Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Date: Lent IV + 3/14/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

The Fourth Sunday in Lent has been known traditionally as Laetare or “Rejoice” Sunday from the historic Introit that begins with Isaiah 66:10, “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her.” It may seem strange that tradition has handed down one Sunday in the otherwise austere, penitent season of Lent as one of joy and celebration. But this is reflected even in our three-year lectionary. The prophet Isaiah turns hymn-writer as he composes the joyful hymn of Isaiah 12. “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” When he gives the instruction, “Sing praises to the Lord,” however, he is not talking to church-growth praise bands to make a lot of happy-clappy noise but to the people of God to praise the Lord by telling and re-telling what the Lord has done, what there is for us to be so happy about, the mighty acts of God. Yes, joy is a main theme of today’s scripture readings; the joy of the deliverance, salvation and incomprehensible love of God for His whole creation.

That’s what is behind the parable of the Prodigal Son. Don’t forget the setting. Those slimy, dirty tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. At this the Pharisees and the scribes, those pillars of society and paragons of virtue grumbled among themselves. To them all they could see in Jesus was a wild-canon rabbi who was defiling himself not only by his association with such sinners but even having intimate meal fellowship with them. “This man,” they grumbled, “receives sinners and eats with them.” Yes, as we sing in one of our hymns,

Jesus sinners doth receive;
Oh, may all this saying ponder
Who in sin’s delusions live
And from God and heaven wander! (LSB 609:1)

You see, that would include both the tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and scribes! And that’s the point.

In response to their grumbling Jesus told three parables, the parable of the Lost Sheep, the parable of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Prodigal Son. The first two parables are a defense of His mission to seek and to save the lost. “There will be more joy in heaven,” He said, “over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7). “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10). But then what about the ninety-nine so-called righteous persons and the nine silver coins that were never lost in the first place? The third parable, the Prodigal Son, shows two amazing things. First, as the Apostle Paul would put it succinctly, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23). The Pharisees and scribes and the self-righteous of every age and nation need to learn the first lesson: all are sinners, you included, and therefore all are in need of repentance and salvation, you included. So, you see, the second amazing thing is that Jesus not only receives tax collectors and sinners and eats with them, but He’s even willing to receive you, the so-called righteous who wrongly suppose you need no repentance. In other words, “God so loved the world,” His whole world, and everyone in it. Jesus is not only defending His ministry, but is also reaching out to love and to save even His enemies. In the same way we, as His disciples, are commanded to “love your enemies” (Lk. 6:27).

The younger son in the parable therefore represents the tax collectors and sinners, all those whose lost condition is the more evident. They are separated from God and ruin themselves in reckless living. The Word of the Law of God comes to them and convicts them in hopes that they will “come to themselves,” wake up to their true need, repent and return to their Creator, their God, their true Father.

So far that would be the end of the parable, mirroring the point of the first two parables. But this one goes further. As God is portrayed by the loving father in the story who hurries to receive and restore his lost son, so the Pharisees and the scribes are portrayed as the older son who, while he did not squander his inheritance or run away or live recklessly, still proves to have quite a chip on his shoulder. “You never gave me (even) a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” The poor guy is totally blind to what’s really going on here. The prodigal is not “celebrating with his friends.” His family is celebrating over him, celebrating life, indeed, resurrection from the dead! And now his father comes out to him, just as he did to the prodigal to welcome and invite even him to come and join the celebration.

“Even him.” That’s the point of true repentance which each of us needs; to know that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to suffer and die for sinners, sinners including “even me.”

What’s there to be so joyful about? What’s there to celebrate? The great love of God. This parable asks us to get this now so that in Holy Week we can not only sing with the Spirit but with the understanding also (1 Cor. 14:15):

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die? (LSB 430:1)