COLUMN: The wayward son and forgiving father

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By Steve Gettinger | Risen Lord Lutheran Church

Today’s text is from Luke 15:1-3 and 11-32:
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.” … Jesus continued: “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. 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 his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 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.”

In Luke 15:1-3, it says that Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The corrupt religious leaders thought this was absolutely scandalous behavior for a respectable teacher of religion. They hoped to drag Jesus’ name through the mud by pointing out he was hanging out with sinners.
Do you know why the tax collectors and sinners came to hear Jesus?
They came because word got around that this Jesus loved sinners and gave them hope. Jesus came to give sinners hope so they flocked to him like starving men at an all you can eat buffet. One thing people need today is hope without it they live in despair. Jesus gave hope to the sinners that day by sharing with them a parable that many of us know as the Prodigal Son.
Now let us turn our attention to the parable of the wayward son. The younger son in the parable said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the inheritance that is coming to me.” Basically, he was saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead so that I could have your stuff.” This kind of request would send most fathers over the edge, and they would probably throw the son out of the house and disown him. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us that the father divided his property between the two sons. It sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?
The younger son converted his inheritance into cash and used it to run away. Then he burned through the money in foolish and wasteful ways. Finally, a drought hit and he was desperately poor for the first time in his life.
He found a job taking care of pigs. He even hungered for the pods that the hogs were eating.
I bet most people probably think that the selfish young man was only getting what he deserved for his disrespect. He had shamed his father, his family and even the village where his family lived. A quick death was too good for this young man. Let him starve to death among the pigs. That would be justice.
It is in this deepest depth of despair that this son works out one last plan. He will return to his father, but not as his son. Instead, he will simply ask to be hired as an ordinary worker. Perhaps his father would overlook the shame he had brought to his family and allow him to be a lowly laborer. His shame would be enormous, but at least he would be alive.
Listen to what the father does; he basically throws his dignity out the window. Jesus said, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
In our American culture, we are used to seeing people jog for their health or just for fun. In first century Israel, men wore robes, not jogging outfits. If you want to run in a robe, you have to lift it up so it doesn’t trip you. So, think about an aging father with his robes hiked up just a bit, spindly legs sticking out as he runs to his wayward son — sandals flapping on the ground, hair and beard fluttering in the wind. It’s embarrassing. The people who saw the father running probably thought him pretty foolish
As the son approached the village, he prepared for the chewing out he rightfully deserved. But what does he see instead? His own father running toward him.
Then the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” This is more than just a father concerned about the well being of his son. By instructing the servants to dress his son, he is reinstating the son as master over the servants. The father’s every activity works to honor this wayward son. Now, instead of walking through the village in shame, the son walks in honor at his father’s side. Let the party begin.
This parable explains and illustrates our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our sinful behavior shows disrespect for Jesus. We shamed and embarrassed him. We deserved eternal separation from him. Nevertheless, he was willing to undergo a lot more shame than running with his robes flapping in the breeze. He endured spitting and beating and flogging. Then he hung naked on a cross for the world to see. He endured the forsakenness of our sin. He did all this so that we could live in honor forever at his side. His embarrassment and shame earned eternal life for us. That is what this parable is about. Here is God willing to undergo any shame in order to bring us back into his family.
This parable about the wayward son is about love and reconciliation. It is about how God our Father loves and reconciles us sinful wayward children to himself. God’s love for us is an unconditional commitment to actively pursue and secure us as his children through the sacrificial behavior of Jesus on the cross.
May each of us love God in return and serve Him with grateful hearts. Amen