The Prodigal God
4th Sunday in Lent
The Prodigal God
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
I don’t know how many times I heard the story growing up. Between church, Sunday School, and my Lutheran elementary school it had to be dozens and dozens of times. But over all those years, I never understood the title given to it. Over time this story became known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I always assumed that prodigal meant lost. After all, its the last of three parables in a row about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and here the lost son.
But prodigal doesn’t mean lost or runaway or wayward. The word prodigal, which was given to this parable later on in time, means extravagant, reckless, liberal.
It surely fits the younger son. He was prodigal in every sense of the word. The story begins with the son approaching his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” That was certainly an extravagant, reckless, and liberal request. In those days the male children would receive their inheritance from their father, and the first son would always receive a double portion. In this case, the older son would receive two-thirds and this younger son one-third.
But this was something only distributed upon death. The inheritance was never given in advance. Thus, this request didn’t mean daddy would get out his checkbook and write a big fat one. This younger son was asking his father to divide up up his land and possessions and sell one third off in order to give him his money. To ask for the inheritance in advance was to act like a modern day American—rude, arrogant, entitled, selfish. It was as if the son was saying, “I don’t care about you father, I just care about your money.” This truly was extravagant, reckless, and liberal behavior.
From there it only got worse. The son didn’t invest it. He didn’t use it as seed money for an entrepreneurial endeavor. He didn’t buy a fixer-upper investment. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” The word wild is the word that means prodigal or wasteful. We might imagine the young son living like a rockstar or celebrity. He shopped on Rodeo drive. He bought a Ferrari. He ate only at five star kosher corned beef restaurants. He had girls and booze and drugs and everything that else that might come with extravagant, reckless, and liberally wild behavior.
But as many a lottery winner or celebrity have found out, eventually the money runs out. It did for this young man. Then, not only was everything gone, but there also was a famine in the land. With nothing left to his name, he was reduced to begging. And it got ugly. “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” Remember how terribly awful it would have been for a Jew to be rolling around in the mud with unclean pigs.
The muck and mire of that pig pen certainly reflected the guilt and grief in his heart. He had it made before. He was in the caring company of his father and his family. He was taken care of and loved. But he selfishly left the love of his father to go on his own. His father even provided riches for him and he had a chance to live it up. But the good gifts of his father were wasted and squandered too. He had it all before, but now he had nothing. Even the pigs had more than he. This son was lost because had been extravagant, reckless, and liberal. He was lost because he was prodigal.
Finally he came to his senses and realized how great his sin had been. There was only one hope he had left. Maybe, just maybe, he could return to his father and beg for mercy. Maybe, just maybe, his father would at least give him shelter and food and treat him like a slave. Anything was better than this torturous suffering! This was such a big deal he even practiced and rehearsed what he would do and say. Verse 18: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’” So finally he got up and went to his father.
Now how would any normal father react to this son returning? “You wasted it? It’s gone? You’re going to work and pay back every last red cent! How could you do this? What were you thinking?” Maybe some would even say, “Get out of here! You’re dead to me!”
But not this father. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” The father loved him so much. It would appear that he was in the regular habit of looking and watching for him. One day he finally saw him a long way off. In a patriarchal society an older and respected man would never run. But not this father. He was filled with compassion and ran out to him and greeted him with a loving hug and kiss.
Then the son made his plea, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Now is the time most fathers would snap back to their senses. Anger. Outrage. Frustration. But not this father. His love went to another level. The father said to his servants, “‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” The father loved him so much. He had the best robe brought to him, which was probably the father’s own robe. He had a ring put on his finger to designate his value and prominence. An expensive meal was prepared with a fattened calf which would have been prepared only for major feasts. But this was an occasion for such a feast and celebration. That son of his was dead but now alive. He was lost but now found! That father was so joyful that he was extravagant, reckless, and liberal with his love. The son was prodigal with his sin, but the father was even more prodigal with his forgiving love.
It’s a touching story—especially because you know Jesus is talking about you. How prodigal we have been in our lives! Extravagant, reckless, liberal certainly describes my sin. Like that younger son my attitude toward God is sometimes downright rude, arrogant, entitled, and selfish. Oh the things I demand from God, expecting him to do and to give outlandish things! It’s almost as if I say, “I don’t really care about you, heavenly father, I just care about what you do for me.”
But it only gets worse. Sometimes I think I can live a rockstar or celebrity life. Perhaps I’ve never spent a fortune on Rodeo Drive and fast cars. But I certainly act like I’m the center of the universe. I spend money like it’s going out of style. I brag and boast about my own accomplishments, and certainly that of my children. I argue about politics like I’m always right. I indulge in whatever words or actions I like or want. Before I know it I’m stuck in the muck and mire of sin, rolling around with immoral pigs, and more or less spiritually bankrupt. Whether it was how you acted when you were younger, or the way you used to live your life, or even something you did yesterday, you know exactly how prodigal you have been.
At some point in your life you hit rock bottom. You came to your senses and realized how great your sin had been. Even perhaps after what you had done this last week you have come to your senses. Maybe, just maybe, you could turn to your God and beg for mercy. So you plead, “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven. I am no longer worthy to be called your child.”
But what amazing grace! Before the words even come out of your mouth your heavenly Father runs out to meet you! He throws his arms around you and embraces you. He calls for the very best robe—the robe of righteousness of his Son Jesus Christ—and he drapes you in that clean robe. He puts a royal ring on your finger and a crown of victory on your head. You may have done unthinkable things, you may be the worst sinner in the world, but now you are dressed like the greatest saint because you are clothed with the life and death of Christ. And the Father throws you a feast, an eternal feast called the marriage feast of heaven, because there is much rejoicing. For you were dead, but you were made alive with Jesus. You were lost, but now you are found by his grace. You may have been extravagant, reckless, and liberal in your sin in your life, but here is the amazing point of the story—our God is even more prodigal with his forgiving love.
But the story doesn’t end there. There’s another son to consider—the older brother. The older brother had been out in the field. When he came near the house he heard quite the hubbub with all the music and dancing and asked what was going on. When a servant told him that his brother was back safe and sound and that his father was celebrating, here’s what happened (Verse 28): “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answers his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a younger goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
The younger son was certainly prodigal in his wild and reckless sin. The older brother mentions some of that sin. But you could also say that the older brother was prodigal too. He was extravagant, reckless, and liberal with his jealousy, his ego, and his selfishness. There was no care for his brother. He didn’t even call him his brother (“This son of yours,” he said.). He didn’t care about his father’s mercy and forgiveness. Where was his party? Where was his reward? Where was his recognition? Like a two-year-old in a temper tantrum, he was stamping his feet and shouting, “That’s not fair!” Prodigal selfishness!
The father tried to reason with him in love. “‘My son’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” The father was rejoicing because his son was saved, so he threw him a party. Why should the older brother be jealous? He already had his father’s love. He already had everything that belonged to his father coming to him (remember the other share was already wasted by his brother). He had everything he could ever need and want. How was that not good enough? The answer is easy. His own sinful pride got in the way!
Now here’s the big question. Let’s see how carefully you were listening today! Which brother is this story really about? Look at the first two verses again for the context: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear [Jesus]. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with him.’”
You see, Jesus had been crowded by all kinds of younger brother-types. Every kind of sinner imaginable was flocking to Jesus to hear of this great love and forgiveness he had to offer. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law were acting like the older brother. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would love such “sinners.” Jesus told this parable about the prodigal son and the father’s love so the “sinners” could understand God’s mercy. But Jesus told this parable about the older brother so the Pharisees and teachers could understand their sinful selfishness.
Do you ever find yourself acting like that older brother? How annoying are all those noisy kids in church—how come they don’t know how to act and behave like you did when you were a kid, how come those parents aren’t as good at parenting as you? How about what that person did? Can you believe it? How can he/she show their face in this church after doing that? You would never do that. How come those people never show up for anything at church? How could they come so irregularly to worship? How could they give so little? How could God love them as much as he loves you when you have it all figured out? Why do those visitors and new people get all of Pastor’s attention? Doesn’t he know how much I do around here? How come I don’t get any recognition for what I do? How come God doesn’t make my life easier? Shouldn’t I get something for all the time, effort, and money I’ve dedicated to the Lord?
Our heavenly Father tries to reason with us in love when we act like this. Don’t we know we already have our Father’s love? Don’t we know that his heavenly kingdom already belongs to us? Don’t we know how happy he is that someone who was lost has now been found—just like heaven rejoiced when we were lost and then found? This too is extravagant, reckless, and liberal behavior on our part. It’s sinfully prodigal pride.
You see that’s the beauty of this parable. Everyone can relate to either the younger brother or the older brother. Most of us can relate to both. We all at some point in our lives were completely lost and prodigal in our sinfulness. But we were found by God and his grace. Now that we are part of God’s family, it’s easy to be lost in prodigal pride and selfishness, thinking we are better than others.
So whether Jesus touches your heart with the younger brother who makes you feel guilty, or whether Jesus touches your heart with the older brother who makes you feel guilty—the point is that we turn from our sin to the father in the story. He’s the real hero of the story, if you will. He was compassionate, merciful, and forgiving to the child who had strayed. He was persistent and reassuring of his love to the child who struggled with pride.
What a kind and merciful God we have. When we sin we find mercy and forgiveness. When we stray we find love. When we were dead he made us alive and when we were lost he went out to find us. Our God is is extravagant, reckless, and liberal in his loving forgiveness. What joy, what peace, what comfort to know that we have a Prodigal God!
Posted on March 8, 2016, in Church, Sermons and tagged Church, Extravagant, Liberal, Lost Son, Luke, Luke 15, Parable, Prodigal, Prodigal God, Prodigal Son, Reckless, Sermons. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.