A. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is about membership in the community of the people of God. Who is in and who is out?
1. Jesus told this parable in response to criticism. The scribes and Pharisees said “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2) In reply, Jesus told three parables that we read at Morning Prayer last week: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Woman and the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The first two of these parables express God’s concern for those who are lost. The Parable of Prodigal Son goes beyond that and also addresses the theme of membership in God’s people.
2. Being a part of God’s people is represented by being within the father’s house. There are two movements away from the father’s house in the parable—and thus away from the covenant community. The first movement away is by the prodigal son who leaves his father’s house to go to a far country. The second movement away is by the older son who refuses to join the new party and, thus, finds himself outside of his father’s house. At the end of the parable, God’s people look different than they did at the beginning.
3. Change in the constituency of God’s people is a central New Testament theme, reflected in other stories like the Parable of the Vineyard Tenants (Luke 20:9-16). The return of the prodigal to the community calls to mind the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1f) where the 11th hour laborer (the person who just repented) got the same pay as those who had worked all day (the observant Jew who had been faithful for a long time). The parable of the prodigal has an edge to it. The older son ends up being excluded from God’s people. But it is a self-imposed exclusion, and it is an open question whether or not he eventually comes back.
B. Both the prodigal and the older son fall into a state of sin that separates them from God. The prodigal said, “Give me my portion of the inheritance. The older son said, in essence, I deserve more than him. Why does he get a fatted calf? Both are variants forms of pride.
1. The gluttony and immorality of the prodigal is rooted in the prideful presumption that I am free to do what I want to do with God’s gifts. This is why even sins of the flesh are ultimately sins of pride.
2. The pride of the older son is rooted in the presumption that he was better than his brother and entitled to more. His was unhappy about the father’s goodness and mercy to his brother.
C. The older brother failed to understand the generosity of God. God was good to both brothers. God’s goodness to one does not take away from God’s goodness to another.
1. God’s goodness is shown to the prodigal in his desire to have him back in the family and to celebrate his return. The older son experienced God’s goodness in the blessings he enjoyed as a faithful resident in his father’s house.
2. But the older son did not appreciate those blessings. The tone of his comments—“Lo, these may years have I served you”…“you never gave me a party”—suggest that his service to his father was grudging and joyless.
D. This is the danger of religious practice not rooted in God’s grace. Religion without grace comes to be focused on “my” works and how “my” religious practice puts me just a little farther up on God’s curve than the sinner who is not practicing like me.
1. Everything the older son enjoyed as a faithful son was a gift just as much as the grace of forgiveness for the prodigal was a gift. The older son did not merit anything. It was his father’s good pleasure to give it to him. But he fell into the trap of comparison, which leads to pride, which leads to a sense of entitlement, which leads to a lack of generosity—and to unhappiness and grumbling.
2. If you have been more or less faithful to the commandments of God, if you have avoided the open and obvious sins of prodigal living, this is a blessing and a gift from God. You have been saved from emotional and spiritual turmoil. You have been saved from guilt shame and fear. Inasmuch as the law of God, written in your heart by the Holy Spirit, has kept you from evil you have been blessed. You should rejoice and celebrate this gift. It is grace every bit as much as is the forgiveness you experience when you repent. And you should want to share it with others.
E. This attitude of generosity is a reflection of God’s Trinitarian love and nature
1. Why did God give us life and a world to live in? Because God is love; love cannot do anything but love. In the beginning, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit possessed eternal, unbounded love. They shared it with us in the act of creation and in the gift of life. When we sinned they shared it with us in the gift of redemption and new creation. God shares his love with us again and again and again through the experience of forgiveness, the privilege of communion with God and each other, the ability to grow in grace and faith and in the hope of resurrection and life in the world to come. Are you happy about these gifts? Did they fill you with joy? Do you want to share this with others?
2. To experience God’s love and grace means that we will want to share it with others. Those who have been loved by God become lovers by the very nature of the experience. If we do not want to share God’s love, this reveals that we do not really know God.
F. A lessons for us
1. The sin of the older brother is a characteristic temptation for traditionalists. It is tempting for those who have held on to the faith to think that we are just a little bit better than others. We have not fallen into heresy and sin like them. The truth is that both the faith we hold and our ability to practice it are gifts from God. We should give thanks continually and we should continually celebrate because we have been given these gifts.
2. And we must be generous with the gifts we have been given. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. There is a continuous feast to celebrate the return of sinners to the Father. If you do not experience that joy and participate in that feast, you need repent and come back into the house. You are missing a really good party!