It has become more common in recent years to focus on the older son of the parable — though whether that is a matter of humility or pride, I do not know. Maybe it’s just trying to be clever and to keep it fresh. But there can be no doubt that the older son is an important part of the story, since the Lord Jesus has chosen to include him. His accusations against his brother and his father echo those of the scribes and pharisees against Jesus Himself, and that is clearly to the point at hand.
Ironically, the older son is far more like his younger brother than he would ever realize or want to admit. Both of them are recipients of their father’s love and mercy, and yet both have presumed upon His gracious generosity. They have both suffered from a false sense of entitlement. And in the course of the narrative, they both harden their hearts against their father and consequently find themselves estranged, on the outside, far removed from the feasting of his household and family.
There are many ways in which you should recognize yourself in the sinful attitudes and actions of that older brother. But in making that comparison, do not flatter yourself that you have been the dutiful and obedient son who has worked hard and never done anything wrong. Rather, repent of your self-righteousness, be reconciled to your father and your brother, and please do come inside.
And while you’re at it, let’s not lose sight of the prodigal son, since the Lord has also chosen to tell you his story, that you should learn something of yourself and of your Father in these events.
There is something deeply familiar and all too common in the case of that younger son. Not so much in the details, which belong to a different cultural setting. But the underlying pattern of his choices and decisions and the consequences of his actions resonate with your own experiences.
In what ways have you despised your Father and taken His good gifts for granted, as though what you had were yours by rights? How have you hardened your heart against Him and turned away from His Word and Table? If not geographically, by running away from His Home and Family, then morally, by your behavior and by the way you have misused and abused the time, treasures, and talents entrusted to your stewardship? To what far country have you wandered — in heart, mind, or body — restless for adventure and excitement, for something you have not been given?
Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments. How is it between you and the Lord your God? Or between you and your neighbors? Are you content and confident with your Father in heaven? Are you at peace with all people, in so far as it depends on you? Or have you burned your bridges, built your walls, shut your ears, and turned your cold shoulder to anyone? Have you viewed your neighbor as someone to love and serve, or as someone to use and discard?
What you may not yet realize is how your prodigal living is taking you farther and farther away from your Father and what you need the most. Pray that in His mercy He would not leave you to go your own way forever, but that He would recall you to Himself before it is too late. For when you have removed yourself from His Home and Family, nothing else will ever be able to satisfy your deepest longing. Your appetite will not be appeased; it is you that it consumes. For the world that you have been pursuing is not what you need. Only the Word of your Father can give you life.
If His tough love and fatherly discipline have brought you to your senses — for that is what it is when He grants you enough rope to hang yourself or to sink yourself up to your neck in the pig slop of your sins — then, enough already! Repent of your sins. Stop wallowing in your own filth. Rise up and return to your Father’s House and Home. Be reconciled to Him by faith in His mercy.
It is not for you to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You cannot raise yourself from death and the grave, which is the far country to which your sins and unbelief have taken you. Nor is your bargaining apology the key to repentance. Surely it is true that you are not worthy to be called your Father’s son. But it never was a matter of your worthiness; nor shall it ever be. Neither is it for the sake of nostalgic paternal emotions that your Father will receive you back and welcome you home. This parable is not a story of simply letting bygones be bygones! It is of the Gospel.
To come back to your senses is more than realizing how badly off you are apart from the Lord your God. It is to remember who you are. Not by genealogy or pedigree; not by aptitude or effort; but who you are by your Baptism into Christ Jesus. You are God’s own child because He has adopted you by His grace and called you by His own Name. Draw water from that well of salvation. And so return to Him, not with deals or negotiations, but with confidence in His Word and promises.
Remember your Father, who He is and what He is like. You know His mercy and compassion, His comfort and provision. You know His Love, because He has loved you, and He loves you still. Return to Him in heart and mind, in body and soul. Know that He will gladly receive you back, as surely as He has already done so in the Person of His own dearly-beloved Son, Christ Jesus.
Understand that the Word of Jesus concerning the Prodigal Son is really only one piece of a three-part Parable. It belongs hand-in-hand to what He says concerning the lost sheep and the lost coin. And as the Shepherd sought and found His missing sheep, and the Woman searched her house until she found her missing coin, so does the Father seek His missing son in order to bring him home.
Perhaps you have found yourself in such a place as this Father, longing for your wayward son or daughter to come home; longing for your children or your children’s children to return to the life of the family, or, what is even more important, to the life of the Church. If so, take this to heart, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ loves you and your children, and He longs for you and them even more than you long for your family. And while you may feel that you are helpless to do anything — although you can and should confess and pray the Word of God to and for your children from infancy through adulthood — the Lord is not powerless to seek and to save the lost.
Indeed, the Father has gone out to find and recover His prodigal sons and daughters by giving up His one and only righteous Son, the Only-Begotten God in the flesh, even into death upon the Cross. That incarnate Son, conceived and born of St. Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried for your sins, He is the Father’s open heart of divine compassion. He is the Father’s open arms of love and welcoming embrace. In Him, the Father has come to retrieve His children.
That is the certainty and comfort of the Gospel, by which the Father reconciles you to Himself in Christ Jesus. For He has so identified Himself with you, that He has become the Prodigal Son in His own flesh and blood. He has taken the Father’s wealth into the far country of sin and death. He has squandered it, as the scribes and pharisees accuse, on prostitutes, publicans, and sinners of all kinds. He eats and drinks with them and thereby assumes responsibility for their sins and shares in their uncleanness, as though He were guilty of all the filthy deeds that they have done.
Not only with them and their sins, but with you and yours. He has descended to the depths of the pig slop that you wallow in, to mire in your mess, to eat and drink with swine like you. Not that He sins in any way; nor does He condone your sin, as though it were okay. But what He does is all the more remarkable and astonishing. For He who is the Holy One takes ownership of all your sins. He makes them His own. In fact, He not only bears them in His Body, but He becomes all your sins, in order to offer Himself as your Sin Offering, the Sacrifice of Atonement for your sins.
He has become your adultery and fornication; your gluttony and drunkenness; your rejection of parents and siblings; your laziness and lack of love. He has become your selfishness and terribly poor stewardship, as though He were the one spending money beyond your means on luxuries and vices, while neglecting to support the Church and Ministry, the household and family of God, and refusing to care for your neighbor in his or her need on the pretense that you can’t afford to help.
He has become all of this and more, and He has suffered and died for all of it; He has sacrificed Himself to atone for all your sins, to put them to death in Himself and put an end to them in you.
He has suffered His Father’s just judgment, all His righteous wrath and anger against your sins. He has died your death and the death of the whole world. And by this willing sacrifice of His, all those sins that He bore in His Body to the Cross have been removed. They cannot be considered or counted against you any longer. All of your sins are dead and buried with His crucified body.
But now listen carefully: This Son who was dead has risen and, behold, He lives! The One who died for you, in your place, bearing all your sins and the sins of the whole world, He has risen from the dead and returned to the Right Hand of His Father. He has come back from the far country. For He is the Author and Perfecter of the faith, and His Resurrection from the dead is your reconciliation to God. Your sins are dead and gone, but in His Body you reside with the Father.
Again, this is your certainty and confidence. This is the comfort of the Gospel. For this is how the Father recalls you and receives you to Himself: He raises your Savior, Jesus, from the dead.
It is this reconciliation and joyful reception that you have heard described in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It has already happened for the benefit of all the world, and so also for you, in the Person of the Son of God. And it has become yours in your Holy Baptism. There you have died to your sins, and so are you also raised with Christ to live and abide with the Father in peace.
It is right that you should remember and return to the significance of your Baptism by repenting of your sins. It is good and right that you should confess your sins, according to God’s Word, to seek and receive the Holy Absolution that your Father speaks to you by His Son. But it is not your apology that paves the way for your return. It is not your hard work that makes you God’s child or provides you with a place in His Home and Family. All of that is yours in Christ Jesus.
It is in Christ Jesus that your Father’s eye is upon you, even while you are yet so far away and lost to yourself. He sees you in love. His heart is moved with divine compassion for you. And so it is that He does not wait for you to bring yourself back, but He runs out to meet you and to bring you in. This is an extraordinary part of the story, that the Father should bear the reproach of His wayward son, and that He should embarrass Himself by hitching up His robes and running out to meet that young man who had so disrespected Him. But this is the beautiful glory of the Gospel!
Your Father covers your shame with His own honor. He robes you with His own Righteousness in Christ Jesus. In Him, you are not filthy and unclean but radiant, holy, and pure. The Spirit and the Sonship of the Son of God are yours by the grace of the Father. He puts His signet ring on your finger to testify of your inheritance, as He has signed your forehead and your heart with the Cross of Christ in Holy Baptism. He girds your feet with the Gospel of Peace, so that all your coming in and going out are preserved in His blessing of forgiveness. He welcomes you to live by faith.
You need not earn His favor. It is already yours. He rejoices over you and with you, because you have died and risen with Christ Jesus, His beloved Son. So has He sacrificed the Fattened Calf for you, which is to say that He offers a Sacrifice of Thanksgiving for you, in order to celebrate and feast, and not only to eat and drink with you, but to be the One who feeds you and refreshes you unto the life everlasting. For Christ is not only the Sacrifice of Atonement, but also the Eucharist. He is not only the Burnt Offering, but also the Peace Offering and the Passover Lamb. He is your Strength and your Song, as the Scriptures declare, because He has become your Salvation.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.