Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon -- 4th Sunday in Lent (March 15, 2015)

LUKE 15:1-3,11-32

In the name + of Jesus.

     Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)  What is not conveyed so well by English translations is that the sinners were regularly coming to Jesus, and that Jesus was in the habit of receiving them and feasting with them.  This was Jesus’ on-going practice, and the Pharisees saw it as an on-going problem.  If Jesus had just spent one lunch with the tax collectors and sinners, throwing them a bone as it were, the Pharisees would have had no problem with that.  They would have credited Jesus for demonstrating at least some degree of sympathy for them, but then wisely staying away from them after that.  Instead, Jesus regularly expressed fellowship with the wicked.  Though the Pharisees grumbled, they were correct in their assessment of Jesus: He feasts with sinners.
     For this reason, Jesus told the parable of the two sons.  We usually refer to this as the parable of the prodigal son.  I find it interesting that title of the parable has remained the same for centuries even though few people actually know what the word “prodigal” means, and even fewer use it correctly.  “Prodigal” does not mean that the son was gone for a long time.  It means he was wasteful.  The younger son had asked his father to cash out his share of the inheritance even before his father had died.  After he received wealth that he did not work for, the younger son decided that life would be better if he were not living in his father’s house.  He went off to a far off country to engage in wild living.  He squandered his money on wine, women, and song.  When the money ran out, so did his luck.  His friends were no friends at all.  They did not take him in.  Though he had picked up the bill for them, no one returned the favor when he was in need.  A famine made it worse.  The younger son hired himself out as a pig farmer, even coveting the slop that was fed to the pigs.
     But then the prodigal son came to himself.  In other words, he repented.  He knew that life as a slave under his father was better than freedom apart from the father.  So he rehearsed his homecoming speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’  And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:18-20)  The prodigal son did not make any excuses.  His confession was plain, simple, and honest: “I sinned.”  He did not ask for leniency or privilege.  “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  He was not scheming to get away with anything.  He did not ask for a loan, or even for his room back.  He had sinned.  He sullied the family name.  He squandered the family's goods.  He had forsaken his father rather than serve him.  He deserved nothing good and his confession acknowledged exactly that.  His repentance was sincere.
     Now, if the young son was prodigal with his father’s wealth, the father was even more prodigal with his mercy.  He did not wait for his son to complete any walk of shame so that he could bawl him out or rub it in.  Forsaking all dignity, the father ran to his son, hugged him, and smothered him with kisses.  He did not even let his son finish his rehearsed speech.  Without any kind of probation or conditions, the father cloaked him with a new robe, put the signet ring on his finger, and new shoes on his feet.  He restored him with the full rights of a son.  Then he ordered that the fattened calf be slaughtered and prepared for a feast.  This father was going to feast with a sinner. 
     The older son had never left home.  He had served his father and did what he was told.  When he got word that little brother was home again and that a feast was prepared in his honor, the older son was furious.  He who dishonored the family was now to be honored?  He who sullied the family name was back in the family?  The father was spending more on the one who had wasted the family’s fortune?  The father wants to feast with this sinner?!  We are supposed to rejoice over this?! 
     The father pleaded with his older son to join the feast.  But the son vented his frustrations.  “When this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:30)  The older son was right about one thing: The prodigal did not deserve the treatment he was getting—mercy, restoration, and a celebration, no less!  
     Unfortunately, the older son actually believed his statement, "I never disobeyed your command.” (Luke 15:29)  He believed that he has earned his place in the father's house, even though he had not earned his inheritance.  He was born into his good fortune; that was grace.  He felt ripped off that he had not been celebrated, even though his father was always glad to bestow on this sin his love, provision, and protection.  In the older son's view, the kingdom was only for the worthy.  He was wrong.  All good things, whether to sons or to slaves, came by the father’s good grace.  The older son was incensed that the father would feast with a sinner.  The older son was adamant: He would not.
     Now recall that Jesus told this parable because the Pharisees had grumbled that Jesus demonstrated such fellowship with the wretched and the wicked.  He feasted with sinners.  It is not that he excused their sins.  On the contrary, Jesus had come to pay for them.  When Jesus was feasting with sinners, it was not that he overlooked their shame and guilt.  It is that he had come to pardon them so that they could be restored to God’s family.  Jesus had come to take up their sin and guilt, and to suffer and die for them.  It was not because they were better.  It is not because they were worthy.  It is because Jesus is prodigal with his mercy.  He even feasts with sinners.
     We are not nearly so merciful.  Like the older son, we commend ourselves, thinking that we have cleaned ourselves up, that we got it straight, and that we are better behaved.  There are people we secretly pray would not become part of this congregation because they are crude or crooked or criminal.  They disgust us.  We are like the older son who would boast, “I have never disobeyed your command,” and what is worse, we actually believe that.  But you, too, have abused your Father’s gifts.  You have taken advantage of his mercy, going back to your pet sins because you think your pets are harmless.  Or perhaps you even envy those who booze it up and sleep around, thinking that that is the good life; avoiding it not so much because it is evil but because getting caught has consequences.  You are more prodigal than you think.  The prodigal son was honest enough to call himself the sinner he was.  There were no excuses.  “I have sinned,” he said.  Do not try to bargain that your sins are less serious or less frequent.  Let your confession be equally honest.  Repent. 
     But the heavenly Father is even more prodigal than you are.  He squanders his grace and mercy more than you sin.  The Father sent his only begotten Son into the world to pay for your sins.  The holy, innocent blood which was spilt covers your guilt and shame.  Through baptism, your Father has wrapped the robe of salvation around you.  He has put his signet ring on your finger and gives you the rights to the kingdom.  He does not assign you to probation or purgatory.  You are children of the Most High God and, therefore, rightful heirs of heaven.  And what is heaven but the wedding feast of the Lamb?  It is the place where Jesus Christ will feast with sinners—sinners who have been cleansed in his blood and purified of all unrighteousness.  This is not because you are better or more worthy, but because your Father is prodigal with his mercy.
     When you see the wicked rescued from the fires of hell, there is no need to feel any resentment.  It only means they are receiving the same mercy and grace that you have been shown.  You lose nothing, but you gain a brother or sister.  Therefore, rejoice.  Summon the other prodigals from their filth.  Bring them to the feast where Jesus is pleased—even rejoices!—to feast with sinners.  After all, this is Jesus’ regular custom.
     Once again this morning, this man will receive sinners and feast with them.  Jesus will have you as partakers of the marriage feast.  He will give you his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  You will again celebrate in your Father’s house; for all that is his is yours.  He covered all the expenses; you receive all the good things for free.  Do not hoard it, but gather others to it.  The Father is reckless, prodigal, and generous with his grace--as if he could never run out.  Thank God he never does!

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.