A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. Luke 15:11-32
by William Klock
With the possible exception of the parable of the Good Samaritan, our Gospel lesson this morning, the parable of the Prodigal Son, is probably the best known of all the stories that Jesus told during the time he was teaching and preaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus told these parables—these made-up stories—to illustrate the teaching he gave about the kingdom. In this case, St. Luke tells us in chapter 15, verses 1-3:
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.”
Horror of horrors! An upright rabbi, a teacher of the law, and he lowered himself to let tax collectors and sinners gather around. Really…what was Jesus thinking? sitting there in the town centre and teaching the holy things of God to those low-life tax collectors and prostitutes and heathens?!?
Jesus didn’t respond directly to the Pharisees. Luke says that Jesus, there with all these sinners gathered around and hearing the scorn of the Pharisees (and probably seeing them standing at a distance and pointing their self-righteous fingers at him), told the crowd a story. Now Jesus didn’t start with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Today’s lesson is actually part of a trio of parables. We read the other two a few weeks ago on the Third Sunday after Trinity. He starts with the parable of the Lost Sheep. He told a story about a shepherd having one hundred sheep. One of the sheep turned up missing, so the man went and tracked it down. Jesus says that when he found that lost sheep he rejoiced and invited his friends to gather around and celebrate with him. I can picture Jesus wrapping up the story—telling it to the tax collectors and sinners, but raising his voice a bit louder and casting a quick glance back to the Pharisees. He says:
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
Jesus encourages the sinners—and these were sinners who knew that they were sinners and who know that they were out of fellowship with God—Jesus encourages them: You’re like the lost sheep. You’re only as far away from God as your own willingness to repent of your sins. Don’t let the Pharisees tell you that your sins are too evil to forgive.
And yet I imagine the Pharisees were still standing there, looking smug and rolling their eyes at Jesus. And so Jesus goes on. He tells the people a story about a poor old woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. She lit a lamp and searched the house. When she didn’t find it, she moved the furniture and swept the floor until it turned up. And, or course, when she found it she ran next door to her friend and shouted to her, “Oh! I didn’t know what I was going to do. I lost my money. I thought I’d have to really tighten my belt this month, but then I turned the house upside down and I found it and I’m so excited!” And again, Jesus looked at the crowd and told them, “That woman’s joy is like the joy of the angels in heaven when even one sinner repents.”
Remember that these people were outside the religious system of Israel. They collaborated with or had contact with foreigners or they engaged in sinful activities that left them ceremonially unclean. Some of them wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the temple precincts even if they had wanted to. These were people who had been taught that God had no interest in them unless it was to punish them. The idea that they could repent and be welcomed by God was crazy as far as they were concerned. That’s why they were so attracted to Jesus. For the first time in their lives, here was a rabbi who as willing to talk to them and who told them that they could come back to God’s fellowship—even that God wanted them to be restored to his fellowship. They’d never heard that before from their religious leaders.
And so Jesus tells them a third parable: “Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons. The younger one (I’ll come back to the older on in a few minutes) was tired of living under his father’s roof, having to obey all his rules, having to work on his farm. His father was a rich man and the boy knew that one day he’d have a big inheritance coming to him. He wanted that inheritance now. He wanted to get out and be on his own and see the world, so he went to his father and said, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’
“Maybe the boy’s father was naïve, maybe he was foolish, maybe he was doting…maybe he knew that his son was about to learn a valuable lesson…we don’t know what was going through his mind, but he decided to give this young man his inheritance early. He divided up what he had and gave half to the boy. And a few days later this young man left home to put his money to work. But he didn’t use it to buy his own farm. He didn’t invest it in the market. He made a bee line out of town, went to a far city in a far country—as far from his father as he could get—and he squandered ever last cent on reckless living.”
The word that Luke uses isn’t common in the Bible, but it has a twofold meaning—it means to live carelessly, not thinking about tomorrow, but in the Greek translation of Proverbs, it’s also used to describe gluttonous living in contrast to those who live their lives according to God’s law. So here we have this young man with everything going for him. He has an obviously loving father. He has a big inheritance coming to him. But he chooses to cash it in today and squander it. But what Jesus describes is worse than what it might look like at face value. The boy high-tailed it to a far country. That’s not what Jews did. Jews didn’t leave the land that God had promised them unless there was some really good reason to do so. This boy not only blew off his father, but in running away to a foreign land—a pagan land—he blew off the covenant that God had established with his people and also with him personally. He ran as far as he could so that he could live it up, party, and engage in sin without his father and his family and friends knowing about it. So it wasn’t just that he turned his back on his earthly father; he turned his back on his heavenly father as well.
And brothers and sisters, that’s what we do every time we sin. That’s why the best description of sin I’ve ever heard is to call it “cosmic treason”. God is our loving Creator and Sustainer. He didn’t have to create us. He was fine as he was, but he wanted to show his love to us. And so he created us and he gave us everything we could ever want or need in the Garden. When it came to rules, God only gave Adam and Even one. They could do anything they wanted as long as they didn’t eat from one particular tree. And yet they believed the serpent’s lie. Despite the fact that God had provided everything they could possible need or want, they chose to think that in giving that one command God was holding out on them and they rebelled. They chose to believe that God didn’t care and didn’t really love them and that he was really there to take advantage of them or to taunt them with that one tree. Can you see the similarity between us sinners and the young man in the parable? He had a loving and generous father, but instead of seeing the love and generosity, he took his father for granted, he rejected his father’s loving rules, and he rejected his father’s loving provision and ran away. He thought his father was holding out on what were really the good things in life and so he turned his back and ran from his father.
It didn’t take long for him to realise his mistake. Jesus goes on, “The boy spent everything he had and then to make matters worse, that far country faced a severe famine. At first he got by mooching off his friends, but pretty soon everyone was facing hard times. He had nothing left, nowhere to sleep, and nothing to eat. He was so desperate that he took a job feeding pigs. Even then he was still so starving that the slop he was feeding the pigs actually started to look and smell appealing to him.”
Even the “tax collectors and sinners” at this point were gasping and thinking “Oh gross!” Pigs were unclean and pig food was even more so—everyone knew that regardless of whether or not you were a tax collector or a Pharisee. There were few worse things this kid could have done. He might as well have taken a job scrubbing out Satan’s toilets.
That’s when, Jesus says, this young man came to his senses. We all do stupid things. We’re tempted to sin by the glamour and the glitz and by the promise that it’s going to be fun, but when your sins run their course and you end up cleaning hell’s bathroom and realise that sin has made you its slave, sometimes you realise your mistake. No doubt this hit home for some of these tax collectors and sinners. Some of them had a regular and real reminder that they were outside God’s fellowship—some of them legally couldn’t even enter the temple grounds; others might have been shooed out by the self-righteous Pharisees.
The young man realised what he had done. He knew his father was loving, but he also knew that he had rejected his father and that his father had no obligation to sake him back or to forgive him. He thought, “Maybe if I go back and confess my sins, if I admit that I’m not worthy to be his son, if I ask simply to be one of his hired farm hands he’ll take me back. At least I’d have a roof over my head and food in my belly.” So he got up and made the long journey back to his father’s house.
I gather that those “reprobates” listening to Jesus knew by now that he was talking about them. And they were thinking, “No way that dad’s going to take back his son.” Maybe some of them had left their own fathers and mothers long ago and were never allowed to go back home because of their sins. And so they would have been surprised by Jesus’ twist in the story, because now he says, “The son was still a long way off from his home, but his father had never stopped looking down the road for him. As the son came down the road, his father saw him, had compassion on him, and ran down the road to meet him. And when they met the son was afraid. His father hugged and kissed him, but still the son was certain that he’d blown it. He had rehearsed his lines all the way home and he said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” And the father stood there looking at him as his son confessed his sins and finally shut him up by interrupting him and calling for his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And,” Jesus said, “they began to celebrate.”
And the tax collectors and sinners looked at Jesus and thought, “No way! You mean that if I turned form my sins God would take me back? That’s not what these religious leaders and the guardians of the temple seem to think! I’ve been so bad that I can’t even go back to my own parents, let alone God!” But that’s the point Jesus wanted to make to them. Just as the shepherd rejoiced over the lost sheep that was found; just as the old woman rejoiced over the lost coin that was found; and just as the father rejoiced over the repentance and return of his no-good, ingrate son who ran away from home and squandered half his fortune, so God rejoices over repentant sinners. In fact, Jesus’ point is that God wants sinners to repent and come back to him and that no sin is too big that God can’t forgive it. God never grudgingly takes back a sinner: “Oh, not that guy! Well, he says he trusts in my Son, Jesus, so I guess I’ll have to take him back.” No, God sent Jesus to die because he wants sinners to be restored to his fellowship.
I like the way Charles Simeon puts it: “God longs for their salvation even while they are at a distance from him. He notices with joy the first approaches of their souls towards him. Instead of frowning on the prodigal, he receives him with joy. Instead of upbraiding him with his folly, he seals upon his soul a sense of pardon. He arrays him in robes of righteousness and garments of salvation. He adorns him in a manner suited to the relation into which he is brought. He provides for his future comfortable and upright conversation. He rejoices over him as recovered from the dead, and makes it an occasion of festivity to all the angels in heaven. Thus do even the vilest sinners find their hopes, not only realized, but far exceeded. They come for pardon, and obtain joy; for deliverance from hell, and get a title to heaven. Their utmost ambition is to be regarded as the meanest of God's servants; and they are exalted to all the honours and happiness of his beloved children.”
And yet Jesus doesn’t end the parable with the return home of the prodigal and his acceptance by his father. He goes on. Remember that there were two brothers in this family. He’d been telling these stories to the tax collectors and sinners. I imagine that at this point he now looked up to the Pharisees standing at the back of the crowd—keeping clear of all the sinners. He goes on, “The man’s older son had been working hard in the field all day long. At sunset he wrapped up his work, dutifully put the livestock back in the barn and put away the tools he’d been using that day and then headed back to the house. And as he got close to the house he was surprised to hear music and see people dancing. So he called one of the servants over and asked him, “What’s going on? What am I missing?” And the servant said, “Your brother has come home! And you know that calf your father was fattening up for some special occasion, well he slaughtered it and threw a big party for everyone to celebrate your brother’s homecoming.’
“Instead of running in to celebrate, the older brother became angry and sulked outside. Finally the father, realising what time it was and thinking that his older son should have come in from the fields by now, went out looking for him. He found him sulking outside and told him the good news. The older brother just got angrier the more his father went on about how good it was to have his brother back home. Finally, the older brother said, ‘Look, Father, I’ve served you faithfully all these years that my brother has been off who-knows-where squandering your money. I’ve never disobeyed your rules. I’ve always been a good son. And yet never once have you given me so much as a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But now this ‘son’ of yours comes home having devoured your good property on prostitutes and you kill the fatted calf for him!?!’”
Just like the Pharisees, the older brother somehow missed the grace of God. He couldn’t believe that his father would take back his little brother because he was convinced that his father’s acceptance was based on his good works. He saw the graciousness of his father in the party celebrating his brother and he got confused and angry. “No, Father, you can’t let him back into this house! Look what he’s done. He blew half of your money and came back in rags and smelling like pigs! Who know how many illegitimate children he fathered off in far-far-away. Who knows what diseases he picked up! Father, the dirtbag rejected you and rejected God and our whole way of life! Don’t embrace him. Tell that loser he can go straight to hell!”
And we think, “Wow, what a self-righteous jerk!” But brothers and sisters, how often do we do the same thing? How often do we see someone in obvious need of hearing the Gospel—of hearing of the love of God toward sinners and the offering of Jesus on the cross for the sake of sinners—and we think that somehow that person isn’t worthy of hearing about the goodness of God? How often do we simply judge them and move on? Maybe their sins have been against us personally and the real problem is that we can’t bring ourselves to forgive them and so we think, “If I can’t forgive them, how can God?” When I talk with other pastors I occasionally hear them talk about people in their churches who have asked things like, “What do we do if someone who’s gay comes in? What do we do if a transsexual person comes to the church? What do we do if a drug user shows up on Sunday or an unwed pregnant girl?” I’m glad no one here as ever asked me a question like that, because we should all know the answer: We invite them to join us—fellow sinners—to learn about and celebrate the amazing grace of our God. If the Church isn’t a place for sinners, then we’d all better get out.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Brothers and sisters, we—every one of us—is that prodigal son. We’ve all at some point rejected God and it is only as we’ve come to him humbly, repenting of our sins, and trusting in the grace of God poured out at the cross that we are no longer accounted sinners. None of us has any claim to righteousness on our own—it all comes from Jesus. There was a time when each of us repented and God threw a party in heaven with the angels over that repentance. If we remember that, we’ll never be like the Pharisees, we’ll never be self-righteous, we’ll never ask stupid questions like “What do we do if so-and-so were to walk into the church on Sunday morning?” because we all know that all of us are in the same predicament, all of his need the same Saviour, and that if God throws a bigger party in heaven for some people than he does for others, it’s only because they were worse sinners and had more to repent of.
Jesus ends the story with the father’s gentle correction of his self-righteous son. “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.”
Friends, we need to take those words to heart and let them shape our faith and how we come to God. Let’s not be like the older brother who thought that his father accepted him because he had earned it. We need to remember that our Father accepts us only on the merits of Jesus Christ and his righteousness. Self-righteousness is a dangerous thing. It leads us into a host of other sins: pride, envy, discontent—all things we see in the older brother. It makes us think higher of ourselves than we ought to and that always makes us look down on others. It’s also important to remember that you can’t have a self-righteous attitude and still accept the Gospel message that Jesus is our righteousness. Those two things are mutually exclusive. There’s a very real sense in which self-righteousness is the unforgivable sin. The only thing God cannot forgive through the blood of Jesus is a lack of faith in the blood of Jesus; self-righteousness is at it’s heart a rejection of the idea that we need a mediator—that we need the perfect righteousness of Christ—in order to come to God. We need to take time to reflect on Jesus’ parable and ask: Am I more like the self-righteous older brother or the humble and penitent younger brother? Instead of trying to justify ourselves before God like the older brother did, let us thankfully accept God’s mercy.
God throws a celebration—a feast—here at his table very Sunday for us. It’s a foretaste of that great banquet that waits for all of his redeemed on the other side of eternity. The two brothers remind us of the two approaches we can take to God’s banquet. Sometimes people ask why the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is so penitent. Friends, it’s because we can only come to the Lord’s Table as the younger son came home to his Father. “Lord, we are sinners. We do not presume to come to your table…trusting our own righteousness…we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs form under your table.” And yet we come in a confident penitence, knowing that he is our “merciful Lord” and knowing that he is “the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.” In contrast remember the older son who sulked outside the house. It wasn’t that he wasn’t invited. He excluded himself because he wasn’t willing to give up his self-righteousness and because of that he missed the good things his father had to offer.
Penitence can be a hard thing in this life. We’re prideful by nature and it’s not easy to set that pride aside and humbly admit our sins, but when we consider the eternal consequences, think of those two brothers. Do you want to spend eternity enjoying the Father’s banquet or do you want to spend it excluded from his presence? To quote Simeon again: “Let us then, if we determine (as we must) in favour of the Prodigal, go instantly, and prostrate ourselves before our offended God.” Brothers and sisters, if we do we have full assurance of his pardon and right here at his Table we have the down payment of the life that awaits us in glory.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in the collect earlier we acknowledged that we can do nothing that is good without you; remind us of that fact each day. Remind us that we are great sinners who have come humbly and penitently to an even greater Saviour. Let us never be self-righteous, but remind us always to live in your grace that we might one day come to your everlasting kingdom, through our only advocate and mediator, Jesus Christ. Amen.