Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent 4, Series C

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 10, 2013 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Which of these two sons are you?  The son who went and wasted his father’s inheritance, or the one who stayed and worked like the father wanted him to?  At the beginning of the story, the younger son is the bad guy, who demands his share of his father’s property, and then goes and wastes it all by living selfishly and wastefully.  The older son is the good guy, who faithfully continues working in his father’s fields and helping out, even after his younger brother has run away with a third of the property.  I think most of us would rather be seen as resembling the older son, the one who obeyed his father and strove to do what is right, rather than the younger son, who lived life in the fast lane, and who came up short.  But the end of the story has a surprise for us.  The younger son is the one who is present at a feast given in his honor and for his benefit, while the older son is not present at the feast, and is instead left out in the darkness and cold.  I ask again, which son are you?

Let’s take a closer look at each of the three main characters here.  First, the younger son.  I don’t think we always realize how hurtful his actions were to his father.  It wasn’t just that he had wasted what his father had given him; it wasn’t just that he didn’t stick around and help with the family farm.  This young man’s first sin was that he wanted his father dead.  That’s what he was saying when he asked for his share of the inheritance.  After all, what you leave to your children in your will doesn’t become theirs until after you die.  They have no right to ask for it beforehand, and if they wish they had it right now, what they are saying is that they wish that you were dead.

Amazingly, however, the father gives it to him.  In those days the younger of two sons would have inherited about a third of his father’s property, which was evidently a pretty good sum of money in this family.  But the father gives it to him, he sells it for cash that he can take with him on his travels, and he leaves.  He goes as far as he can get from his father and from his home, like many rebellious children do, and there he lives life in the fast lane.  The riches his father has given him seem inexhaustible at first, and so he spends it wastefully, and gets into the habit of living high on the hog.  By the way, we don’t know for sure whether his lifestyle was grossly sinful or not.  His brother later accuses him of consorting with prostitutes, but we don’t know for sure if what the older brother said is true or not.  What is bad enough is that he lives selfishly, not working, only living luxuriously and wastefully.  He abuses and thereby destroys the treasure his father had given him.

Later, he comes to his senses.  He realizes that his own sinfulness and ingratitude toward his generous father has caused his own ruin, and he knows that his father will be very angry with him for wasting a good-sized portion of the family’s wealth.  He decides to go back to his father anyway and take the heat.  He figures that he will eventually be able to work his way out of debt to his father, and that then his father will forgive him.  Of course, what he doesn’t realize is that his father is going to forgive him anyway.  When he comes back, the father falls on him with kisses, and then throws a feast in his honor, because the one who was dead is now alive; the one who was lost has now been found.  The younger son finds his father’s love and forgiveness is a gift to him, not something he has to earn.

Do you recognize yourself in this picture?  You should.  Every one of us has given in to the impulse of the sinful nature to use God’s gracious gifts to us of life and health and property for selfish and wasteful and even sinful purposes.  Every one of us has been brought back to God by the Holy Spirit working through the Word we have heard.  Every one of us has been surprised by God’s free grace in forgiveness, when we expected to work our way back into His favor.

Now let’s look at the older son.  The older son stays at home, working on the family farm during all the time that his younger brother is away wasting their father’s money.  He is outwardly a good, obedient child.  But his heart isn’t right.  His attitude toward his father is just as rebellious as his younger brother’s is.  Listen to what he says: “Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed orders.”  Evidently his obedience to his father was all an act.  He refers to his father as a slave-driver.  He wasn’t serving his father out of love and gratitude for having raised him and provided him with food and clothing and everything else he needed.  His obedience was all focused upon himself, because he was thinking he deserved some sort of reward for his good works.  And so his pride causes him to turn away from his father’s generous feast to celebrate his younger brother’s return.  And of course his attitude shows no love for his formerly lost brother.  Instead of being happy that his brother has come back, he is angry and unforgiving, and even accuses him of spending the money on prostitutes, even though he has no way of knowing whether that’s true or not.

Again, we should all recognize ourselves in this parable.  It is impossible to do a good work or live uprightly without thinking that we deserve a reward for it.  We are selfish by nature, and so when we do something good there’s always the voice in the back of our heads that thinks that God had better reward us for this good work.  But of course, that’s selfish.  Righteous living is simply the way we are supposed to live.  We don’t earn anything by it.  Everything that God gives us is given freely, out of His goodness and love.  To try to earn what God wants to give us freely is to give way to pride, selfishness, and arrogance.  It is to turn away His gifts, and to focus upon one’s own self.  The proper motivation for keeping the law is the love of the neighbor.  But a selfish person keeps the law simply in order to be better than everyone else.  A person who thinks he is righteous doesn’t see his need for God’s forgiveness and generosity, and so he will refuse to partake of the gifts of Word and Sacrament when they are offered to him.  In the end, the temptation to be like the older brother is far more dangerous than the temptation to be like the younger.  The younger brother was forgiven; the older brother turned away forgiveness.

Now let’s look at the character of the father in the story.  What he does is surprising at every turn.  When the younger son demands his share of the inheritance, and effectively wishes him dead, he gives it to him.  That’s not the way that any father I know would react.  And then of course, when the younger son comes back, he throws a spectacular feast for him, even though if the son hadn’t acted stupidly and selfishly in the first place, there would be no reason for the celebration.  And he doesn’t even scold the older son for his selfish and insulting attitude toward his father.  Instead he invites him as well into the feast.  None of this is expected behavior on the part of the father.  But all of it shows his capacity for love and forgiveness, his capacity, in other words, to give.

In this, the father in the parable shows us God.  God is the one who has given us our lives, and He sustains us in this life with everything we need: clothing and shoes, house and home, etc.  He even does this for those who have turned away from Him.  He makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust.  He gives each of us our share of the inheritance in this life whether we deserve it or not (and in fact none of us do deserve it).  And when the Word of His Law crushes our hearts and we come crawling back to Him, He forgives us freely.  We have been baptized into His Son, Christ Jesus.  Our baptism is renewed through the Word of forgiveness in Holy Absolution.  We who were dead are now alive.  We who were lost are now found.  And in our honor He gives a feast, a meal richer and more wonderful than any banquet ever given here on earth.  He gives us His Son’s own body and blood as our meat and drink, and with it everything He won for us, including nothing less than living forever with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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