shows that he has failed in his role as reconciler between his younger brother and his father. Not only is the prodigal son lost to the father, but there is a suspicion that the elder son is also alienated from him, a suspicion that will be confirmed by the rest of the parable.

The process of disposing of the estate would have been difficult in a community that was completely opposed to the prodigal’s request and shocked at the father’s consent. The prodigal would have to cut a quick deal with someone unscrupulous enough to turn his property into cash. The prodigal needed his inheritance to be in liquid assets that he could take to a “far country” where no one would know him. The community would watch with disgust as he went from one prospective buyer to another, the intensity of their hatred and disgust mounting.

No one would be surprised that the prodigal wastes his money in reckless living, for this conforms with his behavior in asking for his inheritance. We are not told explicitly in the text that this reckless living included all kinds of immorality. It is only the older brother who makes that assertion, something that tells us more about his character than the specific actions of the younger brother. The older brother fails to put the best construction on his brother’s behavior but instead bears false witness against him. After all, how could he know for a fact what his younger brother was doing in the far country? He didn’t see it on Facebook.

The prodigal’s plan is similar to what many in Jesus’ day (and ours) considered repentance, that is, repentance as a human work, with an offer, from the person’s side, of conditions, terms, and reparations. Repentance was seen as something that humans could initiate outside of God’s initiative. The prodigal plans to offer this kind of repentance when he says, “make me as one of your hired servants.” But this is a face-saving plan in which he will save himself. He wants no grace but seeks to earn a place back in the community.

For the Pharisees and scribes who were hearing this parable, the prodigal’s actions would have had a ring of truth. They could not help but see that the prodigal was responding as a good Jew would respond, with a deep sense of sorrow over his sin and equally deep desire to make amends for that sin. If the story were to end here, this would be a good moralistic parable. It would conform fully to their expectation about the way in which outcasts like the tax collectors and sinners who were also listening to this parable should be restored to Israel. They must first show through their deeds that they deserve to be readmitted into the community of Israel.

The prodigal is true to form, predictable in his behavior. But the big surprise in this parable is the father and his actions. First, he grants the prodigal’s desire for his inheritance. Then, when he returns, the father accepts him fully back into his household with joy. His actions are a portrait of complete and total grace, of unconditional love. And notice how the grace of the father precedes the repentance of the prodigal. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

We get the impression that the father was anxiously waiting for his son’s return. Each day looking far down the road, hoping that this would be the day that his prodigal would return. Then when he does see him, the father runs to him, something no dignified adult male would ever do in their culture, especially for a son who has so dishonored his family and community. But the father doesn’t seem to care. He is shameless in his love and compassion. With his hug and kiss, the father expresses his complete reconciliation and acceptance of his son publicly—and he does this before the prodigal has uttered a word of confession.

The prodigal is clearly shocked at how the father receives him. He probably expects to be rejected, or at best, lectured at length about his behavior. No doubt he expects there will be an awkward time, where everyone coolly keeps their distance. But instead, he is instantly received as a son.

The prodigal makes confession as his father is embracing and kissing him. It’s the same confession that he had rehearsed, but with one significant omission. He does not ask the father to make him as one of his hired servants. The omission of this simple condition is a sign of true repentance. He leaves off this part of what he had planned to say because he is overwhelmed by his father’s grace. The prodigal sees that the point is not the lost money, but rather the broken relationship which he could not heal. Now he understands that any new relationship must be a pure gift from his father. “I am unworthy” is now the only appropriate response.

The father desires that his acceptance of his son be clearly communicated to the community and to his servants, and so he demonstrates his acceptance by visible means, dressing the prodigal as a son who has been restored. In the robe, ring, and shoes, the village would clearly see that the son has been restored to the father’s house, and so they too must receive him back the same way. The father offers them the opportunity to express their acceptance by sacrificing the fatted calf and having a feast for the entire community.

Sadly, the older brother will not join in the feast. In many ways, he has strayed as far as his younger brother even though he never left the farm. His actions show there is a break in his relationship with his father as severe as there was between his father and brother when the prodigal cashed in his inheritance and left for a faraway country. He had stayed on the farm, dutifully but not joyfully. His complaints show how he has seen himself in the father’s house: as a hired servant, not as a son; as obedient to the father’s rules, but reluctantly.

But the father is not deterred. Even in the face of mounting insults, he addresses his elder son affectionately as “son” and assures him that his place in the house as well as his inheritance are secure. This is another example of the outrageous love of the father in which there is no judgment, no criticism, no rejection, but only an outpouring of love and grace.

As the parable ends there is great joy at the restoration of the prodigal son, but unfortunately, the elder son is still a long way off. Will he repent and join the feast, or will he continue to reject the father’s grace and love and therefore reject his invitation to the feast?

More important: what about you?

I suspect that at one time or another, all of us have behaved as the prodigal and/or older sons. We have wandered far off in sin. Maybe not so dramatically; maybe even worse. Oftentimes not even leaving the city limits, sometimes simply in our own hearts and minds. We have squandered our spiritual inheritance. We have acted as if we could earn a place in God’s kingdom. We have acted as though God somehow owes us for our obedience. We have failed to see our own rebelliousness, our own pettiness, our own self-righteousness.

We must confess before God and one another that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. We must take refuge in the infinite mercy of God, our heavenly Father, seeking His grace for the sake of Christ, and say: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

God found you and me while we were still a long way off. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:3–7).

Unlike the older brother in the parable, our older brother, Jesus, did not look down on us, but stepped in to reconcile us to the heavenly Father. As St. Paul reminds us: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6–11, ESV).

Christ, our brother shares with us His inheritance. “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:11–12).

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 18-21).

We are in no position to begrudge God’s grace similarly given to others, no matter how unworthy they appear to us. God calls us to a joyful celebration, not only of our own salvation, but the salvation of our brothers and sisters.

Let us celebrate each Baptism where God comes to a lost one who is still far off and makes him or her His beloved child. Let us live in our own Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Let us join together regularly with our brothers and sisters to hear of God’s gracious love and forgiveness in the Absolution and preached Word. Let us come together in the communion and fellowship of the banquet in which Christ feeds us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Welcome home, you who were once far off. You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.