The Third Sunday after Trinity
St. Luke 15:1-32
July 2, 2017 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The wasteful, hateful son in the parable comes to his senses. While serving as a hand hired to feed pigs, he realizes he’d be better off as a hired hand for his father. He had taken the inheritance and wasted it. In doing so, he had disowned his father and his family. He does not think that he can be a son any longer for to be a son is to be an heir and he had burned through the entirety of the inheritance. It wasn’t coming back.
In contrast to a son, a hired hand is self-made. He has earned his place. He earns his wages and his employer’s respect, but a hired hand’s place at the father’s table is temporary. Many a man has learned this the hard way. He works and toils for a boss whom he loves and admires. The boss tells him that he loves him like a son. He understands the boss. He picks up his habits and virtues. He idolizes him and in return he is his boss’s best and most loved employee.
Then the boss retires. He hands the company over not to the favorite, loyal employee who made him loads of money for him but to a less than competent son who wastes his money. When he said that he loved the worker “as a son” what he really meant was: “I like you a lot but you are not my son.”
That is a bitter pill and has taken many men by surprise. Men often discover that despite all the rhetoric of their employers and the work that they have done all they have to show for it in the end are the wages which they have already spent. The hired hand’s work provides not for himself but the boss and his family. The hired hand’s place at the table is temporary.
Permanence depends not on works, even on respect and admiration, nor on competence or loyalty. Permanence depends on inheritance and inheritance cannot be bought, nor is it based in worthiness. Blood is thicker than water. In another place in the Gospels we get the stupidest question ever asked by a man who sought to justify himself. He asks: “What can I do to inherit the Kingdom of God?” Nothing. It is like asking, “How can I become Bill Gates’ heir?” You can’t. You weren’t born to him.
It is frustrating to those not born to privilege because the sons of great men are usually less great than their fathers. They are spared too much. They can’t develop the same strength and wits that their fathers did because they live softer lives. This is part of what drove Roman politicians and generals to adopt sons. They were crasser than we are. They wanted to choose worthy heirs rather than be stuck with their mediocre sons. Statistics even has a name for this. It is called “regression toward the mean.” What it means is that great men rarely have great sons but instead have sons that are closer to average.
But sons, however, mediocre and undeserving, however frustrating to the worthy, remain at the table. They get the inheritance – not because they deserve it but because they were born into it. They benefit from the labor and genius of their fathers. That is grace. They were simply lucky enough, if we can use that term, to be born into the right family. This is why the Lord’s words to Nicodemus are so central for us. You can’t become Bill Gates’ heir or enter into your mother’s womb a second time, but you can be born from above of water and Spirit and be adopted as the Father’s Son and the Messiah’s Brother.
The prodigal son rightly confessed to his father that he was not worthy to be called his son. He wasn’t. The father did not dispute this. It was obviously true. The prodigal son was not worthy of the title. He was a world class jerk, one of the worst sons the world has ever seen. When he asked his father for his inheritance early, he was basically saying that he wished his father was dead. And when he wasted the whole thing on prostitutes and wild living, he also demonstrated that he cared nothing for his father’s legacy or his family.
But the father didn’t call his son his son because he was worth it. He called him his son because he loved him. The father rejoices because his son has returned from the dead and is reconciled to the family. The father explicitly calls him “my son,” which must be the sweetest words ever spoken. Explaining why they should celebrate the father says: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:24, ESV)
These three parables all reinforce this simple reality: Jesus receives unworthy sinners and eats with them. This is not because the sins don’t bother him or He looks past them. It is because He loves us and has paid for our sins on the cross. In John 15 Jesus says to the disciples: ““No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:15–16, ESV)
The angels rejoice with the Father and the Son and the Spirit over one sinner who repents, that is one sinner who receives grace by faith and is declared righteous. That sinner becomes not a servant or a hired hand, but is adopted into God’s family. We were dead in our trespasses but we have been made alive through Holy Baptism, born from above, made heirs of the Kingdom. We were lost and knew that where to go, but He has come seeking us, has found us in Baptism and declared us to be His sons and daughters by grace. We were not and are not worthy, but we remain at the table of His bounty in the Holy Communion, the foretaste of the banquet to come, because we are His true children and thus we do and thus we will abide.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.