Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,
The story of the prodigal son, his father, and his older brother, is the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It’s full of meaning. It describes personal relationships and some folks say it reveals the spiritual problems of entire nations and civilizations. At the same time, it points to the cure for illnesses of the spirit: God’s everlasting love for the people he created.
We’ll focus on the father this morning and look at him from two angles, as a Christian parent and as a representative or symbol of God’s love in action.
The father certainly had his hands full. One son squandered his inheritance in riotous living, while the other was humorless and self-righteous. The father knew their ways of thinking well and knew what their errors would cost them. Their problems were basically spiritual; their hearts were turned away from the truth. The father didn’t reproach either one of them or himself nor did he blame the world for bringing him a load of trouble that he couldn’t resolve. He waited on the Lord in trust and knew that God would act. His joy at the youngest son’s return was really a celebration of heaven’s way of dealing with the world: God brought a wandering sinner back to his senses. The father’s waiting and hoping received their reward.
All parents have many joys and apprehensions in common. Christian parents have a different point of view from others and extra resources to call on. They’re like the father in the parable. They make sure their youngsters gain a good understanding of Christian teaching and how Christians behave and they point them to the Lord for forgiveness and encouragement. Christian parents also cling to the Savior’s forgiveness themselves, because forgiveness from the Lord restores effectiveness and keeps us from dwelling on our shortcomings. The father in the parable was strong-minded in Christ, so he could rejoice when his son came home.
He was also experienced at waiting on the Lord. He may have known by imagination what his son was passing through, but at the same time, he knew that he had given the youngster a solid grounding in the Bible’s teachings about repentance and faith. He trusted that after riotous living had brought him to disaster, his son would reach out for the help he needed. The father knew that the Holy Spirit works to bring people from sin to righteousness, and so he waited. Waiting tests us; it strengthens our faith. The waiting of Christians teaches us to form the habit of turning to God. He sustained Adam and Eve during the time of troubles between Cain and Abel; he strengthened Jacob as he learned about the escapades of his sons; he comforted David after Absalom took a bad turn. He brings all Christian parents steady faith and balanced joy.
We can’t talk about the father in the parable without mentioning his love. When he decided to marry and raise a family, he made a decision to provide for his children as best he could. He didn’t change his mind. His firmness of commitment came from a loving heart. He didn’t disown the son who sought a life of debauchery nor did he lash out at his older son who believed he could do no wrong. Paul’s words about love apply to him. He was patient, kind, not jealous or irritable or resentful. He was self-giving and didn’t insist on having his own way. These well-known words of Paul lived in his heart: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
These qualities come from faith; families that live by them are most likely to stay together. Christian families have an advantage. I’ve been impressed by the strong family feeling I’ve seen among Lutherans. Our people are in contact with God’s love. He encourages us to trust that his blessings will continue.
We see that that the traditional supports for families that we grew up with are weakening. Laws have changed. We’re encouraged to put money and status and possessions in first place. Our sources of entertainment don’t always hold up good models. We can’t say what the future will bring, but God does know. He will support and nourish his community of believers who will stick with him by faith. He will teach his people how to cope and how to wait. He will comfort and strengthen everyone who turns to him.
These reflections bring us to larger questions that come up when we think about this morning’s parable. Somebody said that the younger son stands for the whole of western society today. Every nation and every culture is said to be fleeing the spiritual home that the loving Heavenly Father has created for us. We might say that the older son, too, resembles a lot of people. How many of the world’s troubles come from folks who have an exaggeratedly high opinion of their own merits? If this observation is just, the Lord must be highly displeased, though not with his church, where people wait patiently to obey his will and to receive his blessing.
The Lord said to his people through Moses: “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. Choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and cleaving to him, for that means life to you and length of days.” God offers abundance and life everlasting through faith in him. We know that many refuse his offer. Rather than accept life with a vision of meaning and hope, human flesh loves to drift from one event to another. It is our nature to want to maximize pleasure and profit and to look on ourselves as unjustly injured if we feel deprived. How much the condition of human nature must grieve the Lord.
A worldly mind in his place would destroy the world without a second thought because we humans have made such a mess of things. Jesus doesn’t behave that way. He goes by a different method. He’s like the father in this morning’s parable. He is patient, forbearing, and full of love. He plants strong seeds of faith by the words of Scripture and the work of the church. He uses people like ourselves who quietly and humbly set an example of love for our neighbors. He then waits for the seeds that we plant to bear fruit. He forgives over and over and rejoices along with his angels whenever a sinner comes to his senses. And turning to God is the normal, sensible thing to do. A Christian thinker once wrote: “It is a sound rational act to turn from sin, its curse and doom, to God, pardon, and salvation. The real turn to God occurs in the depths of the soul…. Much about it is mysterious, for it’s like a spark of new life that has come into a dead heart, a sudden pulse of vitality, where all was lifeless and still before.”
Paul wrote that God’s way is foolishness to worldly minds, especially the method he used to achieve salvation – the suffering and humiliation of the cross. The father in the parable must have grieved over the way his sons conducted their lives. he must have had his hours and days of suffering, but he didn’t turn against either of his children. Jesus grieved in a greater way during his time of suffering, but he didn’t turn against humanity. He patiently endured suffering at the hands of idiots, who twisted the laws to serve their own purposes and who resorted to human strength to fight the will of God. Human strength is a shadow, though, next to God’s patient ways of working. His so-called foolishness – which the father in this morning’s parable represents – led to the glory of resurrection and the redemption of the human race from the clutches of Satan.
God’s response to the charge that western civilization has become like the two sons in this morning’s parable is to be like the father – holding on to the truth, but loving and patient at the same time, not giving up easily on anyone and shutting the door on no sinner who repents.
He calls his faithful people to help him, and it’s they who carry the burden of civilization. They bring God’s values into the world around them. St. Peter’s people are like that – like the father in the parable. We may feel beleaguered at times, a minority pushed to the wall, but we don’t give up. We remember that one candle can brighten a whole room. The point is not that we feel comfortable or well-adapted to the world, but that we’re servants of the Lord, willing to wait and to bring his kind of love to the folks who come our way.
This doesn’t mean that we approve of wrong-doing or take part in it, but we live by God’s truth in patience and love. We teach God’s way by word and example to folks for whom we have responsibility; we’re quick to forgive and rejoice at signs of repentance. We reproach and encourage. We bring our own sins to the foot of the cross every day.
In this way, we help the Lord build up and strengthen our families and take part in Jesus’ work of restoring and refurbishing the world around us. We’re like the father in the Lord’s parable, whose mind even in times of crisis was never far from his heavenly home.
Jesus wants us to find encouragement and hope in this morning’s parable. The Christian way of faithful waiting on the Lord, which our people practice, is the best way. Faith brings confidence and confidence brings joy. This is what our Lord wants from us – trust that he became man, that our sins are forgiven, that he has saved us, and that he has prepared a home in heaven for us. Like the father in the parable, we rejoice that he finds the lost and saves the wandering. Also, like the father we respond gladly when he calls us to help him. In His name, we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.