The parable is about two different reactions to God’s grace. On one hand is the reaction of the lowest of the low—tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. On the other hand, you have the seemingly perfect and upright Pharisees. To one group, the mercy expressed in the three Parables of Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, commonly known as the Prodigal Son—is amazing. It’s a tale of love and grace, even for the vilest of the vile. To the other, it’s a story of stupidity, of frugality, of weakness. If you’ve been around church for any length of time, you know which is which. The Pharisees see this divine grace as completely absurd. The sinners, on the other hand, rejoice in it. The message is pure Gospel: God has pity on those dead in their sins. He receives sinners and eats with them.
The parable isn’t about a meal, not even a wedding feast for the king’s son, if you read St. Matthew’s account. It’s not about a host upset by the bad manners of those who RSVPed and backed out at the last minute. But as much as it’s not about those things, it’s also not about us sitting here confident and smug because we’re in church and all of those heathen are out walking the highway to hell. It does not empower us to look down at those people out there who have rejected Jesus, who have ignored the Holy Spirit’s urging to hear the Word and feast on Christ in His Body and Blood. It’s not about shaking your head at the people lining up for brunch, going for a run, or sleeping in at the lake whose church attendance has dropped off now that summer is officially in full swing. Jesus’ Parable is, however, about what happens to anyone who decides that the things of the flesh are more entertaining, that God will totally understand why you chose material possessions over your faith. He does not, and He will not on the Last Day. This is a reminder that we are called to turn from the material world and its ways and to live in repentance, because we cannot reject God’s gracious invitation without consequence.
As we enter the second half of the Church Year, our attention shifts. While the first half of the year centers on Jesus Christ and the events of His life, the second half actively engages the topic of sanctification, that is, our growth in the faith. This is always going to be rooted in justification, the blessed truth that we are saved from sin, death, and hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is delivered to you through Word and Sacrament and is received by faith as it takes hold of what Jesus did and believes firmly that it was done for you. The faith created by the Holy Spirit naturally wants to do good works. Out of thanksgiving for the life and salvation given by Christ, despite the damnation we deserve, the new man wants to live very intentionally in a way that shuns sin.
Today is all about mysteries. Three Persons in one God. Rebirth, even if you’re old. Belief gives eternal life. God has come to save the world, not condemn it. The Christian faith is full of mysteries. We cannot explain these things and a host of other things, but we say they’re true—a Virgin conceives and bears a Son; God says ‘Let there be’ and fully mature things come into existence; bread and wine deliver the Body and Blood of Christ to countless altars across seven continents, even though the Jesus who comes to us returned to heaven nearly 2,000 years ago; salvation is a gift and nothing we can buy or earn. We affirm as core beliefs things that science and logic cannot verify, and even more than that, things that science and logic say are false. But St. Paul teaches us to embrace mystery. He doesn’t grapple with this, but joyfully exclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”
The Holy Spirit’s role in human life is to cause us to do good works. Whether that good work is confessing Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God or serving our neighbor, none of it happens apart from His intervention in our lives. Apart from Him, we are hopeless and dead. Consider how Dr. Luther taught it in his Small Catechism but put everything in the negative. Without the Holy Spirit we do not have the Gospel, we sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, we have no good gifts, and we have no right belief in Jesus Christ who has won our salvation. Without the Holy Spirit, life is lacking all those things that make it good. Without the Holy Spirit, everything is hopeless. But because we have the Holy Spirit, we are able to rejoice, to have hope in the midst of this world’s sadness, and have comfort in what lies ahead, all because the Holy Spirit gives us Jesus.
We live in a world, in a time that is hostile to the faith. I don’t expect that to be a shocking statement to anyone. Any Christian can look at the world and firmly believe what your grandmother always told you: “It wasn’t this bad when I was your age.” That’s why we prayed “Almighty, everlasting God, make us to always have a devout will toward You and to serve Your Majesty with a pure heart.” There are countless things around us that are trying to pull us away from the faith. That prayer of David we sang in the Introit, “Give me not up to the will of my adversaries” is so important for us today. The opposition faced by Christians isn’t just a problem in Europe or the Middle East, a problem far removed from us. It’s here in America, in Dorr, in your own home. You need the Holy Spirit to keep you steadfast in the faith now more than ever, and that is precisely what God gives to you for the battle.
The cross means nothing to me unless it is applied to me. This is a phrase I was taught during my Vicarage, when my supervising Pastor talked about the importance of the Sacraments. This summarizes the purpose of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. They give to you what Jesus accomplished on the cross and in His resurrection. The cross and Jesus’ death on it don’t do you any good unless the benefit of that death is given to you. Once the Sacraments apply it to you, you can look at the crucifixion with joy because you know that it was done for you and that you are here tonight to receive what Jesus won for you in His death.
The last words Martin Luther were, “We are all beggars.” We are not givers; we are not the benefactors. We are receivers; we are beneficiaries. We need. When we remember this, we naturally pray. We realize that we are surrounded by so many and so great dangers, that we cannot free ourselves from evil, that we need what only God can give. Our prayers falter and cease when we are hearers of the Word and not doers, looking at our natural faces in a mirror and forgetting what we are like, that we are beggars, thinking instead that we are givers. So today Jesus reminds us to pray, to ask the Father in Jesus’ name. That’s why this Sunday is named Rogate, from the Latin word that means to ask, request, or petition. Jesus tells us to ask our Father in heaven for His good and gracious gifts, just as earthly children ask their earthly fathers.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says something very interesting to the disciples, something I doubt they believed. He said, “It is to your advantage that I go away.” Of course, in its original context, Jesus spoke those words on Maundy Thursday, not long before He would be betrayed and given into the hands of sinful men. In that context it makes perfect sense to us. It’s imperative that Jesus go away, that He be crucified so He can die and rise again to take away the sin of the world. However, if we think of those words again, in a post-Easter mindset, they don’t make as much sense. “It is to your advantage that I go away.” How in the world is it good that Jesus leaves us? Wouldn’t it be better for Him to stay, always to be here, always to do what He did during His earthly ministry? As Jesus says, when He departs, He will send the “Helper,” that is, the Holy Spirit. Jesus is beginning to prepare the disciples—and us—for the important outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Each Person of the Trinity has a function, and the Holy Spirit is coming to do His.
We’ve come to the point in the Easter season where the names of the Sundays and the Readings don’t seem to line up. Today is named “Jubilate,” from the first phrase of the Introit in Latin: Jubilate Deo omnis terra, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth.” But then in the Gospel, Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” How do those things go together? Shout for joy—but the world is going to take delight in your misfortune. While there is sadness in this, it’s a reminder that our true rejoicing, our greatest shouting for joy is not in worldly things, but in the crucified and risen Jesus. And the joy He gives, no one can take from you.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.