What would you have said? As a parent, what would you have said?
These parents had raised two sons - two squirmy little bundles of joy, and the boys grew up so quickly. Sure, the boys had their squabbles - sometimes a wrestling match would get out of hand, and it was time for a time-out or a swat on the backside. But overall, it was a loving family. The occasional trip to the emergency room was just part of raising two adventurous, mischievous boys.
As a parent, what would you have said? By now, the boys are in their mid-20’s; the older son is hard at work clearing a field for planting. He’s happy at home, and he’s content with the family business - but not this younger son! Oo, boy. This younger son is tired of living in his brother’s shadow. He’s tired of the boring home life, and the sons have been arguing more often than not. This young man wants out.
“Father, give me my share of the estate.” In other words: “Dad, why don’t you just die already? Gimme what I’m entitled to. I want your stuff - fork it over.”
What would you have said? You love this son - he’s got his mother’s eyes and your dimples; you see the anger and frustration in those eyes, and you know the pain in your own heart. What would you have said? What would you have said? “That’s it - get out!” But not this father.
The father divided his property between them. This wasn’t just a matter of writing a cheque and handing it over. In those days, wealth was measured in and tied up in property - and this second son was slated to receive 33% of the father’s net worth. That meant calculating the value of the farmland, getting an appraisal on the house, talking with a merchant to see how much the flocks are worth at market prices; check the IRA, the pension chart, the 401(K); add the cash on hand, include the value of the rental property. Then the father would probably sell some land, auction some animals, and put the rental property on the market. The father tears his life apart, turns his life upside-down...and after a few weeks, the son has his freedom!
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country. It’s time to go live the high life! The son hops a plane for Amsterdam, thinking to himself: “I can do whatever I want! I’m free from that jerk of a brother and that fuddy-duddy of a dad.” Sure enough, this son does everything he’s ever dreamed of: smoking, sniffing, drinking, propositioning, injecting, buying, carousing, spending whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He is PRODIGAL - wastefully extravagant, spending his riches exactly as he pleases.
But back at home, the older son is still hard at work: waking up before daybreak, struggling to bring the same profit from only 2/3 of a farm. He dutifully listens to dad, grumbling under his breath at that rascal of a brother: “Here I am, working hard - and he’s having the time of his life. Good riddance.”
And each morning, when the son wakes up to work in the field - the father wakes up to watch. Each morning, the father strains his eyes at the distant roadway, straining to catch a glimpse of his lost son, straining to see a puff of dust: “Is he dead? Is he alive? How is he doing? Why doesn’t he write?”
You know the rest of the story. The younger son comes home, groveling. The younger son is ashamed for having insulted his father, ashamed of wasting his wealth, disgusted with himself for acting so foolishly. As his penance, the young man wants to work for his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men.” He doesn’t say “Make me a servant, make me a slave.” No. Servants & slaves lived on the estate; the son wants to be a hired man. He’s really saying: “Dad, teach me a craft. I’ll live in the city, away from the family. I don’t deserve to live here or be part of the family. Just let me try & pay you back for what I’ve done to you.”
But 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 runs to him, shouting: “My son! My son!” This is HUGE! This is like Benjamin Netanyahu, sprinting to welcome a guest! That NEVER happens - Benjamin Netanyahu never runs ANYWHERE! Men with power and prestige don’t usually do this sort of thing - but here is this father, running to his son! “Welcome home!” And not as a hired hand - no way! Dad doesn’t say “Whew! Start the shower, smells like pigs” - no. Dad won’t even hear about the compensation plan. He says, “Get the best robe! Cover my son’s nakedness and shame with the best clothes we’ve got!” The son is given a ring with the family crest, family seal; he’s given a coat of many colours, they butcher this calf reserved for the best of occasions.
In all this, the father says: “You’re not going to earn your way into the family. Come back to the family.”
And at that, we wipe a joyful tear from our eyes and hear the father’s words: This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Could there be any father more forgiving? Could there be any son more grateful? Besides, now this son is entitled to 1/3 of everything - again! Which means - if my math is correct - that this son would get a total of 55% of the original estate.
And that’s all that the other brother can think about. He’s grumbling and muttering out in the field: Filet mignon, lobster, prime rib, a party for the whole village - a party that cost more than a wedding reception! This brother is sweating out in the field, fuming at the feasting. The Father goes out to him: Come back to the family! This older brother can’t take it! He says, Look, you. All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders, and you never gave me even a goat! But when this son of yours comes home, after squandering your property with prostitutes - you kill the fattened calf! You throw a party! You invited the whole city! What are you doing with our wealth?! You wasted it once before, and you’re wasting it now - good money after bad!
Two sons, equally lost. One recognized how lost he was, and the father welcomed him home. One son was lost, even though he never left the farm - and the father still sought him out. And Jesus just leaves us on the edge of our seats: will the brother come in? How does it end? But it ends right there.
Two sons, equally lost. In that first son, we see a blatant picture of sin - and EVERYONE can recognize his sin: Insulting his father! Self-indulgent! Wasteful! Pigsty! These are the sort of things that the whole world looks down on. That one’s easy.
And next to him, this second son looks like a saint. But at the end of the parable, we see the truth: BOTH sons wanted the father’s stuff - and that’s it. BOTH sons only wanted what the father could give them - and neither son really cared about their dad. Each son used the father to get what they REALLY loved - the status, the wealth, the position, the pleasure. Neither son was living as a son; both thought of the father as simply a piggy bank.
But in the end, the first son repents and is welcomed back; the second son thinks there is no need to repent, and - as far as we know - he’s still slaving out in the field.
Where do we fit in this parable?
Maybe we’re son #1, clothed in rags and tatters, smelling like pigs, and begging the Lord: Just let me pay you back! Let me work off my debt! We imitate this younger son when we hear God’s words of forgiveness - and think: That’s not for me. I need to feel guilty about myself for a little bit longer yet. Forgiveness can’t really be free - at least not for me. We imitate that younger brother when we feel that we’ve got to pay for our own sin. We torture ourselves with guilt and beating ourselves up for what we have done and said.
Or are we hard at work in the field, thinking that we deserve more out of life because we are Christians? We join that older brother, missing out on the Father’s joy because this thing called grace just sounds so foolish. Why would you welcome someone, love someone who has offended you and used you?
Friends, it goes deeper than that. If we just compare one son against the other son, white hat - black hat, we’re missing the point. Both sons are lost - yet to both lost sons, the father says: COME BACK TO THE FAMILY.
Neither son was living as a son. Rather than loving their father freely and living as his children, both sons were living like consumers: What’s in it for me? How much can I get from Dad? What will Dad do for me?
This attitude of consumerism appears when:
- Christians treat their faith like any other civic obligation. Church is relegated to the same level as the Kiwanis club, the Lions club;
- Spiritual life, wellbeing, Bible study is one option among many competing activities;
- Church attendance alternates with or takes a back seat to any and every other obligation.
- Rather than coming to hear what God says and worship him for what he’s done - we come to simply get an emotional boost, and that should do for two or three weeks, until the difficulty of life drives us to our knees as we sit in a pigsty of our own making.
This attitude of consumerism is very subtle, but very dangerous. This subtle attitude has influenced most of the Christian world, and Minnesota is no exception. The focus of church is turned upside-down: instead of us gladly & thankfully worshipping the God who created us and redeemed us - people come to church as consumers, looking for God to solve MY problem today, so that I can get back to my life and God can get back to serving me in tangible, profitable ways.
It is very subtle, and it is very dangerous. The bottom line of this subtle danger is this: instead of hearing what God DEMANDS from us and what God has done FOR us, the focus is turned toward how God makes US feel, how church makes us FEEL, and what God does for MY LIFE, right here. We join the two brothers as consumers, just looking for what we get out of the deal. In the process, Jesus is left behind in favour of a vague sense that we are pretty good people, and grace and faith and Jesus are optional. Rather than worshipping the true God, Christian life is turned backwards to simply seeking happy feelings and butterflies for ME.
Do we see the point of connection here?
Two sons who are equally lost, because their position in the family was all about “what I can get from Dad.” One son did this very blatantly at the beginning; the other son did this very blatantly at the end. And the father stands there, holding out his arms to both: Come back to the family! The first son only understood the father’s heart when he tries to work his way back into the family - and the father joyfully runs to him, welcoming him home! Come back to the family!
That’s grace! Grace, God’s undeserved love. In grace, the father welcomes the first son: Come back to the family! In grace, the father seeks out and admonishes the second son: Come back to the family!
So often we talk about grace as this abstract concept. We sing our hymns, like “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” And we just see grace as this abstract concept, reserved for other people, reserved for the really bad people - but somehow, I don’t need as much grace from God.
And in the process, we lose out on the joy of our heavenly Father’s grace. That JOY can be there, even when life is in the pits and you’re not HAPPY. At that same time, even as you’re stuck in the worst pit, valley, pigsty of your life – you can have joy, because you KNOW how much your heavenly Father loves you, you KNOW that Jesus really has forgiven your sin and given you a new life and applied this new life to you through tangible tools like words that hit eardrums . . . water that trickles off one’s cranium . . . a sip, a bite, and the very body & blood of your God is now YOURS – again!
Look back at the parable. Do you remember the father’s joy? In baptism, God joyfully ran to you, scooped you up, and gave you a new robe. Our Saviour gladly walked to the cross to earn our forgiveness. God has come to you through his word: Welcome to the family! Come back to the family! I have forgiven you, I have made you my own, I have made you a part of this family!
That’s grace! In grace, God ran to us! He took you in his arms, held your head to his chest, and said “My son is home again!” And you can picture our Lord Jesus, nail marks in his hand, tears in his eyes, and he says: Do you know how much I love you? Come back to the family!
I'm indebted to my supervising pastor, Pastor Joel Schulz. During my internship (vicar year) he preached a sermon series on this parable and brought out many of the points which are included in this sermon. www.crossoflife.net