Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I want to tell you about something lost that my wife just wanted to stay lost. I have a blue St. Croix soccer T-Shirt that I’ve loved for a long time, and I mean a very long time. I got it when I was in 8th grade at the St. Vinnie’s Thrift store and it’s worn and threadbare and smells a little bit bad, but just a little bit. But I love it. I cherish it. I keep it. I wear it.
And so whenever Laura folds the laundry, she’ll make a point to fold that shirt and put it away for me. But, you see, I never know quite where she puts it. Sometimes its in one of the bins, other times it’s under the bed, but usually it’s stuffed way back in the back of my dresser, and I think she just hopes that I would forget about it.
I wait for the day when my beloved shirt in the trash, and when Laura just can’t stand it anymore, I’ll know, and I see it there, my beloved shirt, and I’ll run to it, pick it up, I embrace it, and bring it back to its home. The thing some just want to stay lost, I rejoice in finding it.
Today, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s a sermon that preaches itself. It’s the story of a man with two sons. It’s the story of a father full of unexpected delight. It’s the story of a man that rejoices when his sons come back home. It’s the story of a son that doesn’t deserve to be forgiven and another son that doesn't see his father’s heart.
It begins with tragedy. A younger son says, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I wish you were dead and I wish my inheritance would be mine right now.” A family gets blown apart, and you’d better believe that this would’ve been like most family blowouts, it’s the last word in a long battle. And so the father gives him his inheritance. Now, know this, that the inheritance he’s asking for was probably in the land and in the cattle. It wasn’t so simple of a task as just cashing out your IRA or writing out a check. It was the long, painful process of a divorce. Deciding to sell a third of his assets, selling a third of his land, downsizing his herds, laying off his workers. It may have taken a year or more of painful bookwork to get to the next verse.
But they do, and then his son gets lost. He decides to walk in the wrong direction. He loses his name, he loses his family, but most of all he loses himself. He dishonors his father, he dishonors his family, but most of all, he dishonors himself. He is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to food and drink and wine and women.
If you were the father, what would you do? Some of you have been the father. What did you do?
It seems a harder thing to love from afar than to cut ties. In our little baptism classes, we talk about how before the age of adulthood, I have two kinds of love for my little Benjamin Button: Conditional Love and Unconditional Love. Conditional love because on the one hand, if he does what I tell him to do, I reward him, if he doesn’t, I punish him. There are rewards when you set the table. There are consequences when you break the lamp. On the other hand, there’s unconditional love. It doesn’t matter if he breaks all the lamps in my house, I will love Benjamin no matter what, because he’s my son. Now, after he becomes an adult, conditional love fades away. I don’t have that power over him. I only have as much influence on him as he lets me. You don’t get to choose whether your son lands himself in the White House or in jail. Parenting, it seems, is the art of letting go, little by little, of your children and trusting them with their own lives.
So, this young man, he’s reckless and he’s unwise, and he’s foolish, and then he’s broke. He gets exactly what he deserves, exactly when he deserves it. Do you know any young men that have this coming?
He hits a place that drug addicts call rock bottom. There’s nowhere to turn. You have to face the truth or die.
And he comes to his senses and goes home.
Our story continues in unexpected joy. First the son dishonored himself, but now it’s the father’s turn. Dishonor number 1. His son wished him dead, and he let him have his wish. Dishonor number 2. He runs to his son. In that culture as well as our own, children run to their parents, not the other way around. Dishonor number 3. He embraces his son who’s full of mucky pig waste. Dishonor number 4. He kisses him on his filthy face, he fits him in his best suit, and throws a party for him. And he suffers all this because he sees that the main thing is the main thing: his son was dead but now is alive. His son was lost but now is found. His son had left but now is home.
Our God is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to forgiveness and compassion. The Father is absolutely reckless with his love, so much so that at the slightest provocation, at the littlest gesture of turning, even before his son can get the words of his confession out of his mouth, he runs to his son, he embraces his son, he cherishes his son. He loves his son. That which some just want to stay lost, he rejoices in.
Turn to the book of Jonah and how the prophet went to Nineveh. You remember that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the nation that sows salt into the conquered lands that they have a grudge against. The nation that slaughters cities that oppose them. The nation that hauls slaves away a thousand miles to force them to work the land. He goes there to the nation that had just slaughtered and deported the kingdom of Israel with a message of judgment, that their number was up, and they repent – and that’s remarkable in and of itself – when they repent, do you know what God does? He relents. He forgives. He runs to them. He embraces them. He cherishes them. He loves them.
That’s God’s stance on sin, not that he lets it go or ignores it, but on the cross he pays for it fully. While we were still sinners, he rescues us. While we were still running away, he chases after us. While we were still dead in our trespasses, he makes us alive. While we were still chanting “Crucify him, crucify him!” he was pronouncing forgiveness over us. He’s reckless – that’s what prodigal means – with his love in a way that makes dead things alive.
Our story ends in wondering. You can wonder about what the neighbors would have said when they heard the story. You can think, as I did when I wrote this sermon, “Well, how can you tell your people to do this? They’ll just get burned!” You can think about how unreasonable it would be for him to take in his son again.
And then realize that the logical choice, the one that you jump to first, you can see is in fact the exactly what the older brother says. One author writes from the older brother’s perspective: “There was no way […] I would join in that ungodly celebration. What was there to celebrate? A faithless son? A destroyer of our family? A sexual predator? At the very least, he ought to have been taken back in quietly and made to do the work of the lowest slave if, and until, he had earned our trust. He needed to be taught a lesson. He needed to earn his way back into our family’s good graces. That boy didn’t need a forgiving father but a strict judge. Otherwise, who’s to say that history wouldn’t repeat itself and, once again, he’d soil the good name of our family.”
He would rather that the lost would just stay lost.
When we think about the older son, the application is simple. Rejoice where your Father in heaven rejoices. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Jesus calls us to have compassion on others the way that God has compassion. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy. When I think of the older son, I think of the siblings that have held an olive branch out to the black sheep for too many years. I think of the friends who are afraid that they’ll be taken advantage of. I think of the fear that someone’s not going to learn their lesson.
You can see that the older son is just about as lost from the father’s will as the younger son was. The younger may have wandered farther from home, but the fact of the matter is that both sons weren’t following the heart of their father.
The heavens rejoice when the church follows the compassion of our heavenly Father. The heavens rejoice when the undeserving are given compassion. The heavens rejoice when God’s people are persecuted, beaten, reviled and despised for doing good, showing compassion, running to others, cherishing them, loving them.
The kingdom of heaven is like a Lutheran school where the Gospel is not only taught in its truth and purity but practiced as well. Where teachers chase after all kinds of wayward students to follow them around with goodness and mercy. Where parents and students alike know that the compassion of their heavenly Father. Where no one - and I mean no one - is turned away.
The kingdom of heaven is like a community food shelf in a small town where tens of thousands of pounds of food are given away every year, where pastors and laypeople alike chase down the hungry to stomachs with bread but moreover to fill their souls with the bread of life.
The kingdom of heaven is like fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters having compassion rather than anger, in the business of mending fences more than setting fires, knowing that they were all lost sons until they were found by the reckless – that’s what prodigal means – love of their Father in Heaven. Amen and Amen.