But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 3 – 2024

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“A certain man had two sons.” So begins what is commonly called the parable of the prodigal son, as told by Jesus, and recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel.

In the parable this younger of two sons said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” And the father then divided his property between the two brothers.

In the context of first-century Jewish culture, something like this would actually have been unheard of. The universal practice was that a man’s estate was not divided until he died.

For the younger son to ask that it be divided before then was, in effect, an indication, that this son thought of his father as if he were already dead; that he no longer appreciated having his father’s presence and influence in his life; and that he no longer intended to honor and love his father.

But the father loved this son nevertheless. His love for his son was such, that he went along with this request, rather than getting angry at how presumptuous and disrespectful it was.

If this younger son turned out to be prodigal – that is, extravagant in his spending – the father certainly seems to be quite extravagant in his generosity. Beyond all human expectation, the father loves his son, and gives him what he asks for.

And this helps us to understand that in the parable, the father does not represent an ordinary human father. Rather, he represents God, who loves his children with a superhuman extravagance and graciousness.

But as it turns out, the younger son is not worthy of that love, and misused the premature inheritance he had received. In “a far country” he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” And then, in his destitution, he “joined himself to a citizen of that country,” who “sent him into his fields to feed swine.”

Bob Dylan famously sang: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The truth of this is illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The son had effectively renounced his father, and was no longer interested in serving him. Yet he could not remain detached.

So he began to serve another master. But this was a master who had no personal regard or affection for this young man, and who put him to work in a way that was utterly degrading to him. To a Jew, being forced to be a caretaker of pigs was a humiliating defilement.

Now, if the father in the parable represents God – the one to whom all people legitimately owe allegiance and service – then this citizen of a foreign land, to whom the prodigal son joined himself, represents any and every false god and idol which those who turn their back on the true God then serve, instead of the true God.

One of G. K. Chesterton’s most memorable quotes is that “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.”

When you turn your back on God and on his love, the false gods whom you inevitably embrace instead will destroy you. They will not watch over you and protect you. These idols will chew you up – morally, physically, and spiritually – and spit you out.

The devil’s promise always is, that if you remove yourself from God’s authority, you will be free. But what the devil always delivers, is the worst kind of slavery and exploitation, and ultimately death. That’s what the prodigal son experienced.

And that’s also what you have experienced, if you have ever thought and acted like that son: in your mind opposing God, in your heart disrespecting God; doing as you pleased, greedily and selfishly, without regard for honor and duty, obligation and commitment.

The freedom from God that sinful pride tempts us to seek, will bring only misery – a deep and dark misery. But, like the prodigal son in today’s story, anyone who has been caught up in this, and has found himself – in mind and heart – in “a far country,” can come to his senses. He can find a way out, and a way back to God.

In today’s story, when the wandering son did come to himself, and shake himself out of the self-deception that had captivated him, he said to himself:

“How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’”

And he arose and came to his father.

But do notice what this new inner resolve entailed, and what it did not entail. The son – who regretted his foolishness, and the horrible situation he had gotten himself into – was hoping only that his father would give him a job: that is, a chance to work his way back up to a status more respectable than where he now was.

He wanted to be hired on, so that, under the father’s patronage, he could change his life, and become a responsible person once again.

This is a form of repentance – a change in thinking that involves a disdain for the effects of sin in your life, and a desire to reverse those effects by changing the way you live. But this is not yet a true Christian repentance, or a true Christian faith.

It is moralism: a desire to be a better person, a commitment to work at making yourself a better person, and a belief that God is a kind of “higher power” or heavenly resource who can help you to become a better person.

Now, this is not a bad desire. It is good as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough.

Still, that’s what many people are thinking when they turn to God, in the midst of a life of sin and of the harmful consequences of sin. They want a better life, and they think – they hope – that God can help them. And so they pray for that help.

But what God has for those whom he loves, and claims as his own, is so much more than that. What the father gave to the returning son was so much more than that. While the humbled and ashamed son

“was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

True repentance does not only look back on a failed life, with a humble admission that I have not been what I should have been. It also looks forward, with a humble admission that I, by my own efforts, will not be able to make myself truly righteous and fully acceptable to God in the future, either.

There’s something wrong with me on the inside, down deep. There is an inborn flaw in me that I cannot ultimately overcome in this life. And so, if I would be relying only on my own strength, I would be lost. In my weakness, I am without hope.

Maybe, through will power and human persistence, I can become a better person than I was before: at least by outward measurements, and by comparisons with other people.

But I cannot in these ways become everything I am supposed to be before God and in his sight. I cannot make myself worthy of the love of a perfect and holy God, and deserving of a place in his house and at his table.

So, in the parable, the prodigal son’s plan would not have worked. But it didn’t need to work. He didn’t need to find a way to work himself back into his father’s favor.

Sons who come home do not become servants. Sons who come home become sons again. All is forgiven. All is forgotten. Alienation is replaced, not by probation, but by restoration.

The parable doesn’t explain why and how this happens. But this happens for real, in our real relationship with God, because of the teller of the parable – namely Jesus.

Jesus makes this happen, because his obedience covers over our disobedience, and his successes cover over our failures. Indeed, the “best robe” of Jesus’ righteousness is placed upon us, to cover the stains of our unrighteousness.

His blood, shed on the cross for our sins, washes away our shame and guilt. And his resurrection opens up a clear pathway for us into the presence and fellowship of God: who in grace and forgiveness looks upon those who trust in Christ through the lens of Christ, and who therefore sees them as being perfect in Christ.

As St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

As Paul writes to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

And as the Prophet Micah prays and confesses:

“Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

When we waste what God has entrusted to our care, and when we disrespect God’s authority over us, we do indeed wander away from God. But Jesus reaches out to us – in the far country to which we have wandered in our minds and hearts – and in our minds and hearts he calls us to come to our senses in repentance, and to come home in faith.

In the parable, being invited to the celebratory household meal showed the now-restored son – more than anything else – that he was home, and was fully restored to his place at the table. The killing, roasting, and eating of the fattened calf represent the joyous fellowship that God’s people enjoy with their Creator and Redeemer, and with each other.

This is not a reference to the Lord’s Supper per se. But when Jesus later instituted that sacrament for his disciples – to be for them a special, supernatural participation in him and in his gospel – this was done in light of the first-century cultural understanding that when a host welcomes someone to his table, he thereby welcomes that person, fully and completely, into his life.

God in Christ, through the gospel of Christ, welcomes and re-welcomes you into his life: not so that you can be his employee, working your way into his good graces; but so that you can be fully embraced as his son or daughter, by his grace alone, as you trust in his promises.

Because you are his child, and a member of his eternal family, his home is your home. His Fatherly strength protects you. His divine wisdom guides you. His Holy Spirit enlivens you. His infallible Word instructs you.

As you now eat at his table, you do so with joy and gratitude. As you now serve him, you do so with eagerness and purpose.

In the parable, Jesus tells us: “And they began to be merry.” In God’s real house and kingdom – which by grace is our house, and is a kingdom in which we are citizens – this holy merriment, and this deep rejoicing, will never end. Amen.