Don’t You Love a Good Ending?

Fourth Sunday in Lent – Deacon Rex Watt

Isaiah 12.1-6 / 2 Corinthians 5.16-21 / Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

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

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel text for today is the third parable in a series that Jesus tells in response to the criticism he’s been receiving from, of all people, the fine, upstanding, church going crowd – the Pharisees.  He is being accused of fraternizing with “those people.”  You know, the ones not like you.  The tax collectors and sinners.  When they grumbled and said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them”  he told them a parable.

We commonly call this parable “The parable of the Prodigal Son” or the parable of the lost son.  And the younger son does live up to that title, doesn’t he!  His request for his father to divide the inheritance was tantamount to wishing that his father was dead.  Not only that, but his request put the family business at risk because now the father has less working capital with which to run the family business.  What a selfish, greedy child!  Sound like anyone you know?  As we read on in our text we see that this selfish, greedy child frittered away that precious capital on himself with reckless living until it was all gone.  He apparently didn’t spend it on anything of value because when it was all gone and a famine arose in the land, he had nothing to fall back on.  No savings, no jewelry to hawk, not even any friends anymore, for the text says, “…no one gave him anything.”   At least he had enough common sense to get a job!  But the only work he could find was feeding pigs, a humiliating job for a Jew.  No one, not even one of his newfound drinking buddies, bothered to help him out.

Then Jesus tells us that the young man woke up.  He came to his senses.  The light bulb went on.  “If dad would take me back, even as a slave, my life would be better than this,” he reasons.  So, he packs his meager belongings, and on the way home he rehearses his apology.  “Dad, I messed up.  I’m not worthy to be called your son, but if you could find it in your heart, would you give me a job as one of your hired hands?”  While he is rehearsing this speech to his father and approaching his home, Jesus tells us, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion.”  Dad runs out to greet him as though he were the dignitary!  Dad throws a filet mignon on the grill, arranges a welcome-home banquet complete with a DJ, and in front of everyone, puts a ring on the kid’s finger, a pair of Santoni shoes on his feet, and a Giorgio Armani suit on his shoulders.  Whaaat, you say?  “This isn’t fair!” you protest.  But who said God is fair?

The story now turns and introduces probably the most neglected character in the parable, the older son.  The older son comes in from working in the fields, hears all the music and joyful celebration, and asks one of the servants what’s going on?  The servant tells him about his brother’s return and his father’s joy that he has come back home safe and sound.  This older son is not pleased and says to his father, “Why, I’ve slaved for you all these years and never disobeyed you.  I never gave you any grief, yet you never threw me so much as a pizza party!  This self-centered, disrespectful, maverick son of yours returns and you pull out all the stops for him.  Do you really think that I’m going to join in and celebrate his return as if he were some sort of hero?”  This older son, like the Pharisees, thinks that he’s justified in looking down on those “other people”, you know, those who aren’t like him, even if it is his own brother.

I suggest to you that this section may be the main point of this parable.  Recall that Jesus is telling three parables in answer to the Pharisee’s charge, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  All three parables talk about someone, or something, that was lost and gets found.  All three parables talk about the celebration and rejoicing over the sinner who repents.  Yet this parable has one more character.  An older son who thinks he’s one of the 99; an older son, who, like the Pharisees thinks that he’s been the faithful, obedient child and that if anyone should get a party thrown if their favor, it should be he!  Why all this inordinate celebration over “those people?”

Let’s look closely at this older son’s reasoning.  “Look, these many years I have served you…”  Served?  Really?  Then why do you use the word “slaved?”  This older son literally thinks that he is in a “slave/master” relationship with his father.  That what he does for his father is as a slave working for his master.  Ironically, this older son is placing himself in the very relationship that his younger brother sought, because he (the younger boy), having wasted the gifts given to him by his father thought that that was all that he was worthy of.  But what does his father call him?  “Son!”  He was not a slave – but a son.  Any work he does on the property, he does on property that he will inherit.  It’s all his!

“And I have never disobeyed…”  Really?  Like you’re not being disobedient right now as we speak by refusing to join in with the family celebration?  “You never gave me a young goat…to celebrate with my friends.”   This older son would prefer to celebrate, not with family, but with his friends.  Is this an indicator that this older son’s primary affections may not really lie with his father after all, but with his friends?  It gets pretty telling in his next statement, “But when this son of yours…!”   Wow!  He won’t even acknowledge his brother!  John Wesley comments on the significance of the possessive pronouns in this story by writing:  A thousand of these delicate touches in the inspired writings escape an inattentive reader.  The elder son had unkindly and indecently said: This thy son.  The father in his reply mildly reproves him, and tenderly says, This thy brother.  Amazing intimation, that the best of men ought to account the worst sinners their brethren still. (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, pg. 184)

The father then turns to his older child and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Could there be any more comforting words?

We are not told how this story ends for the older son.  We don’t know whether he accepted his fathers pleading to join the celebration of his little brother’s return, or not.  So, you might ask, “Rex, how come you titled this sermon ‘Don’t You Love a Good Ending?’ when we don’t know how it ends?”  It is because dear Saints of Redeemer, you do know how it ends!  You know that God welcomed you back into His good grace, even when you were alienated and far from Him.  How He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live the life you cannot live and to die the death that you deserved.  How Jesus took all your sins upon Himself in His baptism and nailed them to the cross in His crucifixion.  How He was raised from the dead for your justification and ascended into the heavens to sit down at the right hand of God.  When you became His child in your baptisms, your heavenly Father brought you into His family, called you Son/Daughter, declared that all that He has is yours, and that He would never, ever leave you.  Since God has done all this for us, how dare we ever begrudge it when God’s grace is extended to others, no matter how unworthy they appear to us.  After all, we are all beggars.

“’Come unto Me, ye wand’rers, And I will give you light.’  O loving voice of Jesus, Which comes to cheer the night!  Our hearts were filled with sadness, And we had lost our way; But Thou has brought us gladness, And songs at break of day,”  (LSB 684:2)

“O Christ, our true and only light, Enlighten those who sit in night; Let those afar now hear Your voice, And in Your fold with us rejoice.”  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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