Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Who is the most prodigal?
Called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, this story of Jesus is perhaps his most well known parable but often misunderstood. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant. Today we walk through the parable verse by verse. In the end we discover that the extravagant one is not the self-indulgent son but the Father whose mercy and love never end.
The story begins with two sons – it is not the story of one son but of two sons. The younger was within his right to ask for a portion of the inheritance. The historical practice of the day would have given him a third and his older brother two thirds. But the inheritance as conditioned upon his father’s death. In essence he was asking for his father’s death.
He got his share but it came in property that took some time to convert into cash. Once exchanged, he takes off for a far country – a euphemism for a Gentile land. Having burned his bridges he has become as dead to his father as his father was to him.
However much he got, he lost it all until he was worse than broke. He was in a strange place with no friends and nowhere to turn. All he had left to sell was his birthright as a son of Abraham, a Jew, and this he sold just to live. He became a hired hand to a hog farmer. He became an alien and stranger with no home at all; not in the far country where he had run and not at home where he couldn't return. It left him with time to think.
What follows was a change of mind – not yet a repentance, he builds a rationale for returning. He would be better off as a servant of his father than a servant here. Why not go home? What did he have to lose. But from regret the Holy Spirit often shapes repentance. And then he goes closer to repentance, admitting the guilt, acknowledging the sin, confessing it, accepting the consequences for his sin, pleading for mercy. What is missing? Could it be confident faith in his father's heart?
Now the whole attention shifts from the minor characters to the major character in this parable, the waiting Father. For this is truly His story. While still far off, love goes to the sinner; the sinner does not earn the love. Love goes before repentance and so the Father's love embraced the son before words of confession, contrition, and repentance could be said. It is always that way. Met with love, his repentance is no longer born of fear for his welfare or shaped in his own self-interest. His repentance is occasioned by the love of the father. Love woos and wins the heart of the son once as good as dead.
Love restores what was lost. Forgiveness is shown by the restoration of the son, not as a
servant but with full status as a son. New clothes for new righteousness; a new ring for a new identity; and new shoes for a new path to walk. These are the Father’s gifts to us brought near us in the water of our baptism – the clothing of Christ as our holiness, the new identity of the cross marked upon us as His own, and the new path of faith, life in Christ, and holy obedience that flows from faith.
In the Middle East eating and who you eat with are highly significant; food is also highly symbolic in our own culture. Even Obama invites his adversaries to eat in the White House. So they feast for joy. Here the food shared reflects fellowship extended – the most intimate of fellowship. Just as our Lord sets His table before us in the presence of our enemies and bids us come and enter into His rest and refreshment.
The dead is raised, the lost is found. . . redemption is complete; the Father has made it so. But as one son is restored, another is about to be lost, if ever he belonged to the Father. For the older son relinquishes his place as a son to complain that he is the servant who has earned better treatment from the father than his runaway brother; he sees redemption as something you earn while the father sees redemption as a gift and grace. He demands justice. The Father gives mercy.
Could this older son have been Lutheran? What does this mean? Not curiosity but foreboding. He asks not because he wants to know but because he fears the answer. He is jealous. Faith does not resent mercy shown to others; why is he angry? Because his brother returned or repented or because his father showed him mercy and forgave him? What did he resent, not the loss of his brother but the gain of his brother and the evident joy in the father's response of a party thrown to honor the occasion? He believes his father has been wastefully extravagant with his mercy and believes justice is the better path. Could that be you? Or me?
Again the father comes out to the son – the same grace shown to son who ran away is shown to the son who remained. The Father entreats him with mercy to share in the joy. He urges him in love but instead the angry son throws back an insult to the father – not even addressing him as father. Only the bitterness and resentment of a heart filled with me, myself and I. I, I, I... I served you, always did what you commanded, and I got nothing back, not even a few bucks to party hearty with my buds. This son was already dead to the father. He resents it all. . . he obeys not out of love or even out of duty but only for what is in it for him. He complains. The Father plays favorites; he demands justice even when the Father is offering him more – mercy! The Father offers him sonship – you are with me and all I have is yours but the son is unwilling to accept the Father's love.
Did the older son ever repent? It does not matter; the point is that the father was the ultimate prodigal, extending extravagant mercy to both; it began with a father and no sons – unless you count one who wished him dead and one who resented him – but at the end he had the surprise of one son, the dead was restored through confession and absolution; the other remained only a slave.
The issue here is mercy, the dramatic offering of mercy to the undeserving... love not as the reward for being good but the rescue of the lost and the new life of those dead. This parable is the story of God’s patient, giving, and waiting love which redeems the lost and restores the fallen and engenders repentance. What remains is to ask which son are you? The call of God extends to all who hear His voice. The mercy of God is the death of Christ for all sinners. The fruit of this call is the Spirit’s worked repentance and faith in that mercy. Come, my brothers and sisters, the waiting arms of our Father are open. Come, the fallen, the wanderer, the weary, those who have lost their way, those distracted by the world’s allure... come, the feast is set, the welcome is here, the heavenly Father has forgiven you... Come. Amen!