Are You Really in Favor of Parties for Prodigals?
Those Pharisees and teachers of the Law are at it again. Muttering because Jesus eats with sinners. Muttering because Jesus welcomes sinners. Muttering as holier-than-thou people do. Makes you sick, doesn't it? We wouldn't do that, would we? We don't do that, do we? You sure? Are you sure you're really in favor of throwing parties for prodigal sons and daughters who come home?
This is a favorite parable, but do you honestly agree with it? Do you really think someone should be able to leave a son, come home a bum, and be welcomed as a king? Would you stand for it happening in your family? If you answer, "Sure," I wonder if you're paying attention to what takes place in this parable.
How would you feel towards a brother or sister who went to your father and said, "I wish you were dead, so I could have my inheritance?" The younger son said as much to his father. In Jesus' time there was no law, custom, or practice where a son got his share while his father lived. To ask for it from a living father was the same as saying, "I wish you were dead."
Then what if this younger brother sold his portion of the family farm? As soon as he got his share, he sold it to strangers. Land that had been in your family for generations is no longer. Having insulted your father, having destroyed what the man had worked a lifetime for, this brother moves off into a far country and parties hearty. He goes through the wealth your dad had worked years to accumulate in a matter of months.
Now your brother is broke, and in order to survive you hear that he has "glued himself" (That's what the Greek word literally means.) to someone in that country. The guy doesn't want him around that's why your brother had to glue himself to him - and so offers him the job of pig feeder knowing that a Jew would have to renounce his religion to take the job. But you hear that your brother takes the job! Now not only has he renounced his father and family but his faith!
When a brother such as this wants to come back home, should he be received like a king? Should the best, literally the "first," robe be put on him the robe the father normally wore and the one that should be left to the elder son? Should a no-count brother who has totally wasted his inheritance be entrusted with a family signet ring which gives him access to what remained of the family fortune? Would you want your bum of a brother to have your dad's ATM card, Visa, or checkbook? And should a brother who has reduced himself to a homeless street person be made a lord once more in the house? That's what the father did by instructing his servants to put sandals on his feet. This indicated that these servants were once more under the prodigal son.
Now the partying begins. The one calf that had been saved all year is slaughtered. Since there is no refrigeration, all of it will have to be eaten on this one occasion. A live band is hired; eating, drinking, celebrating and dancing go into high gear. All of this happens for the sake of the prodigal son. By the way, prodigal means wasteful.' Are you really in favor of throwing parties for wasteful people? People who have sinned seriously and hurt many?
Let's take the question out of family life and into church life. Do you really think people who take God's good gifs and waste them never thinking or caring about the needs of the church should be welcomed back? Do you really think people who have seriously sinned against the heavenly Father should be received back into the church as if they never left? Are you really in favor of parties for prodigals?
I'm not; they don't deserve it. They're not worthy of special treatment. Isn't that how you feel? You've stayed in the church working, slaving, sacrificing. You've not dishonored your Father by sinful living. You've not wasted His grace. If anyone deserves a party, it's you, not some low life prodigal who deserted the church.
Friends, when we think this way, our problem is not with the prodigal getting the party but the Father giving it. The elder son has a problem with the father not his brother. Had his brother come home and did what he intended to do, had he come home and said, "Make me like one of your hired men," that would've suited the elder brother just fine. That would've been fair. Then the prodigal would've gotten exactly what he deserved! But the father didn't allow that. Before all creation, the father ran to meet the prodigal. According to Aristotle men of dignity never ran in public. But the father runs, throws his arms around the filthy, stinking pig-feeding son and covers him with kisses. He receives him back into his good graces without any pledge to work his way back in.
The elder son didn't see this himself. He was hard at work in the field. When he comes in, he hears the party in full swing, and he's suspicious. He pulls aside one of the boys hanging around to question to him. In the elder's son mind there could be no possible reason for partying in his father's house, so he asks him, "What on earth could this be?" The elder son doesn't just ask that one question. Jesus says he examines this boy like a lawyer cross-examining a witness a legal word is used to describe it. That's fitting; the elder son lives in an adversarial relationship with his father.
When the elder son finds out what's going on he becomes enraged. The Greek doesn't describe someone flying off the handle suddenly. It describes deep, seething anger. And the object of his anger is not his brother; it's his father. You can see this by how he explains his rage to his father. "I've been slaving for you for years. I never disobeyed your orders. You never gave me anything. This no good prodigal is your son, not my brother. You wasted the fatted calf on this good for nothing son."
Do you see what the elder son hates his father for? Grace. When he says, "You never gave me anything," he's really saying, "I've earned everything I've ever gotten from you." And that's our problem too when we oppose parties for prodigals. We're opposed to the graciousness of the father not the prodigalness of others. We're believing that we deserve to be forgiven; we're worthy of blessing; we've earned all that we've gotten from our heavenly Father. These other people, these prodigals deserve nothing but wrath and punishment for their wastefulness.
By nature, we're not in favor of parties for prodigals. By nature we'll stay outside the Father's house rather than party with prodigals inside. The only solution to our problem is the Son, not either son in the parable but the Son who tells it. He's in the parable. He's the waiting, forgiving, self-sacrificing father. Remember why Jesus told this parable? Not to explain the actions of God the Father but to explain His own: to explain why He welcomes sinners and even eats with them. Elsewhere Jesus says, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." In this parable, he who sees the father really sees the Son.
Jesus shows us that though we oppose parties for prodigals, our guilt is the same. When speaking to the elder son about the younger, He says, "This brother of yours." We are of the same sinful flesh as the prodigal. When the prodigal demanded his share of the father's estate, the elder son took his share without protest. The prodigal's idea of a good time was partying without his father in a far land. The elder's son idea of a good time was partying with friends without his father. The prodigal started for home believing he could work his way back into his father's house. The elder son in the home believed he had earned his place by years of work without ever disobeying.
The two sons are equally guilty, and we are as guilty as the prodigals we know. Jesus, by means of what the father does in the parable, shows how He redeems both sons. The father humbled himself for the sake of each son. For the younger, he ran to meet him rather than make him bridge the gap. For the elder, he publicly left the party to bridge the gap.
Jesus humbled Himself on our account whether we are prodigals or elder sons. He left the eternal mansions of heaven to place Himself in the womb. He came to meet us rather than make us try to reach Him. Whether we are caked with pig manure from the sins we've rolled in or we're covered with self-righteous indignation, Jesus comes and wraps His arms around us. He who commands angels, devils, and all power in heaven and earth, smothers filthy sinners with kisses and pleads passionately with arrogant ones.
Jesus did more than humble Himself; He did more than cast off the glories of heaven for our sakes. He endured the unspeakable torments of hell for us. When the father puts away the sins of his sons at no cost to them, it did cost him. The prodigal came back to full inheritance though he'd already wasted one. The elder son is told everything of the dad's belongs to him that leaves the father with nothing. The father pays dearly for the blessings he freely gives to his sinful sons. Jesus pays for the blessings God the Father gives us at no charge. The Father covers us with kisses because the blood of His Son covers our stench. The Father pleads for us to come into His house because He kicked His Son out to pay for our arrogant unbelief and proud rejection.
Prodigal sons and daughters can home and elder ones can come out from working in the field into their Father's party because all of their sins have been freely forgiven and completely forgotten for Jesus' sake. As the father in the parable proved his forgiveness by new clothes, sandals, and killing the fatted calf, so God the Father proves His forgiveness by clothing you with Baptism, giving you authority over sins, and slaying His Son for your food.
Grace is a reason for sinners to celebrate. Grace received is a reason for heaven itself to party. Jesus says elsewhere that the angels party over just one sinner believing that God is gracious to them for Christ's sake. There you have it: Angels are in favor of parties for prodigals; Jesus is in favor of parties for prodigals. We can be too. Whether we've been prodigal in a far country or in our Father's house, when God's grace in Jesus touches us, we've got to party. Let the celebration begin. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (20070318); Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32