Hear it Again for the First Time
Kelloggs' Cornflakes use to have an ad with the slogan, "Taste them again for the first time." It was aimed at people to whom the cereal was "old hat." Kelloggs wanted people to taste their cereal all over again as if they had never had it before. I want you to do a similar thing with the parable of the Prodigal Son. You've heard it many times. It's so familiar, we don't listen to it. Be honest. How many of you tuned out when it was read from the lectern? You knew how it would end. You knew the wayward son would come home. You knew the father would accept him. You knew the parable's point...or do you? Hear it again for the first time.
Hear for the first time what the prodigal son did. He's not just a high strung young man who can't wait to get out on his own. When he asks his dad for his share of the estate, he is expressing the wish that his father would die. In Jesus' society it was unheard of for a son to ask for his inheritance while his dad was still living. In all of Middle Eastern literature, from ancient to modern times, there is no case of any son, young or old, asking for his inheritance a from father still in good health. It was like saying, "I wish you were dead." Jesus' hearers would've expected the father to blow up at the request. The father does not. He divides the property between his two sons.
Then the youngest son does the unthinkable. Not many days later, he sells his portion of the family estate and leaves. Folks, even though you're not from the Middle East, you can understand how shocking this is. What would you think of a son demanding his portion of the family farm only to sell it off and immediately move away?
Off the son goes to make a name for himself. The name he makes is "prodigal." Prodigal means , "recklessly extravagant" or "wasteful." Our translation has "squandered." He squandered all his wealth in "wild living" says our text. Literally the Greek says "unsaved living." He may or may not have been a drunk or chased prostitutes. "Unsaved living" means he held nothing back for tomorrow. He may have ate, drank, partied like there was no tomorrow, or he may have wasted his wealth on get rich quick schemes. In any event, it disappeared.
Once he's busted a severe famine hits, but he doesn't get a job with local citizen as our translation implies. No, he literally "glued" himself to one. The citizen of that far country didn't really want him around. He conveyed this to the prodigal son by the job he gave him: Pig feeder. Here is the son of a noble Jewish family out in the fields feeding pigs! This puts him in the perpetual state of being religiously unclean. Moreover, he is so hungry that he tries to fill his stomach with the carob pods he's feeding the pigs. But that didn't work because the bitter tasting fruit had no nutritional value. So he is always hungry.
At last he comes to his senses, but don't think this means he came to repentance. What he came to was the very earthly realization that he was at the bottom; even his father's hired men are better off than he is. He sees all the stupid things he has done. He is determined to go back home and make it up to his father. He is going to pay his father back. He wouldn't dare go back into his father's house, but he would become one of his hired hands, so he could earn his wages. He would return and tell, not ask but tell, his father how he had decided to make things right between them.
Friends, as you're hearing this again for the first time, can you see you have been where the prodigal is? You've come to the end of your rope before, haven't you? You've seen how you have insulted God in your life; how decisions you have made have wronged the people you love; how you have disappointed and let down both God and man; how you have made a mess of your life and muddied up the life of others in the process. And like the prodigal, you've determined that you would make it up to them by golly. You would turn you life around, go back to where you messed up, and you would make amends. You'd pay your Lord and others back. You'd make up for the hurt you've caused. You'd work and slave to pay back the debt you rightly owed.
Surely, you've felt that way before, so you can see that when the prodigal heads back home it's not to be forgiven but to earn forgiveness. Hear again for the first time what the father did about the returning prodigal. The father is looking for his son. He sees him way off in the distance, and the text says that his inward parts were moved. You know that feeling when your heart goes out to your child.
Then in the presence of the servants, whom the text says were there, the father does a humiliating thing. He runs to his son. He whom his son wanted dead, he whose livelihood has been wasted by his son, he whom had been disgraced by a disobedient, unloving, money grubbing son, runs to that son. Noble men did not run in Jesus' society. Aristotle, who lived long before this time, said, "Great men never run in public." Even though our culture sees nothing dishonorable about men running, we know that really the son should be running toward the father.
When he reaches his son, the father throws his arms around him and kisses him repeatedly. A dirt poor person in the midst of a famine, having just come from feeding pigs, wouldn't have smelled too good. But the father does not care. He loves this son just as he is without one plea. Such love changes people. Such love changes this prodigal son. He can't bring himself to say, "I will become a hired man working outside of your house and I will repay you everything." The prodigal can see that his dad is welcoming back a son not a hired servant. He realizes that the real issue was not the money he had lost but the fact that he had broken the relationship between himself and his dad. Repaying the money wouldn't repair the relationship. The only thing that could was forgiveness from his dad. He saw he had this.
Do you get the point prodigal sons and daughters? You've wasted God's good gifts to you. You've been a me, me, me person. Always seeing yourself as a poor, pitiable person that life is so hard on. You've made a mess of your life and hurt others in the process. Most importantly, you've broken the relationship between you and your heavenly Father. How can you repair such a breach? How can you make things up to God? With what can you reach to heaven to mend the relationship that you have broken?
You can't; God can. The heavenly Father sent to earth His only beloved Son. This Son kept the holy Law perfectly and took our sins against the Law on Himself. For Jesus' sake, the Father runs to us sinners, filthy from wallowing in sins, and hugs and kisses us. He accepts us just as we are. He doesn't clean us off first. He doesn't wipe away the stench or dirt of our sins first. In Christ, the Father doesn't see the dirt, only sons and daughters. Just like in the parable, the Father is the One who restores the relationship.
Having restored the relationship, the father in the parable spares no expense in showing that all is forgiven, all is restored. He has the best robe, probably his own, put on the son. The son is not washed first; the old, filthy rags aren't taken off. The beautiful robe which only royalty and priests wore is put on the grubby son. Then the father places a ring on his finger. What else could this be but the family signet ring? This was the seal of authority to dispense the family's property. Imagine; the son who had wasted the property is given full authority over it again. After the ring, comes the sandals. The father commands the servants to put them on the son. This showed that once more the servants were under the son's authority. Finally, the father orders the fattened calf killed. Killing a calf for just the family would've been wasteful. The father is throwing a party, a reception with professional musicians and dancers to show everyone, including his son, that the prodigal is all the way back in His house.
Likewise, the Father deals with you. In your Baptism, the Father has put on you the robe of Christ's holiness. Though you are stained with sin and filth, the Father receives you as His child by covering your sins in Baptism. And He has restored your authority in His house. You have the right to all of your Father's possessions as if you had never left. He trusts you to use all of the things of His house. Also, He has made His servants, the angels, your servants. He has charged them to minister to you day and night. Finally, the Father has prepared a feast for you to celebrate and testify that you are His dear child. But the Father does not kill a calf for you. No, He has killed His only beloved Son, and made a meal for you out of His body and blood. If a slain calf guaranteed acceptance to the prodigal son, how much more does a slain Son guarantee acceptance to us!
You've heard again for the first time what the prodigal and his father did; now hear what the elder son did not. The older son, though he had never left home, is separated from his father. He thinks of himself as a slave in his father's house. He says, "All these years I've been slaving for you." And what does the elder son consider a good time? Food with friends, not with his father. The elder son is no different than the younger. All that either son wanted out of life was to be away from their father's house having a good time with his property!
Can you also see that both sons are prodigal? The younger son wasted his father's property. The elder was obedient on the outside and never wasted his dad's property. What he wasted was his father's love. The elder son would not hear of his father's love. Just like he had done with the younger son, the father humbles himself before all and shows great love to his son. Before all of his servants and neighbors, the father leaves the celebration to go outside to his furious son. He takes the insults and accusations the son has to offer and does not rebuke him. Then the father pleads with his son. "My son, I love you no less than your brother. All I have is yours." The father shows the elder son the same love and grace he showed the younger. But the elder son would not hear of it.
I beg you; you hear what the elder son would not. You hear of the Father's love in Christ and know without a shadow of a doubt, this love is for you. Hear of it again for the first time regardless of how far you have strayed, how much you have sinned, how badly you have broken your Father's heart. He welcomes you back for the sake of what His Son did on the cross. There is hope for those who've wasted their Father's gifts, but what hope is there for those who insist on wasting their Father's love?
What the elder son rejected and what melted the younger son's heart is sung about in a country music song entitled, "A Father's Love." The last verse has the guy standing before the judgement throne trembling over his sins. Then he hears God say, "Let me tell you a secret about a father's love ...Daddy's don't just love their children every now and then, it's a love without end, Amen." Friends, I don't know whether that singer knows Christ as Savior, so he might not really know the Father's never ending love, but you do. Rejoice in it again, for the first time. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent IV (3-25-01) Luke 15: 11-32