June 28, 2009

The Unbelievable Parable of the Prodigal Son - Jun 28, 2009

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has
made us kings and priests to God and His Father, to Him be glory and
dominion forever and ever, Amen. The word of God for this Sunday comes
from the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, beginning in verse eleven. The
congregation may be seated.

Then He said: "A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said
to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he
divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son
gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his
possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a
severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then he went and
joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to
feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that
the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.17 "But when he came to himself,
he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to
spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say
to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no
longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants."'
20 "And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off,
his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in
your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 "But the father
said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here and kill it,
and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he
was lost and is found.' So far the holy Word.

In Christ Jesus, in whose name we find forgiveness, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

They say that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. This week I watched an
interview Dr. Beck Weathers, who was one of the people who survived a
disastrous expedition to the top Mount Everest in 1996. Eight people died on
the trip, and the really incredible thing is that he didn't die too. A sudden and
terrible storm had struck while they were descending the mountain. The
temperature was 20 below zero, with 60 mile per hour winds. Dr. Weathers
became hypothermic and snow-blind. Unable to find their way back to the tents
in the storm, he and several others spent most of the night out in the open,
exposed to the storm's fierceness. When a guide finally ventured out to rescue
the group, they left Beck Weathers for dead. He wasn't moving, he had no
pulse, and his cheek was frozen to the ground. But he wasn't dead. Somehow he
survived the night, and the next day - incredibly - he was able to get up and
stagger into the camp under his own power. With the storm still raging, they put
him in a sleeping bag inside a tent and gave him some hot tea. But that night
the winds got even worse, and his tent was torn to shreds around him, so he
spent another night exposed to the wind and cold. In the morning his
companions discovered his seemingly-lifeless body and once again abandoned
him as they moved off down the mountain. Minutes later they were amazed to
hear his feeble cries and see him stumbling after them in the snow. Once again,
he had survived. His nose, both hands and parts of his feet would eventually
have to be amputated because of frostbite. But he had survived. Beck Weathers
was a man who seemed to have -- twice -- come back from the dead. In the TV
interview he laughingly remarked that his story would never have sold if it were
a work of fiction, because no one would ever believe it.

Some stories are simply unbelievable. It seems incredible that things like that
could actually happen in the real world. Our text for today is one of those kind
of stories. It's the story of someone who was dead and came back to life. It's a
parable Jesus told to illustrate the unbelievable depth of man's sin, and the
unbelievable heights of God's mercy. And even though Jesus made it up, even
though it seems impossible, this is a true story - and you and I are the main
characters! Our theme today is:


I. Could there ever be a "son" this bad?
II. Could there ever be a "father" this good?

The reason this parable seems unbelievable is not because it's complicated. It's
not complicated. It's simple. A simple story for the plain people Jesus was
talking to. As you know, Jesus didn't take His message primarily to the high and
mighty, the royal families and religious leaders. He preached first of all to the
poor and lowly, the despised tax collectors and the people the Pharisees lumped
together under the contemptuous term "sinners." And right there was one of the
problems Jesus was trying to address with this parable: people who thought they
were righteous enough the way they were. People like the Pharisees, who
wouldn't admit that they, too, were sinful and needed forgiveness. To them
Jesus said, with divine sarcasm, "Those who are well have no need of a
physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but
sinners, to repentance." -- Mark 2:17.

So He tells this parable, this unbelievable story. The reason it's so unbelievable
is that the characters in it are so extreme. Take the son, for instance. Could
there ever be a "son" this bad?

We all know how young people can be. We're all familiar with families where
sons or daughters have "gone bad," or have done something that has brought
shame to the family. But this kid in the parable - he's the bottom of the barrel.
He's the worst. He decides he's had enough of farm life. He wants his
independence. He wants to see the world and have some "fun." So he comes to
his father with an outrageous demand: "Give me my half of the farm. I'd inherit
it eventually anyway, but I want it right now!" Incredibly, the father agrees. He
liquidates half of his living, and turns it over to his son. As soon as he's able to
turn the property into cash, the young man leaves. He heads out for parts
unknown, with a smile on his face. Now you tell me, what could be worse than

Well, even worse than that is the way he spent his money. Our text says, Not
many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far
country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. The Greek text
reveals that he scattered his money, like a handful of dust, to the four winds.
He made lots of "friends," he threw parties, he got drunk, he paid for the
company of women. One by one he broke every commandment there was, and
then he went back to the beginning and started over again. "Whoever loves
wisdom makes his father rejoice," says Solomon, "but a companion of harlots
wastes his wealth." -- Prov 29:3. Well, he was...and he did. Before long, the
money ran through his fingers, as it always does, and he found himself flat
broke. Even though he got a miserable job feeding pigs, still he was starving to
death. He'd have gladly filled up on the husks the pigs were eating, but nobody
would even give him that.

Could there ever be a son this bad? Oh, yes. This story is perfectly true, as far
as that goes! In fact, it describes you and me right down to the ground. By
nature, you were just as lost as that young man. Before the Holy Spirit put faith
in your heart, you were just as blind, just as perverse and wicked as him. Even
now, as Christians, we still have that sinful nature dogging us. It tempts us to
rebel against God at every step. We still feel the pull, isn't it true? -We want to
strike out on our own, be independent, leave God and church and the
commandments behind. And every day, in one way or another, we sin. I don't
have to name those sins for you; you know what they are. You're naming them
for yourself in your mind right now.

That's when the Law of God kicks in. The Bible and our own conscience tells
us that we're wretched sinners, and they're right. We are. Unbelievable as it may
seem, God's mighty Law reveals to us the fact that we're not one bit better than
the prodigal son. That's what the Law is supposed to do, as Paul says,
"Scripture has confined all under sin." -- Gal 4:22. Could there ever be a "son"
this bad? Yes. That sinful son is me. That sinful son is you.

In the parable, the young man finally figured out that this vaunted
"independence" from his father wasn't so wonderful after all. That's always the
way with sin: it seems so beautiful and alluring at first, and it turns out to be so
bitter and wretched in the end. Sitting there starving in the pig pen, he literally
"came to his senses." He decided to return to his father. He could never be a
son again - that went without saying - but maybe his father would give him a
job as a hired man. Then at least he'd have food to eat.

Now if you ask me, this is where the story becomes totally unbelievable. The
ragged, starving youth tops the last hill and looks down on the home place. His
father catches sight of him. What happens next? Well, if I were writing a
realistic ending to the story, I'd have the father charge angrily up the hill with a
pitchfork, and chase him off the place with bitter threats and curses. That's
what he deserved, after all. Maybe the father would even kill him!

But Jesus' ending to the story seems absolutely unbelievable: But when he was
still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on
his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned
against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your
son.' 22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it
on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the
fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was
dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'

We're supposed to believe that?! Not only did he forgive the young man on the
spot, he joyfully received him back! Restored his former status, not as a hired
man, but as his very own son! The father willingly gave his son back everything
he'd forfeited in his sinfulness. The sin is forgiven and forgotten, and in its place
is a celebration of joy.

Now I ask you. Could there ever be a "father" this good? And I think by now
you know the answer to that question. Yes - our Heavenly Father is exactly this
good to us! When we've turned away from Him, broken His commandments,
and struck out on our own sinful path, our Heavenly Father receives us back
not only with forgiveness, but with great joy. When we've sinned, and come to
Him in humble repentance, we don't see a stern face. We don't hear an angry
rebuke. What we hear is the gentle voice of the Lord's reassurance, "Fear not,
for I have put away your sin!" We don't have to wait a certain amount of time.
We don't have to go through any probationary period to see if we're really
sincere. For Jesus' sake we're simply forgiven, as soon as we ask.

And why? Because the punishment that our sin deserves has already been paid
by Jesus. Just like that father in the parable, our Heavenly Father had
compassion. Such great compassion, that He decided to allow Jesus to bear our
sins in His body on the cross. "God so loved the world, that He gave His only
begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have
everlasting life." --Jn 3:16. And now, rather than being lowly day-laborers, God
has given us the exalted position of members of the royal household, with all
the rights and privileges of sons. Instead of guilt and fear and doubt, God gives
us righteousness and peace and confidence through our Lord Jesus. Instead of
eternal death, we look forward with absolute certainty to a life of eternal
happiness in heaven.

We seldom use the word "prodigal" when we're not talking about this parable.
At least I don't. Do you know what it means? According to Webster the word
"prodigal" means, "lavish, extravagant, or wasteful." Someone once pointed out
that this story might better be called, "The Parable of the Prodigal FATHER."
For wasn't it the father, after all, who was most lavish and extravagant - almost
wasteful! - in the amount of love he poured out on his wretched son! And that
is exactly the way our Heavenly Father has lavished His love upon us wretched
sinners. As Paul said, Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us
alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up
together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that
in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His
kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." Eph 2:5-7.

An incredible story, I think you'll agree. Could there ever be a "son" this bad?
Could there ever be a "father" this good? Can we really sing, with the hymnist:
"Chief of sinners though I be...Jesus shed His blood for ME?" Oh, each of us
knows in his heart that the first part is true. But thanks to the life-giving work
of the Holy Spirit, we believe the second part is true as well. Unbelievable as it
seems, this is our story. Jesus did shed His blood for us. All is forgiven. Today,
as you bow before the Lord's altar and confess your many sins, your Heavenly
Father has only two words for you - WELCOME HOME! AMEN.

Paul Naumann, Pastor
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

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