Pastor Kyle Bitter - Lent 4, Sunday, March 31, 2019

Text: Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

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What would you do if you got to church and sat down in one of the pews, and a little while after the service started, someone came and sat next to you? So you look over to see who it was, and the face looks familiar, but you just can’t place it. The worship service continues, and it’s in the back of your mind, and suddenly the realization comes crashing down on why that face was so familiar. You’d seen that face on the news, or on the neighborhood social network. A face that belonged to a convicted felon who had served his time in prison and was now released back into society! How would you react? Or, what if instead of a face from the evening news, you looked over and it was that homeless guy you’ve seen holding a sign by the freeway off ramp asking for help? How would you react? Or, what if it was someone from work or school – someone who has not treated you kindly at all? I’m going to guess that most of us would have the maturity to be civil and composed, but it might be hard to keep the thought from popping into you head: “what are they doing here?”  or, “Does that person really belong at my church?” Even though you probably know God’s answer both of those questions, it’s quite possible that they arise. If you can envision that happening, then you can probably also understand why some people in Jesus’ day were a little uncomfortable with his ministry. 

One detail emphasized in Luke’s account of Jesus time on earth is the variety of people who were drawn to Jesus and his teaching, often describing them in the imagery of the rich and the poor – and not referring to money necessarily.  Luke describes among Jesus’ followers those who are poor because of their social and cultural status in that time – children, women, the disabled, the elderly, foreigners. He also includes those who were poor because of life choices they’d made – wealthy but hated tax collectors for example, and he includes people who were spiritually poor – people whose lives had been characterized by one public sin or another, and so on. If you had to choose people from society to be the founders of your church, these were hardly the people that anyone would have chosen, and so it’s not surprising that you see people wondering what Jesus is doing. Luke records in today’s gospel, “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 – NIV84). It’s an easily understandable attitude, but it’s also a sinful attitude, and so in response to that, Jesus tells a series of three parables – the final one is recorded for us in today’s gospel.  In the process, Jesus teaches us a critically important truth to keep in mind – both for our own relationship with God and for the interactions we have with people who might be very different from us.    

Your relationship with God

Jesus told this story, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. (Luke 15:11-12 – NIV84). To you and me, this seems like an odd request right away, but in that culture,  it really wasn’t all that unexpected. The oldest son would stay at home to continue the family business, whatever that might be, and with that responsibility came 2/3 of the family wealth. Other children, once they were ready to live on their own, would be given a portion of family wealth to go and start something else on their own as adults. That’s probably what was going on here, but the true character of the younger son does show forth quickly. 

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country, and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.  (Luke 15:13-16 – NIV84). He hadn’t been looking to go out on his own as a responsible adult – he was looking for freedom from rules, freedom to do whatever he wanted, sinful or not. It was the kind of behavior that was a disgrace to the family name, and it appears the younger son came to realize that through his experience.      

When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”  So he got up and went to his father.  (Luke 15:17-19 – NIV84).  It was a decision that took a certain amount of courage, wasn’t it?  I don’t think anyone would have faulted the father at all if he had showed anger at his son’s disrespect and folly, and I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if the whole family had disowned him!  After all, actions have consequences. 

But Jesus includes a surprising twist. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And it almost seems as though his father cuts him off right there with the rest of what he had planned to say. “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” (Luke 15:20b-23 – NIV84)

The father isn’t interested in punishment. He isn’t worried about what other people think about his son. He isn’t concerned about the disgrace brought on the family name. He simply rejoices in the fact that the son has seen the error of his ways and has come home, and he welcomes him with forgiveness and celebration: For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:24 – NIV84). This is a beautiful picture of what Jesus does for people. Whether it was the sinful outcasts of society back then or any kind of sinfulness you or I might have fallen into today, whether it’s a public and well-known sin or something secret and shameful and hidden, Jesus’ invitation is exactly the same.  Turn from that sinfulness, and trust in your Savior. His Grace is Limitless! No restrictions. No sin that’s so huge that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t pay for it!  Limitless Grace!  Let’s have a feast and celebrate! But you and I aren’t the only children of God who can celebrate. Jesus wants to extend his forgiveness to all of his children, no matter how far they have strayed. That’s what the religious leaders in Jesus’ day were struggling to understand, so the parable doesn’t end with the younger son being welcomed home. 

Your relationship with others

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:25-30 – NIV84). I don’t think the reaction of the older son is all that difficult to understand, but at the same time it’s just as sinfully misguided as his younger brother. His brother’s admission of his wrongdoing wasn’t good enough for him.  He wanted to see consequences. He wanted to see punishment. He wanted everyone to know how much better he had been than his brother, and in the process,  he shows that he is just as lost as his younger brother had been, but even worse: he didn’t even realize it! 

That was exactly the problem for the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They thought they were the so-called “good people,” but they were just as lost in sinfulness as those whom they were so readily willing to criticize. It’s an attitude that’s easy to fall into today as well. You’ve seen it if you’ve noticed the sinful lifestyles promoted by society and thought to yourself, at least I’m at least I’m not doing that, as if your sins are somehow less worthy of punishment! You’ve seen the same attitude if you’ve compared your own family situation to that of someone else and given yourself at pat on the back – I must have done something right! And, it’s an attitude that you might see if you look at the person sitting next to you in worship and think – even just for a second – they don’t belong here. We don’t like to admit it, but before God none of us are any less guilty than the convicted felon or the mass murderer, and we pile sin on top of sin by refusing to admit that! Whether you’re more like the older brother or like the younger brother, it all deserves the same punishment, because it’s all equally far from perfection, which is the only thing acceptable before God. 

But the good news in Jesus’ parable is this: the father is consistent throughout. He treats his older son in the exact same way he treated his younger son! Just as he ran out with open arms to welcome his wayward younger son home, so he also goes out and pleads with his older son to put aside his sinful grudges and come and enjoy the feast. “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32 – NIV84)

Jesus leaves the story there. He doesn’t tell us how the older son responded. And Luke does the same thing. We don’t hear how the Pharisees reacted Jesus’ parable. But we do hear the invitation of our Savior – an invitation extended to the outcasts of society in his day, and invitation extended to the self-righteous Pharisees and religious leaders, and an invitation extended to you and me too. Put aside your sinfulness – whatever form it might take! Turn to your Savior and come enjoy the feast! Come celebrate the fact that you are a member of God’s family, and your inheritance is an eternity of joy and happiness in heaven. Come and celebrate that fact that there are no limits on Jesus’ grace – there is no benchmark requirement of prior good behavior, maximum limit of sins he is able to forgive – he simply invites you to come into the feast and rejoice that your sin was paid for at the cross. Come into the Feast! Amen.