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 lost son is a picture of sin run amok. He breaks all the commandments in short order. He despises his father. He covets what his father has, scheming to make it all his so his father has nothing. He essentially murders his father in his head when he asks for the inheritance because the inheritance is receivable only upon death. So, he murders his father in his heart then steals from him. He goes off to break the Sixth Commandment with prostitutes. He likely slanders his father by telling people he was dead, or worse, an idiot for giving up half of his wealth. Through all of this, he makes himself his god, the one he fears, loves, and trusts above all things.
He’s a picture of the human race. He’s a picture of you and me. We may not have done such shameful things with our own parents, but we have done the same with God. We have taken His loving grace, trashed it, and laughed in His face. We have been made heirs of an eternal kingdom and have willingly traded it for earthly pleasures, just like Esau trading his birthright for a bowl of lentils. We have it all, whether we realize it or not. We are heirs of gifts that we cannot even comprehend. And we tell God, “I’m better off with You dead, with You out of my life. I’m going to live as I please and You’re not going to stop me!”
And then, just like that lost son, we find ourselves in trouble. We find ourselves in illness, poverty, want, hunger, sadness, depression, anxiety, loneliness. We deserve every minute of it. We deserve all of those maladies and then some. We don’t even deserve crumbs from the Master’s table, let alone rotting scraps thrown to undiscriminating swine.
Therein lies the choice: to be a sinner or to be a Pharisee. The Pharisees, played by the older son in the Parable, think God’s grace is something earned, something deserved, either because of your lineage or your work ethic. Those people don’t see God for who He truly is. They think He operates like one of us—He needs to be appeased, His grace need to be earned. And if you’re receiving bad things, well, you haven’t worked hard enough or God just doesn’t love you enough to give you good things. And that idea lurks inside each one of us. It’s human nature—if I work hard enough, God will love me. If I do enough good works, God will bless me. We see God as manipulatable.
But that’s not who God truly is. The tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, played by the younger son, see God for who He truly is. And who He truly is, is a merciful God. That evil son knows his father is merciful. Once he exploited that mercy, and now he knows what it truly means. He knows that repentance is all he needs to bring. He knows, “As long as I go home and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son,’ dad will be merciful.” And what happens? The father is merciful. And he never stopped being merciful. What did Jesus say? “When [the son] was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” Dad was watching for his son!! Every day, every minute his son was gone he was distraught. He waited for him to come home. He stayed on the lookout for his son every moment of every day. He knew his son would remember his mercy. And he was right.
And even when the son deserved exile and punishment, and at the very least a lecture, what did he receive? “The father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” He wasn’t put to work. He wasn’t treated as less than a son. He was rejoiced over. He was restored to the family.
And that’s how God treats you. You cheapen His grace and mercy. You sin against Him and others every day, in ways you know and ways you do not know. You live in the ways you want to and tell Him to get out of your life. My body, my choice. But still He extends His grace and mercy. He still sent Jesus Christ to die for you, to bear your sin and be your Savior. He makes Jesus’ life-giving death and resurrection available to you to be the guarantee of your forgiveness and eternal life. You don’t deserve it, but God gives it. Why? Because Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.
Your God loves you. Regardless of what you have done, what you have been, or even what you currently are, He loves you. He has forgiveness—full and free—ready for you. You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to work your way into it. For the sake of Jesus Christ, God forgives you when you repent, when you confess your sins and ask for His grace to do better. He forgives you and gives you His Holy Spirit to help you leave your sinful life, to be the son or daughter of God, who lives as a part of His family. He helps you remember what St. Paul says about the unrighteous of all stripes, the forgiven children of God: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Co 6:11; emphasis added).
As scarlet as your transgressions are; as vile as you are, your God has nothing but mercy for you. You are His lost son, His lost daughter for whom He waits every day. He does not slumber or sleep, but stands ready to forgive you, and heaven stands ready to rejoice. Every time you repent, every time God forgives, He rejoices because you are brought home, you are restored, you are made an heir once again. Why? Because He loves you. Because Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.
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.