|"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolo Esteban Murillo|
Saturday, March 9, 2013
Letters from a Loving Father
Click here for an audio version of this sermon.
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 15:11-32, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The traditional title for this parable, “The Prodigal Son,” is found in 16th-century English Bibles and goes all the way back to the Latin Vulgate. The NIV translation calls it “The Parable of the Lost Son.” Yet the central figure in this parable is not the son but the father. It is the father who reaches out with love to both of his wayward sons, just as Christ reaches out to each of us and calls us to repentance and faith. So today, we will hear this story from the Father’s viewpoint under the theme “Letters from a Loving Father.”
The first letter goes like this:
My dear son,
I pray that you will return to me soon so that I may share these words with you in person. But in the event I should pass on before your return, there are a few things I must be sure you know, so I am writing you this letter. I want you to know more than anything that I love you. Nothing can change that love. Because of that love, I worry about you. You are always in my heart and in my thoughts and prayers. I wonder if you’re well. In my darkest moments, I fear that you may no longer be alive. More than anything I worry about your soul. It seems you’ve not only left me, but you’ve left your Lord and Savior, too.
Let me make this very clear, this is not about the money. I would give up every cent I have just to have you here with me. What hurts me is that you have rejected my love and seem to care for nothing and no one but yourself. Though you’ve hurt me greatly, the greater sin is against God. All forms of rebellion against authority—in fact, all sins—are sins against our heavenly Father.
When you left, it felt as though you tore my heart in two. One part of me wanted to kick you in the pants and say “Good riddance! I’ve had enough of your selfish ungratefulness.” The other part of me wanted to grab hold of you and never let go. I knew that there would be many troubled days ahead. Those who indulge themselves in gratifying their own flesh, ultimately reap what they have sown.
In the end, I knew I had to let you go. I had to let you make your own choices. That is the way of love. It cannot be forced or compelled. Love must be given and received freely. Therefore love always runs the risk of rejection. So I did what you requested. I’m sure you didn’t realize it at the time, but when you demanded your share of the inheritance, it was the equivalent of saying to me: “Why don’t you just drop dead!” At the very least, it showed that you valued material possessions, good times, and friends more than your relationship with me.
The community saw your behavior as most shocking disrespect! They expected me to put you in your place. But I love you and I knew I had to let you go. I was willing to suffer the shame of your sinful actions and rejection quietly. I wanted you to know that the door was always open for your return. I realized there was a good chance that you would waste everything I have given to you, but I prayed that when you did, you might finally come to your senses. Sometimes you don’t know how good you’ve got it until it’s all gone. In reality, all that you have been looking for in the world is already here in your father’s house.
Please know that I love you; I always have and I always will. I’ve looked down that road in the direction you left every single day, praying that I might see your familiar profile on the horizon. If you were to return home right now, I would run to you and throw my arms around your neck. From the time you were a teenager you’ve always resisted any show of affection, but I don’t care. I’d smother you with kisses. I know some would think it highly undignified for a man of my age and social status to act in such a way, but let the neighbors talk.
If you are reading this letter, my prayers have been answered. My son who was lost has come home! My son, whom I feared dead is still alive!
When you left, you took your whole inheritance, but I still have more for you. I have left instructions with my steward to see you get these remaining items. Upon your return you will receive a robe of the finest quality, a signet ring, and a pair of sandals. Each of these gifts is to be a sign to you and the whole community that you have been accepted back into the household as my son and heir, with all the benefits and responsibilities of that position. There will also be a feast for the whole community, complete with a fattened calf to celebrate your return.
I pray that God will grant me the opportunity to be a part of this special feast, but even if I am no longer here, please know that I am welcoming you back with open arms.
The second letter is addressed to the son who stayed home:
I pray that this letter gets through to you. I know you have been upset and angry. You stayed and have worked very hard while your brother went away. You’ve said some very harsh things about your brother, things we don’t even know to be true. You seem to have forgotten that the 8th Commandment calls us to put the best construction on the words and behavior of others. Rather than expend all your energy in bitterness and putting your brother down, it would be far better for you to pray for his safe return, repentance, and restoration.
I don’t think you realize it, but those things you’ve said against your brother are also an attack on me. You’ve called my love into question. You make it sound as if I only love you because you’ve stayed and done your duty. In many ways, it seems like I have lost you, too!
Though you’ve stayed here, you seem even more alienated from me than your brother. You act as though I’ve treated you unfairly. Have you forgotten that when your brother asked for his inheritance, you received yours as well? I have not withheld anything from you. My love for your brother does not in any way detract from my love for you! I have more than enough love for both of you!
But none of that matters now. If you are reading this, it means that I have passed on from this world and your brother has returned. I urge you to welcome him back with open arms. Please celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found!
And then, there is this third letter addressed to you and me:
My dear son (or daughter),
Today, in this worship service you’ve heard “The Parable of the Loving Father.” It is a story of My love for you, a love that goes to great lengths to reach out to draw you to Me. I want you to understand how My gifts of repentance and faith bring great joy. An honest examination of your life in the mirror of My holy Law will show you, that you’ve been like both brothers in the parable. You’ve often taken My great gifts for granted. You’ve often run away from me. You’ve thought you can somehow earn My love. And you’ve often been unloving and unforgiving—at times even resentful—toward your brothers and sisters.
You may have wrongly believed that if you feel sorry enough, and maybe if you can do a few “nice things,” I will accept you back. You may mistakenly think that I have given you guidelines in the Bible for you to follow so you can earn My love, and once again be written into My eternal inheritance. But My Word states otherwise. All of your righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6), worse than the filthy clothing the son wore on his return home from the pig farm.
Instead of relying on your own righteous thoughts, words, and deeds, follow the example of St. Paul, who writes: “Count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ [your] Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Yes, I will take you back, but only on My terms.
These are My terms! I lived the perfect life that you would not, could not, live. Perfectly fulfilling My Father’s will, I freely gave My life on the cross to redeem you and all the world from sin. I rose from the dead, demonstrating My victory over the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh. And now I sit at the Father’s right hand, interceding on your behalf. There I wait for the great day when I will bring you and all believers home for the eternal heavenly feast.
Through your Baptism, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)! I no longer see your sins because “[I have] clothed [you] with garments of salvation, [I have] wrapped [you] with a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). In spite of all your sins and failures, I put on you the robe of My righteousness. Even though you may stumble in the future, even though your heart and mind are not always filled with good thoughts, I have forgiven you and reconciled you to Myself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Still, at times, you are also like the older brother. You’ve also taken My love for granted. From time to time you’ve fallen into the Pharisees’ trap of thinking or acting like you’ve somehow earned My love. You’ve forgotten that you are here because of My grace and mercy, not because of your duty and devotion. Instead of forgiving others and welcoming them into the fold as I did, you have permitted the devil to harden your heart. In fact, you may feel unwilling to forgive even when those who sin against you beg for forgiveness.
Perhaps you sincerely desire to forgive, but your weakness prevents it. You feel much like Martin Luther did when he called upon Me in prayer: “Dear Lord, I cannot do it… and because I cannot, I beg of You the power to do it.”
If you find yourself unable to forgive someone, take heart! The Good News is that you need not attempt to manufacture or create the forgiveness you need to forgive others. I will give it to you! By being connected to Me through the miraculous gift of Baptism, I provide you with “everything [you] need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), including the liberating power to forgive others just as I have also forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32). “I AM the Vine, you are the branches. He who remains in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When through Baptism, you are connected to Me, the “True Vine” (John 15:1), My powerrful forgiveness flows, not only to you, but through you! By this connection, I forgive you. And through this same miraculous connection, I enable you to forgive others.
So, when you hear My command to “forgive and you will be forgiven,” remember also My words, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” Forgiveness is not something you generate from within. Rather, in Christ, you are enabled to forgive. Forgiveness flows from [Me] to you, like life-giving sap, empowering you to forgive just as I also have forgiven you. In fact, when you pray The Lord’s Prayer, I am praying right with you for that very thing. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The “us” is not just you and other believers, but it includes Me as well. In the Lord’s Prayer, I pray for you and with you.
Do not let the devil convince you that you cannot forgive others. Instead, meditate on My life-giving Word which has the miraculous power to change your hardened heart and enable you to forgive even your worst enemies. As you struggle to forgive others, do not “lose heart in doing good.” Rather, trust that by the power of My death and resurrection, you also can forgive just as I have forgiven you. By My almighty Word, I have already begun this good work in you and will perfect it until the day I return.
Today I call out to all of My lost sons—both runaways and stay-at-homes. Whether you have been wasting your life away in a far country or, in your own mind at least, you have been slaving away here in My house—either way, today receive My love. Repent and believe! Join in the celebration! Rejoice with Me and the angels in heaven. This is a new day for you. You were lost and are now found! You were dead and are now alive!
In the water of Holy Baptism you have been adopted and made an heir of My eternal kingdom. Come to the banquet and share My forgiveness with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Eat of the Bread of heaven and drink the cup of your salvation! Put on the robe of My perfect righteousness, washed pure and white in My blood through daily contrition and repentance. Confess your sins and receive My absolution. For in these gifts of My love, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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