Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 15th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 11 "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." 22 But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' “

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”  This is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible.  We have heard it our whole lives.  It is the longest of Jesus’ parables, so it is rich with possibilities.  

There are many traditional interpretations.  Preachers usually talk about the father in the story being God who graciously welcomes sinners home.  Then we talk about how we identify with one of the brothers, and which one that might be.  

Pastors nearly always identify with the elder brother.  I looked it up and that’s how I preached it in the past.  There are always commentators who tell us not to forget to focus on the younger brother, because we are all sinners.  

Today, though, I want to focus on a couple of the difficult questions that arise when we hear this story.  They are questions that many of us have thought about, but maybe haven’t asked out loud. 

These are questions that the older brother might be asking himself.  The first question is, “Why bother?”  Why bother to work hard all your life?  Why bother to be a good and obedient person? Why bother to do what you are supposed to do when the no good, disrespectful, disobedient prodigal is the one who gets the party?  When he is the one with the new clothes and fancy ring?  

The second question is about repentance.  Doesn’t it matter if the younger brother is sincere in his repentance? Who knows if he is truly sorry for what he did?  He had a memorized speech all prepared, but that was when he was hungry.  The father didn’t give him a chance to even apologize properly, to confess his sins publicly. To own up and take responsibility. 

And who knows if he will even stick around this time?  When the famine is over and he fattens up again and he saves up a little from his job, he might just run off. He could have made some friends over in the far country, people he partied with, who will take him in and enable him to make the same mistakes over again.  

There could be people in the far country who are looking for him, too.  We know he was involved with some women.  One of them could be after him for some child support.  It wouldn’t be surprising if he left some gambling debts, either.  

He got a taste of that kind of life. We have no way of knowing if he is sincere, if he is going to stay around. 

So, why bother? Why be good when it looks like being bad is rewarded?  And, why forgive people, why help people, who are very likely going to turn back around and do the same dumb things over again? 

We all know we are supposed to obey the law because it’s the right thing to do.  We understand that.  We understand that there are consequences for disobedience.  You run a stop sign; you get a ticket.  You get caught cheating; you get expelled from school.  You make your bed; you lie in it.

There are consequences for obedience, too.  You do the right thing and you are supposed to be rewarded.  You study hard and you graduate.  You work hard and you get a promotion and a raise.  

This whole story of the man with two sons just doesn’t fit with our idea of the way the world is supposed to work.  It doesn’t seem fair and it doesn’t seem right.  That’s how we see it.  

If we were that father, there would certainly not have been a party or a ring. We would probably make that younger son go through a probationary period as one of the hired servants.  We would garnish his pay check to pay off his debts.  And he could just wear his old clothes until he earned some new ones. Any problems with attitude, with trying to act like he was a son, not a servant, and he would be out of there, on his own, never to be welcomed back.  

It isn’t how Jesus sees things, though.  So, why bother?  Why be good if there is a party to welcome you home when you have been bad?   It is our human nature to ask, isn’t it? It did sound like a great party for the younger brother, didn’t it?

St. Paul addresses that question in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  “6:1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

By no means!  You see it is all about the relationship.  If you are like this older brother, and you probably are something like him, just by virtue of being here in church today, you need to remember why you work for your father.

Why do we do it? Why do we bother to worship weekly and work to serve the Lord?  Is it because we are waiting for our inheritance?  I hear it’s heavenly. 

Is it because you think that working hard will get you into heaven?  I sure hope not, because if you have been raised in a Lutheran church, you have been hearing the message your whole life that we are saved by grace, not works. 

We don’t serve the Lord because the retirement plan is out of this world.  We do it because of the relationship.  Why bother? Because God loves us and we love God.  We are free to serve God because we know we are already saved.  

What about our second question?  What about our younger brother?  Does it matter if he is sincere in his repentance?  Does it matter if he relapses? We elder siblings sure want it to matter, don’t we?  He is prone to wander, prone to leave the God he loves. 

Jesus reminds us that our God is gracious.  And grace always comes first.  The father ran out to meet the prodigal son.  He didn’t insist on the apology first.  He didn’t insist that it be sincere.  He didn’t say I will welcome you back if you promise not to leave again.  He said fetch a ring and the best robe and start the barbecue for the party. 

Grace and forgiveness come before repentance.  The ability to repent, to turn your life around is part of the gift of grace.  We cannot even believe in Jesus on our own without the Holy Spirit’s help, so what makes us think we or anybody else have the power to turn our lives around, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps?  

Repentance is a gift from God, just like grace.  It is the will to turn our lives around and follow Jesus Christ.  We can never do it alone, but God is gracious.  We are captive to sin and can’t do anything good on our own.  God gives us the strength and the will to follow Jesus. That’s repentance. 

So, back to question one.  Why bother?  Because we know Our Father loves us and we love Our Father.  We want to be near our Father God and our Brother Jesus who gave his life for us.  

Then, question two.  Does it matter if repentance is sincere?  Grace and forgiveness come first.  Repentance is a gift from God.  It is not a prerequisite for grace.  If it were, grace wouldn’t be grace.  

God’s love is wonderful, isn’t it?  Amen.