Historically the 4th Sunday in Lent has been called Refreshment Sunday (Reed, 495). The Gospel appointed was the Feeding of the 5,000. Our Gospel is not so much about Jesus feeding sinners as about Him eating with them. Is there refreshment for you in that?
Not if you're as fresh as can be already. You don't need refreshment if you're doing fine on bread alone. You don't need the Word made Flesh let alone every Word that proceeds from God's mouth. Even though Lent started with Jesus telling the Devil that man doesn't live by bread alone but by every word proceeding out of the mouth of God, you're doing fine on a diet of your words and the words of men.
You may be the younger son who though outside the Father's house on the inside he is fresh as a daisy. He gets his share of the estate, leave's his Father's house, and doesn't look back. But younger sons only use a part of their inheritance. They use the food, drink, house, home, their reason and all their senses their Father has gifted them, but that's it. In the far country, which might be just outside those doors or in a dorm room, an office, or shacking up with a lover, they don't use the Father's true riches of Word and Sacraments. They don't wash daily in their Baptism; they don't go to their Father's Word to see what He thinks. They're outside their Father's house but on the inside their golden.
Daisy fresh sons can also be inside the Father's house on the outside but outside on the inside. This is the elder son. Notice he takes the Father's inheritance along with his younger brother, but he doesn't use it anymore than his brother did. He thinks of his sonship as slavery. He thinks he never does anything wrong. He doesn't say, "I never disobeyed your orders," but "I never passed by a commandment." And get this; while neither son uses the real treasures of the Father's estate, the younger one at least used the physical riches. Sure he wasted them. The elder used them not at all, and see how he seethes over this.
Neither son at the beginning needs refreshment. How about you? I think not. Like in the text something has to happen to expose your hunger, thirst, staleness, rottenness in order for you to need, value, long for refreshment. What happens can be expressed by 2 questions: "Are these real diamonds?" and "What on earth is going on?"
First let's go outside the Father's house to the son who is crisp as can be on the inside. A famine strikes the far country and he becomes in need in a way the way natives to that country don't. I say this because he went to a citizen of that country, one who is at home there, and literally glued himself to him. He forced him to take him on. I say this because how do you handle someone who attaches himself to you but you don't want him? You give him a job you don't think he's willing to do. What Jew would feed pigs?
But feed pigs he does, and he tries to fill himself on what the pigs eat and on top of this no one in that far country will give him anything else. He can find nothing in the far country to satisfy him. He eats and eats the Carob pods, think our Mesquite or Mimosa seed pods, and he gets thinner and thinner. Like Stephen King's book by that name, he is cursed to be ever eating and always hungry and ever thinner.
The Rabbis have a proverb, "'Israel needs the Carob to be forced to repentance'" (Bailey, 171). Carob beans were poor food, but were used for weights. The Greek for Carob, keratin, comes back to us through the Arabic in the form of our carat, a unit of weight for diamonds (Trench, 399, fn. 3). So are these diamonds real or is all that glitters in the far country really cubic zirconium? The son who was happy on the inside outside the Father's house finds all that freedom, all that happiness, all that lured him away has left him starving on the inside.
What shows the staleness, emptiness, rottenness of the son who is inside the Father's house on the outside, but really outside on the inside? What shows the elder son that he needs refreshment: grace. We first we see his hidden bitterness about being in the Father's house when he hears music and dancing. He asks the servant, "What on earth is going on?" He uses the optative which is rare in NT Greek. It conveys that the elder son can think of no reason for their being a party in his Father's house. Like his younger brother, he too thinks there could only be a party outside of the Father's house. A party to him could only be with his friends without his Father.
Let's recap. The Lord has mercy upon His straying sons whether they're astray outside or inside His house. He gives them a case of what a 19th century commentator called "Divine hypochondria" (Ibid. 398). Hypochondria is abnormal anxiety about one's health. When it's from God it's about your spiritual health. It's plain to see how He gives it to the son lost outside of His house. He puts him in need. He shows him nothing in this far country can satisfy him. He shows him that hired hands in his Father's house are better off than he. He shows him all that glitters is not multi-carat diamonds.
But what about the elder son? He knows no need, no hunger, and is far better off than his Father's hired hands. Yet he's starving to spiritual death. He is not using the real treasurers of the Father's house which are grace, mercy, and forgiveness because he doesn't think he needs them. His true plight of being outside the Father's house even while on the inside needs to be exposed. That happens when he comes face to face with what real grace, mercy, and forgiveness are. This happens when his Father throws a party for the ages for his brother who doesn't deserve it. And unless you and I insiders of the Father's house hear what the music and the dancing are really all about we will remain outside of His house even while in it.
It will help if we correctly locate where the refreshment is. You know it can't be in the older son's self-righteousness, sense of being wronged, or pride although you can feel he is strengthened as he unloads the truth about what the prodigal son did compared to what he has done. But this only brings a fallen refreshment. And don't locate it in the younger son either. Don't find divine refreshment in his self talk, in his coming to his senses, in his determination to go home, admit his sin, and promise to do better.
If you locate refreshment in the sons, you are only going to eat your heart out. You'll try to find refreshment in your pride, your right doing, your deservedness, but you'll eat and eat and get none better. Likewise if you seek refreshment in the depth of your repentance or in your promises to make things up. The problem here is you'll feel pious, spiritual, faithful even, but you're no less eating your own heart out than the older son and the result will be the same.
Refreshment in this text is shown in the Father going out to both, and you can't see that unless you see that neither deserve it. Dropping the parable, the Father goes out to both in the incarnation of the Son. Remember He who has seen the Son has seen the Father, says Jesus. God humbled, humiliated Himself, for both. He runs to the son who had wasted his living and comes home smelling of a pig sty, and before the son utters a word of repentance, God almighty is filled with compassion for him, runs to him, throws His arms around him and covers him with kisses.
How can the Father do this? Because His other Son, His third Son, took his place in the pig sty. Jesus was stripped of His clothing so the best robe could be put on you. Jesus hands were nailed to a cross with 9 inch nails heated in hellfire, so that your hand could wear the signet ring of heaven that opens all the treasures of God's house: grace, mercy, peace, life today, and salvation for all tomorrows. Jesus sandals were removed and His feet were nailed to a cross that filled His feet with a 1,000 splinters for each one of your sins, so that you could be shod with sandals giving you the power to tread on all the power of the Evil One. See this son reentering the Father's house and partying hearty.
What about the elder son? And remember where this all began. It began with church leaders being incensed that Jesus ate with sinners, and that's the issue here. Will the elder son go into a party in honor of his younger brother who was lost but is now found who was dead but is raised? Will we, do we, can we? Inside the Father's house is eternal refreshment, but to go in means to confess we too have been outside the Father's house no less than bold, brash sinners have and that they can come back in and we're willing to eat with them.
The Father comes and gets us too. The Father leaves the party where the whole community has gathered humiliating Himself to go to us pouting elder sons. This is you when your child is publicly being a brat, embarrassing you, and yet you go to him. I'm not giving you parenting advice. I'm saying that God's grace is so over the top that it can only be illustrated sometimes by poor parenting.
Here you're the pouting son and the Father doesn't respond to your outburst of self-defense and self-righteousness with "My son" as the insert has it, but "My child," a term of tenderness and endearment. "My child even though you have turned your nose up at grace and forgiveness for sinners; even though you have regarded life in My house as slavery not family, you are always with Me and everything I have is still yours." The gulp from last week that was Jesus' this week is yours.
Hear the present tenses. When we get on our self-righteous hobby horse riding hell-bent away from God, He remains with us. When we don't use His grace, mercy, or peace, when we don't think we need His forgiveness, life, or salvation, all of these that are His remain ours. No matter how long we have felt no need for the refreshment of the Father's house, no matter that the road away from the Father goes on forever, the party never ends. And you're always invited to come back in. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20160306); Luke 15: 1-3; 11-32