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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Story Of A Loving Father

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost


Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.


“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.


“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.


“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.


“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’


“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.


“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’


“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’


“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Luke 15:11-32


Last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ story about the lost sheep and the lost coin. His next story is usually called “The Parable of the Lost Son.” But I believe He told one parable in three parts, and it is really a parable about God, our loving Father. Note how the three pars of the parable begin: In Luke 15, verses 3 and 4, we read, “Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.’” Then, in verse 8 we read, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.” And then, in verse 11 we read, “Jesus continued, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”


So, today we’ll look at the 3rd part of His parable. Jesus’ conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees was not a superficial one. The conflict was deep, not just because the adversaries clung stubbornly to their points of view, but because the issue was of ultimate importance. Nothing less was at stake than the very nature of God! “What is God like?” was the question that lay at the heart of the debate. The Scribes and Pharisees had one answer; Jesus had another.


Luke’s account shows how enraged the Jewish leaders were at Jesus’ conduct. “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear Him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” It doesn’t take much reading between the lines for us to see what they were really saying. “This man is not from God,” their argument ran, “because God would not welcome sinners to His fellowship the way Jesus does.”


And if we followed their reasoning to the conclusion that seemed logical to them, it would end this way: “God is not like Jesus, eating with known scoundrels and lawbreakers; God is like us, careful in His contacts, scrupulous in His associations.”


“There should be no good news for sinners” was the verdict of the Scribes and Pharisees. To their minds, Jesus stepped completely out of God’s will, and even announcing to them, of all people, that God’s Kingdom was at hand. God would never do that, the Pharisees smugly concluded.


Their argument furnishes the setting for a great parable in three parts: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. The plural “sons” is correct. It was not only the prodigal son who was lost; the son who remained home needing finding too!


Jesus voiced His disagreement with the religious leaders in story form, not in violent debate. By talking about sheep and shepherds, He got His questioners to agree that the lost were worth seeking and that finding them brought great joy. By speaking of coins, He brought them to admit that an all-out effort should be made to find even one that was lost and that a fruitful search set the neighborhood rejoicing. “God is like that,” Jesus proclaimed. He not only welcomes sinners – including crooked tax collectors – He goes looking for them, like a shepherd.


The Kingdom of God was at hand. And it brought good news to all, even publicans and sinners – especially publicans and sinners!


And then Jesus continued, introducing three characters: a man and his two sons. First the younger son, asking for and then squandering his share of the family inheritance. The crowd that listened would have understood very well the customs Jesus referred to.


The younger son’s share would have been one-third of the property since by law (Deut. 21:17) the first-born son was heir to twice as much as any other son or, in this case, to the entire remainder of the father’s estate. So, when the prodigal son finally returned home, the only status legally open to him was that of a servant. He had denounced and dissipated all his rights to sonship. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So, he got up and went to his father.”


The Scribes and Pharisees would have understood who the people were that this character represented. Who else could this decadent youth represent but the publicans and sinners who wasted their spiritual inheritance in the service of the world and the flesh?


The next character to enter on the scene is the father, who responded to his son’s request and divided his property between his two sons. But Jesus had more to say about the scene of reconciliation where the father threw dignity to the wind and raced to meet his son. The embrace of fellowship and the kiss of forgiveness were followed by the robe, the ring, and the shoes.


The robe was a token of honor, an act of esteem usually reserved for special guests. The ring was a badge of authority, a signet whose stamp carried the right to buy and sell in the father’s name. The shoes were a sign of wealth; they set the son apart from the peasants and the slaves of the land who walked barefoot down the roads of Palestine.


What an act of welcome, what a deed of redemption! In these few gestures the boy was lifted from shame to honor, from impotence to authority, from poverty to wealth. And all with merriment: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! So, they began to celebrate.”


The Pharisees were trapped. They knew who the father represented. Though they didn’t customarily refer to God as father, they knew that Jesus did. Jesus was saying, “There is good news for sinners. There is the good news of a father’s welcome. There is the great joy of a lost son returned.”


So far in the story Jesus had only made more detailed and more personal the point He had driven home when He spoke of a lost sheep and a lost coin. But when He turned to the third character, the elder son, He injected a new point, and with it sharply pricked the conscience of His audience.


The sound of music and dancing and the news of an unscheduled feast grated on this son’s sense of fairness, and he protested to his father in anger: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”


What Scribe, what Pharisee, could have missed the message? The portrait of that elder brother was a mirror in which they could see their own selfishness.


Jesus’ words were echoes of their own protests against Jesus’ compassion for the outcasts of their society. Those who prided themselves in knowing and following God’s ways found themselves portrayed as the very opposite of God. They had made God in their own image. And Jesus knew differently.


We’re not told whether they could admit that Jesus was right. But our loyalty to Him demands that we admit that this is the true picture of God. His proclamation of God’s compassion was backed by His demonstration of that same compassion in the way He Himself acted toward publicans and sinners. Through Jesus Christ, and through Him alone, comes the full and true knowledge of God.


“What is God like?” remains life’s most dividing question, yet the answer of the parable is the only lasting word of authority. We must hear Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, saying “God is like me” (John 14:8,9). And what a welcome word it is! We can hear it from the pigpens of our own corrupt actions, and we can follow its call all the way home. We can hear Jesus’ call from the father’s house and let it lead us out of our pride and self-righteousness. Wasteful younger children and spiteful elder children together can hear it and meet at the father’s feast.


The father’s mood is joy wherever repentance is voiced. The repentance of squandered wealth and repentance of hoarded jealousy sound alike to Him. Thank God for forgiveness!


Amen.

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