“Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming”
Luke 15:20 – March 31, 2019
What do you think of when I mention the black sheep of the family? The kid who went astray? A really rough customer? A person you would not trust an inch with any amount of money? Someone who you wouldn’t want any children hanging around?
This is the kind of person we are going to meet today in the parable of Jesus we read from Luke 15. Some people call the parable “The Prodigal Son.” Remember the Rabbi Jesus was having dinner with some people the good, righteous synagogue-going people did not approve of? They were sniffing and clucking and making a big stink about Jesus and His dinner companions. So, as a response, Jesus tells three parables in Luke chapter 15, the last of which is the parable of the Prodigal—or the Lost Son.
The parable begins: “Then Jesus said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.”
This younger son was a brat. Or, worse, he was an ungrateful wretch. Do you know what he asked for? In that day, the son essentially told his father he wanted him to drop dead. That was the only way the younger son would have gotten his inheritance, in the normal order of things. What an ungrateful, selfish so-and-so! The father—amazingly—liquidates a third of his assets, giving the younger son his share of the father’s property. Perhaps you haven’t been as crass or unfeeling enough to walk up to one of your relatives and shout, “I wish you would drop dead!” and really mean it. But, that is exactly what Jesus begins this parable with.
Back to the parable: “It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”
Going to a faraway, distant country. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? However, it does not take too long for this black sheep to run through all his money, lose all his fair-weather friends and end up on the streets as a homeless person. Plus, a famine struck the country he was living in. Consequences! What should he do now?
Let me step back from our parable for a moment—away from the younger son in the pigsty. I invite us to reflect on the church season we are presently in, Lent. Lent is a season where we are invited to reflect on our personal brokenness, and the need for God’s redemption.
This Lenten season we are also considering the different sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. This week, our sentence is “forgive us our debts (or, sins) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who sin against us).” I have a question: have you ever been so angry with someone that you have said (or thought) “I could never forgive him/her!” What is even worse is if you—or I—turn our backs, fold our arms across our chests and stubbornly insist, “I will never forgive her/him!”
What kind of unforgiving attitude is that? If we expect to be forgiven by God for all of the sins we commit daily, isn’t that unforgiving attitude a bit hypocritical? Rather a lot, really? What would God say about that ungodly attitude? What would you say about that attitude, now?
Back to the parable. “That brought him to his senses. The son said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”
“The son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities… As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son.” 
Now our parable shifts its point of view. We see the father: “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, the father ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’
Remember, we are in the middle of Lent, a season when we are thinking of how much each of us sins against God and against others. We journey with Jesus towards the cross in Lent, but we also take the time to think about how much each of us need God’s forgiveness, grace and redeeming love. What is more, “Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love.” 
Let’s look at the father’s response: “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”
Almost any parent knows the feeling that if your kid really screws up, no matter what, the father (or mother) has the same love towards him, regardless of sin and unforgiveness. One might say any parent knows the feeling that even if the child goes off the rails and repeatedly misses the mark, the father is especially joyous to see the son who returns. But—the parable does not end there. Oh, no! We see the further unforgiving attitude of the elder son.
“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the servants, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’
“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’”
The elder son says “It’s not fair!” Well, guess what? The ways of God’s kingdom are NOT fair. True fairness leaves NO room for grace. Yes, God’s redeeming love for us is not fair. Would we really want it to be absolutely fair, all cold, legal rules with no grace and love at all?
The elder son is just as much as lost as his younger brother, isn’t he? Lost in his resentment, anger and alienation. “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
Whoa! “No one bothered to call [the elder son] in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment. Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment.”  But, I ask again—do we really want God to be absolutely fair, in a cold, legalistic manner? With no grace or love at all?
Yes, “forgive as we wish to be forgiven” is a great lesson. But, I think the parable of the two Lost Sons has much more for us this week. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the boundless love of a parent for their children—the love of God the Father for His wayward sons and daughters. If you have really messed up, and you don’t think God could ever, ever forgive you, isn’t it wonderful to hear that the Prodigal’s father welcomed both His sons back home?
In this parable, Jesus tells us that God is patient, welcoming, and forgiving. God loves each one of us, forever and ever. Talk about good news! Isn’t this the best news in the world?
(Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s wonderful modern translation “The Message” for the use of this scripture reading. The parable of the two Lost Sons is from Luke 15:11-32.)
Matt Skinner Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
“Perspective Matters,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.
Matt Skinner Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.