The Prodigal Father
Our text is popularly called "The Prodigal Son." The word prodigal isn't in the Bible. It's the word for what the younger son did. Commonly people think prodigal means lost, but it really means "a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way." Our text says the younger son "squandered his wealth in wild living." But the parable is not focused on the younger son or his elder brother. The parable is about the father who is also prodigal.
He is prodigal with his pain. When the younger son asks for his share of the estate, he is in effect saying, "I wish you were dead." Estates were not divided until the death of the father. The younger son couldn't and wouldn't wait for that, so he makes the demand, and his father complies. But that's not the worst pain. The text says, "Not long after that the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country." That means he broke up the family farm. You can't travel with cattle, sheep, crops, vineyards, or land. That means land that had been in this family for generations was sold.
Remember the farm crisis of the 80's? Remember the heart wrenching pictures of old men in overalls watching their lives auctioned off? This is what's going on in our parable. When it says, "So the father divided his property," the word for property is bion. The father is suffering the pain of losing his bios, his life, his existence. He's prodigal with his pain.
He's prodigal with his patience too. The younger son disappears to a far country. Where's that? Anywhere away from the rule and faith of the father. The father gets reports on his younger son going through his lifeblood like water and how he's now living in the filth of religiously unclean pigs even trying to feed himself on what he's feeding them. But the father does nothing. He doesn't go to the far country to get his boy. You know that picture of Jesus carrying a lost sheep home on His shoulders? Can't do that with a person. O you can. The father could have physically carried the boy from the far country back to the father's house, but he would have been back only in body not in spirit. So the father waits even as He waits for some of you. He's prodigal with his patience.
The prodigal father is prodigal with his pain, his patience, and his hope. Our text says, "While the younger son was still a long way off, his father saw him." You know what that means? You only see someone a long way off if you've been looking for him. The younger son had insulted him and broke up the family farm, yet the father hoped he wouldn't leave. He went off to the far country and wasted everything ending up living in open defiance of his religion, yet still the father hoped the son would return, so he watched day after day. How many servants, friends, family told him to stop hoping for a son who never was going to return?
In order to see the further prodigalness of the father, you must understand that the son is coming home unconverted. He's bringing the far country with him. It's filth; it's ways. In the far country, the son concluded that he would work his way back into his father's house. He would have his father make him one of his hired men. He's not repentant for saying, "I wish you were dead," for breaking up the family farm, for wasting his father's lifeblood, for joining himself to an unbeliever in the far country, for disregarding his faith in a vain attempt to gain food. No, this young man is coming home with the promise to do better and maybe with the excuse, "I was young and foolish." He's coming home under the law.
See the scene that Jesus paints. The younger son comes home stinking of the far country. As he makes his journey to his father, the people who know his family start to follow, they probably even line the last stretch of road between him and his father. The crowd can't wait to see how the father's going to treat him. "Boy that boy is finally going to get his." "I'm glad he's all but naked; the shame will do him good." "Look he's barefoot; what a loser." "I can't wait to see that kid humiliated as he deserves." But it is the father who his prodigal with humility.
While the son is a long way off, the hoping, patient, pained father sees him, and "was filled with compassion." This Greek word for compassion is only used for Jesus or the Jesus' character in parables in the Four Gospels. It means to be moved in the nobler organs.' We would say, "His heart went out to him," or he had a "gut reaction."
Go back to the scene. Either the father or the son is going to have to run the gauntlet of humility and shame for them to be reunited. What's this? The father breaks into a run. You haven't been married long enough if you don't know that the guilty party is suppose to make the first move; the guilty party is to run to the other. The father has been wronged, pained and shamed in the community, but he runs to his pig-stained, half-naked, shoeless, stinking son. The father is prodigal with humility.
Who is this but Jesus? Who has such compassion on sinners that He doesn't reject them when everyone else does? He welcomes the sinful women in Luke 7 whom His enemies shuddered at the thought of being touched by. He welcomes sinful Peter who had denied Him 3 times. He welcomes sinful Paul who had murdered His followers. How could He do this? Only by humbling Himself. Philippians 2 spells it out. Jesus "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing. Taking the very nature of a servant, He humbled Himself, and became obedient to even death on a cross!"
Jesus, true God from eternity, humbled Himself by taking on our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Though king and God of all, He came into the world as the servant of fallen mankind. He put Himself under the Laws of God we cannot keep and that accuse us daily and served us by keeping them. He humbled Himself to be a faithful human son, teenager, adult, citizen, and church member. But His humility went further still. He was literally stripped of all His dignity as a Man. He was crucified as an enemy of the Church, the State, and God Himself.
We deserved that. The whole world of sinners did, but Jesus actually got it. He ran to embrace us and took our obligations and debts on Himself. Before God, angels, unbelieving humanity, and the devils themselves, God the Son claims us sinners who have spattered ourselves with pig manure, stink of our sinfulness, and have spat upon His love and generosity. He runs to us and covers us with kisses. This is the intense form of the word kiss. This isn't a peck on the cheek. This isn't one of those Hollywood kisses on both checks where no contact is made. No, the father touches all the stench, filth, and shame of the son with his many kisses.
Look what the father's prodigalness does. The son had planned to say he would work his way back into his father's house but doesn't. The father's humility, love, and grace silence any attempts to make promises he can't keep, to propose works he can't do, or to make excuses for his sins. The son just simply confesses. "I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." And the father says, "You sure have sinned." "Don't let it happen again." "See what your disobedience has gotten you?"
No the father is prodigal with forgiveness. He calls for the best robe. Whose could that be but his own? This shows the son is back in his father's good graces. And what does Baptism do but clothe you with Christ and put you back in the Father's house? The father calls for a ring and sandals. This shows that the one who had wasted his father's possessions again has his father's authority, and the sandals are a sign that he was a free man in the house and the slaves were under his feet. And what does the prodigal forgiveness of Jesus give us? It restores to us our sonship and citizenship in heaven. Every child of God, every citizen of heaven has authority over sin, Death, and even the Devil. All three are under his feet.
The father is not done dispensing his prodigal forgiveness. He throws a big party to welcome his son home. We know it's a big party because he kills the fatted calf which with no refrigeration had to be eaten that day. He even hires musicians and dancers. The father welcomed the son back home on that road. The feast of the fatted calf is proof that the son is all the way back home with no reservations. And what are the Body and Blood of Jesus that we feast on at this altar but proof that we are all the way home? Because the Body and Blood of Jesus are always welcomed in heaven whether in His Person or inside yours.
The father was prodigal with his pain, patience, hope, humility, forgiveness and with his pleading. Jesus told this parable to His enemies who were upset that He welcomed sinners and even ate with them. So His enemies are the older brother in the parable. And look how the father pleads with him. He humbles himself and goes out to plead with him. Though the elder accuses him of being tightfisted, he assures him "everything I have is yours." And he calls him son' not using the word used in the parable but the Greek term of endearment: child. Note this too. Nowhere in the parable does the father speak to the younger son, only to the elder.
The elder son is lost inside his father's house. The younger son was lost outside. It's more difficult to be found inside the house than outside of it. You have all the treasures of the house but you don't use them. The precious Words go unstudied. The forgiving Word goes un-believed. Baptismal water stays in the font not on your skin. You may eat the Body and the Blood of Jesus that are here for forgiveness, life, and salvation, but you forget about them not 5 steps from the altar as if you're not forgiven, alive, or saved.
And so the prodigal Father pleads with you today and everyday. "All that I have is yours. Use the gifts purchased and won for you by My Son, your Savior, Jesus. Come the whole house is yours." The parable ends with an unspoken question hanging in the air: Does the elder son go back into the house to use all the prodigal father's gifts and joys? How about you? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20130310); Luke 15: 1-3; 11-32