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LSB Lent 4C Sermon – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

March 7, 2016

March 6, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable….”

Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Son is familiar to most—if not all—of you. That is good. Jesus’ words should be familiar, particularly when He speaks about the work that He accomplishes for the salvation of mankind, for your deliverance. But familiarity can also breed a little contempt: “I’ve heard this before. I know the story. I know the lesson.” That can be compounded when what is believed to be the central thought of the parable actually isn’t.

So let us again consider Jesus’ story. Note that Jesus does not tell the Parable of the Lost Son without some prodding. True, He could have told it without any prompting. But the Gospel Writer includes the important detail of the occasion that leads to Jesus’ story: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable….” That detail must drive the story’s interpretation and the understanding of its lesson.

Jesus talks about a father with two sons and what takes place as a way of addressing the Pharisees and scribes. He wants to correct their thoughts. He desires to have them understand why He has received sinners and eaten with them. The story is meant to teach the Pharisees and scribes that bringing tax collectors and sinners into the kingdom is a good thing that does not harm them. The father’s words in the parable are spoken to those who grumbled at Jesus’ company: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

That is the key point of the parable. Like the tax collectors and sinners of real life who were gathering to hear Jesus, the younger son in the story had forsaken his identity. He had severed himself from his family, clan, and nation: “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” Those acts were his rejecting what was good and holy. Instead of living as a faithful child of the household, the younger son had renounced that way of life to take up a reckless and sinful one.

Such renunciation cuts a person off from life itself. Remember how the LORD had worked. He had established His Covenant with households and families. He had given a way of life to His people Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But whenever people wandered away from this and took up a different identity, they cut themselves off from the LORD. They died, just as the father stated about his younger son.

But LORD desires no one to lose life. He wants all the members of His household to be retained. So His calls to repentance would go out, as the LORD sent the prophets to Israel. Whenever people came to their senses like the younger son who “came to himself” in the pig sty, the LORD would welcome back His lost sons and daughters. What they had severed, He would reunite. What they had renounced, He would restore.

So it is now for the LORD’s household, the Church. Those who have been brought to faith in the Son of God’s death and resurrection for salvation, who have been made disciples by baptism and teaching, who have been born from above—these are the members of the LORD’s household. These are the ones with whom the LORD has made His Covenant. That is your identity.

But the renunciation of this, the rejection of this, is the way to death. And the Church has seen people take that path. During that sojourn away from the family, clan, and nation, during that “journey into a far country,” such a person is dead. They have cut themselves off from what gives life. It shouldn’t be couched in other terms, such as being a lapsed Christian means maintaining the status of being a member of the household. No, the father’s declaration of his younger son in the parable stands true: “This my son was dead…. He was lost….”

That is the warning that this parable gives for you who are the LORD’s children. Wandering away leads to nothing good. Even if a person is brought back to the faith and welcomed back by the LORD, that “journey into a far country” is nothing to brag about. No, the only boasting to be made is in the graciousness of the Father who is willing to restore any of His lost children—to place the best robe of Jesus’ righteousness back on their shoulders, to place His household’s signet ring on their fingers, to put the readiness of the gospel of peace back on their feet so they can again walk in the way of life. All this is done because of the compassion and mercy shown by the LORD who sent His Son Jesus into the world to redeem it. And that truth about the LORD’s character is once again revealed.

But the parable teaches another lesson. For the primary audience is not really those who have wandered and come back. Yes, they overhear the story, just as the tax collectors and the sinners heard Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes. But the Pharisees and scribes are the main audience. That is why the parable moves away from the younger son to the interaction that the father has with the older son. And the dialogue he has with the older son is the same talk that Jesus has with the Church.

For many—if not most—in the Church, there hasn’t been a wandering away from the household. There hasn’t been a renouncing of the LORD’s way of life. There hasn’t been a rejection of the identity of being a Christian, a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Has there been perfection? No. Has there been sin? Most definitely. But it isn’t an outright tossing everything away and living as a member of a completely different family. That is a good thing! It is a blessing of divine care. It is part of being kept in the one true faith that the Holy Spirit does for Jesus’ disciples. That rightly describes many of you gathered here.

But there is a temptation to act as the older son did when others are restored to the faith and reestablished as a member of the household. The objection is raised: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never give me a young goat, the I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” There can be envy or jealousy, particularly when re-conversion stories breed the strange, misguided phenomenon of celebrity rebel Christians. There can be the desire to usurp the role of the father by imposing a punishment or discipline that the LORD Himself does not. There can be a selfishness concerned that welcoming others back into the household will mean a loss of status or power or place within the congregation or the Church-at-large. And there can be the outright rejection of the person whose sonship has been restored.

To those ways of thinking, the Father in heaven says to His older sons: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” And to the older sons, the Father gives His reminder and promise: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” There is no loss in having the wayward return. There is no loss in having the household restored to its complete number. There is no loss in having the dead brought to life again. It is all gain. That is what Jesus wants His disciples to know. It is the corrective He gives to anyone who may harbor such thoughts as the older son did.

Bit Jesus’ parable also gives a lesson that applies equally to the younger and older sons, to both the scribes and Pharisees as well as the tax collectors and sinners. For all of them, their place in the household is a matter of divine graciousness and mercy. For all of them, their position in the family is the result of the Father’s work. No one has a claim to sonship of their own accord; sonship is given through the Father’s will.

For all members in the Church, the place that anyone has is due solely to the generosity that the LORD has shown through the act of His only true Son, as the apostle declares: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them…. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Whether one has never left the household or if they had left and been welcomed back, it does not matter. Older son and younger son alike have their sonship because of their father.

So it is for each of you. Your place in the LORD’s family is due to His will being done for you. It is the result of your being made a new creation in Christ. It is the result of being brought to believe and trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection for your salvation, being made His disciples by baptism and teaching, and being born from above. Do not forsake that identity or wander from that way of life. Receive back all your siblings who have returned. Rejoice that your Father is glad to have His household both grow and be restored to its rightful number. For it will be fitting for you to join in the celebration of life that He offers and invites you to attend, not just today but for eternity.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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