There are all sorts of ways in which you may find yourself estranged and at odds with your family, colleagues and associates, and various other neighbors: Unresolved disagreements, unreconciled hurts and offenses, or the gradual chilling of hearts and minds that have turned away from mutual cares and concerns to other interests and pursuits. So too, there are numerous ways in which you estrange and distance yourself from the Father in heaven, though He does not turn away from you.
There may be wild and loose living and flagrant vices of the sort that everyone knows are wrong, and there are ways in which you do pursue those paths, even if only in your imagination. But there is also presumptuous pride and self-righteous indignation, covetous envy, and bitter resentment of brothers and sisters and other neighbors, whereby you find fault with your Father and harden your heart against Him and His household and family, despite His grace and mercy toward you.
When you are estranged and at odds with your God and Father in heaven, then you are also at odds and out of sorts with your neighbors on earth. And by the same token, when you harden yourself against your neighbor, be it family, friend, or foe, you poison your relationship with your Father, as well. Faith and love both suffer and die when you refuse to live by the grace of God.
When you insist upon your own self-righteousness, and when you invest yourself in selfishness, then you squander the gifts and blessings, talents and resources that God the Lord has entrusted to your stewardship and faithful use. You squander them in reckless spending on yourself; and you squander them by clinging to what you possess and withholding the love and service that you owe to your brothers and sisters. While you are well fed, your neighbor goes hungry. While your home is maintained, expanded, and beautified, the Lord’s House deteriorates and falls apart. While you look after yourself, shore up your bank accounts, invest in your children’s future, and take your extravagant vacations, others go wanting, others go hungry, others go without your love.
But attitudes and actions have consequences; and for all of these sins against the Lord your God and against the neighbors He has given you, there are various pigsties in which you find yourself. As troubling and tragic as that may seem, it is a greater mercy of your God and Father to bring you to that point than if He were to leave you to the lusts of your flesh and the hardness of your heart. It is often in the pigsty that you finally begin to remember who you really are, whose child you are, whose Name you bear; and with that stirring of repentance, you begin to remember your Father.
In the meantime there is brokenness and division within your family and your other relationships. Either you and those you are given to love go your separate ways, or you coexist without any care and concern for each other. You likewise distance yourself from the household and family of God. You hold your neighbors in contempt, whether out of arrogance or covetousness. And the upshot is that you do not have peace and security in your life, but anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear.
Not always, but often enough, your financial difficulties are likewise a consequence of the way you have invested God’s gifts in yourself, supposing that you are the author and giver of life, and so rejecting the hand of the Lord who feeds and clothes and shelters your body and life on earth.
In many such ways, you have cut yourself off and wandered away from your Father’s house. You have wandered far and wide from His hearth and home. You have turned your back on His great heart of love and pursued a life for yourself — a life that cannot succeed or prosper but must finally end in death. In many such ways, you are the prodigal son, whether you realize it or not!
The older son is a prodigal son, as well, though he does not realize it and would not admit it. Both of these brothers are in the same sad shape. They have both departed from their Father, one in a distant country, one still living at home, but they are not so different from each other, not really, not at all. They see themselves and each other very differently, but their life is very much alike.
The Father’s eye is upon both of His sons. His heart is opened in love and generosity toward both of them alike. So has He given them everything, and He pours Himself out for them. He does it out of love, as an exercise of His pure grace and mercy, though neither of His sons recognize that. They both presume to be His sons by right. And they both presume that they must earn His love, a place in His house, and whatever else they would have from Him, by working for it. Thus, they spurn His love, twist their hearts away, and estrange themselves from their Father. In selfishness they seek to gain His favor by the righteousness of their own works and efforts. It doesn’t work.
Neither of these brothers is a son by right. They are sons by the grace of their Father, as are you and all of your fellow Christians. For you are all sons of God by the Word and Spirit, Baptism, and faith of Christ Jesus, and by no other way or means than that. So it is for Ruth Eleanor, for you, and for both the elder and the younger son in this Parable. But they were not grasping that.
The older son boasts of all the years that he has slaved away and never done anything wrong. He lives in his Father’s house, but he does not see the grace and blessing with which he has always been surrounded. He views it as a prison. He sees his work and labor not as love but as slavery. He imagines that his Father has been unfair to him, that He has withheld good things from him.
The older son would have a goat, not to celebrate the Passover with his Father and his family, but to throw a party with his friends. He does not want to be there any more than his younger brother did before. He only figures that, by working hard and putting in his time, he will finally get what he wants. He is selfish and self-righteous. He is greedy, resentful, and hateful, and his sins are just as bad and just as harmful, if not worse, than his brother’s loose living in that far away country.
Both of these brothers have it wrong. The younger son, when he comes to his senses and realizes how much worse his life has gotten, makes a plan to bargain and barter with his Father. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son,” he asserts (as though he ever could be). “But let me work for you and earn my keep. Let me be your servant.” So does he propose to get himself back home.
Your own heart is much the same in its strategies and propositions, when you begin to recognize your sins and failings. You’re gonna try and work twice as hard. You’re gonna do better. You’re very, very sorry, and so you’re gonna get back in the ring and get it right this time. You’re gonna show your Dad that you’re not the loser or the lost cause you have seemed to be. You’re gonna roll up your sleeves, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, carry your weight, and earn your keep.
But it doesn’t work that way. You can only be a son of God by grace, through faith in the Gospel, and not by any works of your own. You receive the inheritance of the Father and a place in His household and family, not by working for it, but only by receiving it, according to His love.
As things stand at the conclusion of the Parable, it is the older son who is left standing outside of the Father’s house. His heart is bitter and resentful. He is angry at his Father, angry at his brother, and angry at the world. So he will not come inside. He does not repent, and he is not reconciled to his Father or his family, because he rejects his Father’s grace for both his brother and himself.
Do not make the same mistake. Do not cut yourself off from the Father who loves you, who would welcome you into His House by grace. Repent of your sins, and be reconciled to God in Christ.
That is not to negotiate deals or contracts with the Lord your God. You are not reconciled to your Father by redefining yourself as an indentured servant and working to pay off your dues. Your place is that of a child in the household and family of God, which cannot be earned or achieved — no more than Ruth Eleanor could have earned or achieved her own birth, given herself life, or brought herself into existence. It is rather the Author and Perfecter of faith who has opened up the way of repentance and reconciliation to you and to all the sons and daughters of man.
Christ Jesus alone is the Son of God by nature and by right, who has never neglected a command of His Father. And having become the true Man after God’s own heart, that only-begotten and well-pleasing Son “squanders” His Father’s wealth on publicans and prostitutes, and on sinners like you. In love and mercy, this One who knew no sin became Sin, bore the Curse, and suffered your Death and Damnation, in order that you might become the righteousness of God in Him.
It is this incarnate Son of God who has journeyed from His Father in heaven to the far country of your sin and death, who has descended into the muck and the mire of your pigsty, unto His Cross and Passion. Thus has He taken your place to be His own, that He might bring you back to His place, back to His House and Home, back to His Father in heaven. As by His sacrificial death He has made Atonement for your sins, so by His Resurrection and Ascension has He reconciled you to His God and Father, raising you up from death and the grave to Life everlasting in Himself.
It is by your Baptism into Christ that His God and Father is now your God and Father. And it is in Christ Jesus that the Father’s eye is ever upon you, so that He sees you while you are yet a long way off and far away from home. It is in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, that the Father’s heart and home, His arms, and His embrace are flung wide open to you in tender love.
It is in Christ Jesus that the Father has compassion upon you. That is not just a sentiment or a warm fuzzy feeling in His heart, but the active exercise of His divine grace and mercy in the flesh and blood of the only-begotten Son. That is to say, it is in Christ Jesus that the Father goes running out to meet His prodigal son, to embrace him and gather him home to Himself rejoicing.
The true significance of this point can too easily escape us in this modern day and age. Patriarchs simply did not go running down the street! From the standpoint of the world and its culture, this was disgraceful and embarrassing. But so does this gracious Father shame Himself in order to bear and cover His son’s disgrace and shame. He rushes out to meet him and to bring him home with joy and honor. And so does He come to you by His Word and bring you home in repentant faith.
He does not lecture, scold, or chastise you. He hears your confession of sin, and immediately He is all about forgiveness. He covers you and clothes you with the best robe, which is the Robe of Christ and His perfect Righteousness, such as that which Ruth and all the baptized wear by the grace of God through faith in His Gospel. He brings you back into town, and He brings you back into His House with His arm around you. He permits no one else to accuse you, for He does not accuse you. There is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus, but only reconciliation and peace.
Your Father celebrates your resurrection and your life in Christ with the Fatted Calf. He offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and He shares the fellowship of that sacrifice with the entire household and family. He does not remember your sins or hold them against you. He rejoices only that you are not dead but alive, that you are His very own, and that He has gotten you back.
It is a return to your Holy Baptism. That is where you became His son, because that is where you were united with Christ Jesus, named with His Name, and anointed with His Holy Spirit. So it is to that new birth of water and the Word that He returns you by repentance and forgiveness of sins. He cannot and will not deny Himself. He remains your Father, even when you distance yourself.
By the preaching of His Word, He goes out to you, gently pleads with you, and calls you back to Himself. With His Word of forgiveness He clothes you again and again in the righteousness and holiness of Christ Jesus. He puts a ring on your finger because He has given you His Kingdom. The inheritance of heaven, it is yours. Everything the Father has, it is yours, entirely by grace.
He welcomes you into the House. He seats you at His Table. He does not put you in the servants’ quarters, He gives you the place of honor; though you do not deserve it, it is His desire to do so. Here He feeds you with the Body and Blood of the true Fatted Calf, the One who was sacrificed for your transgressions and raised for your justification. He is your repentance and reconciliation, given and poured out for you. He is your Strength and your Song, because He is your Salvation. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, whatever you have been, this is your Father’s Home. It is your house and home in Christ Jesus. Welcome back! How can we not celebrate?
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.