Sermon from 27th Mar 2022 (Lent 4)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (EHV)

1 All the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus to hear him. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

He told them this parable: 

11b “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all that he had and traveled to a distant country. There he wasted his wealth with reckless living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 He went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He would have liked to fill his stomach with the carob pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, and I am dying from hunger! 18 I will get up, go to my father, and tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’

20 “He got up and went to his father. While he was still far away, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, hugged his son, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick, bring out the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us eat and celebrate, 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.’ Then they began to celebrate.

25 “His older son was in the field. As he approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant told him, ‘Your brother is here! Your father killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 The older brother was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

29 “He answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I’ve been serving you, and I never disobeyed your command, but you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours arrived after wasting your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’

31 “The father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 But it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.’”

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may not only realise the depths of our lostness, but also believe how we’ve been found and forgiven by the undeserving grace and mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Imagine you’re at a boxing match as the two main contestants are introduced…

In the left corner are the sinners and tax-collectors who were eating and drinking with Jesus. They’re the type of people who have given into to their own fleshly desires and have sinned against God and their fellow humans, and therefore most people would consider them to be…the unrighteous!

In the right corner are the Pharisees and Scribes who were grumbling about the fact Jesus was welcoming these unrighteous sinners and tax-collectors. He was even eating and drinking with them as a sign he accepted them! The Pharisees and Scribes have tried to keep all the religious laws, regulations, and traditions (which means they’d never associate with such sinful ‘deviants’). Most people would consider these faithful and obedient people to be…the righteous!

These contestants gather in their separate corners. Two groups of people who always frown on, complain about, and critically judge the other: the unrighteous versus the self-righteous. And as the battle lines are drawn between these two groups of people who are gathered around Jesus, he tells a parable about a man who had two sons.

Now, when Jesus tells a parable, he invites you to consider who you are in the story. Therefore, as Jesus tells the parable of these two sons, which one do you relate to the most?

For example, are you a bit like the younger, unrighteous, son? For example:

  • Do you like to question or reject the way things are normally done and want to do things your own way?
  • Do you often attempt to get your own way, no matter what it costs?
  • Are you tempted to live like everyone else in the world just so that you can fit in, such as: getting drunk, swearing, taking advantage of others, sleeping around, telling dirty jokes, and so on?

Even though you worship here among your brothers and sisters in Christ, do you act like the younger brother when you:

  • Question or challenge the old traditions or reject the heritage you’ve been brought up with?
  • Gather for worship irregularly because there are so many other things you’d like to do on Sundays?
  • Feel the need to stimulate your senses and satisfy your emotions, even in worship?

In the parable, the younger son insults the father by wishing his father was dead so he could get his inheritance right now. He then wastes everything his father gave him in order to live the way he wanted to. But by getting everything he wanted, he ended up losing everything.

When he finally realises the mistakes he’s made, he tries to make up for it. He tries to work his way out of trouble. He’s the typical example of a rebellious and recalcitrant person who struggles to live with what’s expected of him.

Like it or not, some of you might relate to the younger, unrighteous, and rebellious, son.

However, if you don’t relate to the younger son, it must mean you’re more like the elder, self-righteous, son. In this case:

  • You might consider yourself as dutiful, conscientious, and faithful.
  • You always try to do the right thing and stay out of trouble.
  • In fact, you’ve sacrificed many things for the sake of others, and you might be tempted to remind them how much you’ve done for them.
  • You try to live a good life and so don’t live like everyone else, that is: you don’t get drunk, you don’t swear, you try not to take advantage of others, you don’t tell dirty jokes or put people down, and you don’t sleep around, etc.

Even here in in this Christian congregation among your brothers and sisters in Christ, you might act more like the elder brother when you:

  • Try to keep and defend the traditions of the past, after all, this is the way we’ve always done it, and this is the way we’re always going to do it!
  • See yourself as a kind of moral, ethical, or even biblical ‘policeman’ and make sure you tell all those other ‘younger sons’ off when they’ve done the wrong thing.
  • Expect people to give you the respect and admiration you deserve for being such a good person.

Of course, the dutiful and faithful elder son never left the father. He was always there doing the ‘right thing’. But you can see in his responses that he was also distancing himself from his father through his self-righteous attitude as he expected to be rewarded for his good behaviour.

He thought he deserved to be treated better because he lived a better life, was more dutiful, more conscientious, and more faithful than the ‘other’ type of son. Shouldn’t he be the one rewarded for his behaviour, rather than the reckless and rebellious son? Because he alone was right and faithful and dutiful, he wanted nothing to do with his rebellious brother.

Like it or not, some of you are like the elder son.

One way or another, we’re all in one of the two corners (although some of us can swap corners at different times of our life). We’re either like the younger son or we’re like the elder son. We’re either like the unrighteous sinners and tax collectors, or we’re like the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees.

In reality, both sons left their father – one by leaving home so he could live the way he wanted, and the other one by staying home and expecting a reward for it. Both sons ended up shaming their father. Both sons sinned.

You see, both tried to become their own gods as they attempted to manipulate their father to get what they wanted – one through obvious rebellion and waste, but the other through the subtle rebellion of expecting to gain good things for himself through his diligence and good behaviour.

What’s so surprising in this parable (and what upset the Pharisees and Scribes so much) is Jesus was pointing out to every self-righteous elder brother that their hearts were just as far away from God as the younger brother’s!

The good news is that, amazingly and undeservedly, the father went out to both sons and invited both of them into his celebration banquet. Both were wrong, but both were still loved. Both received the welcome of the father. The father didn’t wait for either of his beloved children to come in by their own efforts, but he went out of his house in order to restore and reconcile both of them.

The startling difference between both sons is, at long last, one of them realised his need for his father’s love. One realised his sin and sought forgiveness from his father. One wanted to be welcomed back to eat and drink on his father’s property. Unexpectedly, the younger rebellious brother received forgiveness from his father through a warm and loving embrace even before he expressed his heartfelt confession.

Unfortunately, the other brother was still stuck in his self-righteous attitude, as they often are. He not only rejected his sinful brother but, despite the fact he thought he’s always done the right thing his whole life, it’s now revealed how much he’s rejected his father’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Joy wasn’t going to be his while he sat outside enraged by the gross injustice and unconscionable mercy of his father.

The parable ends with the elder son still fuming outside of the father’s fellowship banquet waiting for his form of justice to be done, but this doesn’t mean the parable has to end there!

In a sense the parable remains unfinished, which means we’re left with questions such as: Will the elder son enter the house or not? Will he put aside his self-righteous anger and be restored in his relationship with his father and his younger brother? Will he humble himself by recognising his own sin, and accept his father’s invitation to feast at the banquet table?

You could also ask yourselves such questions as:

How will all the younger brothers and sisters be willing to forgive those who have judged and criticised their choices? How will they welcome the self-righteous elder brothers into their fellowship and share the love of Christ with them?

On the other hand, how will the elder brothers act more graciously toward those they judge or criticise? How will they proclaim the forgiveness of Christ to them and make them feel welcome within their own fellowship?

In the case of both brothers, how will we love the lost and found, no matter which brother we are? How will we receive, and pass on, the love of the Father? How will we encourage those around us to repent, forgive, and be reconciled so we may gather in peace and joy around the feasting table of the Lord?

Thankfully it’s not up to any of us to make the first move, because Jesus made the first move. He came to save unrighteous sinners as well as self-righteous sinners. He’s the Father who runs out of his comfortable home in heaven and comes into our sinful and troubled world to welcome us, embrace us, forgive us, and invite us into his thanksgiving banquet.

He’s the one who clothes us with his own perfect righteousness and gives himself as the prized calf to feast on. He’s the one who reconciles you and me to our heavenly Father. He’s the one through whom we are now reconciled to each other.

God’s mercy in Jesus Christ is extended to all of us. Even before any of us could say ‘sorry’, seek to make up for our wrongs through our attempts at self-righteousness, or even realise the folly of our rebellious sinfulness, Jesus said from the cross ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.’

He says that for criminals, prostitutes, murderers, but also for Pharisees and faithful church goers. He pleads with his own Father for our forgiveness, and through faith in his suffering, death, and resurrection, we’re forgiven.

The good news is, Jesus paid the full price to forgive you all, freely. None of you can earn it or deserve it, no matter whether you’re an elder brother or a younger brother. You’re all offered forgiveness and are invited to celebrate a meal of reconciliation.

You’re invited to share in his celebration together with all those sinners who have once been lost but have now been found. You’re invited to come and celebrate with all those who were once dead in their sin but have now been made alive through the blood of Jesus.

Whether you identify yourself as an elder brother or a younger brother, Jesus invites all sinners to come into his fellowship and celebrate.

Therefore, whether you relate to the unrighteous younger brother or the self-righteous elder brother:

  • Come and receive the body and blood of Jesus, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
  • Come and celebrate the lost have now been found.
  • Come and celebrate the dead are now alive again.
  • Come and celebrate your reconciliation with God the Father.
  • Come and eat and drink together – younger and elder brothers and sisters coming together to feast at the one table.
  • Come and learn to love your fellow lost and found brothers and sisters through faith in our gracious loving and forgiving Christ, so that…

the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.