Then He said: "A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants."'“Finding the Lost.” That is often the title, or theme, placed over the parable Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson. This theme stretches to cover two other parables in the earlier verses of Luke 15. First there is the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd rejoices over the one sheep he has lost and found rather than over the other ninety-nine. Then there is the parable of the lost coin, where the woman rejoices over the one coin she has lost and found rather than over the other nine. And finally there is this parable of the man who had two sons. He kills the fatted calf and throws a joyful party, not for the son who dutifully stayed at home, but for the one who ran off with his share of the family fortune—who wasted everything he owned—and who came back humiliated, destitute, ashamed. These parables go together. Jesus tells us that there is joy in heaven over every sinner who repents, rather than over many righteous people who need no repentance. And the father tells his resentful son: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry.
"Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'"
These three lost-and-found parables can be very comforting to troubled, guilty sinners. They illustrate that God chooses us by grace, without any regard for our record of conduct, good or bad. They show how highly our Father treasures us, and how through Christ He has mercifully reached out to save us from sin. These parables show that our Lord is pleased with sinners. He is pleased to seek us out when we are lost in our sins, pleased to bring us to repentance, pleased to snatch us out of deadly peril by the faith-creating power of His Word, pleased to fold us into His forgiving embrace. Jesus spoke these parables, after all, in response to the Pharisees’ complaint: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” Indeed, He receives sinners! He loathes and rejects the self-righteous. He delights in the sinner who repents. He covers our sins with His own righteousness, and saves us by grace, through faith.
If that was all this parable had to teach us, you would hear a very short sermon today. In fact, it would be over already. But there is more in the lost-and-found parables than tender comfort. There is also stern warning. And, lest we place ourselves with the Pharisees and the jealous son from the parable, we should consider whether that warning is addressed to us.
Christians, Protestants especially, have had a long time to get used to the idea that God is gracious to sinners. It isn’t breaking news. The Lutheran Reformation happened nearly 500 years ago. The lost-and-found parables of Luke 15 have been read in church longer still. Hymn writers have had centuries to canvas the topic, from “Jesus sinners doth receive” to “Amazing grace”—where the words “I once was lost but now am found” echo the end of today’s Gospel. Those new to the faith are often overwhelmed by the feelings of peace, freedom, and holy joy that come from the message that Christ chooses repentant sinners over paragons of perfect piety. The rest of us, however, may find it hard to feel a thrill about a message we have heard, perhaps, every year of our lives. Familiarity breeds contempt. And a habit of practicing the Christian faith can breed a little Pharisee in us, too.
At a certain point in our religious formation, many of us say to ourselves: “All right. I’ve learned the Christian faith. Now it’s time to put it into practice.” We tire of being reminded, over and over, of the same old doctrines. If we could ask our preachers to do us one favor, it would probably be to put more stress on how to live the faith. We have gotten fairly good at it already. Perhaps we think that, if only we could get a little better at living the Christian life, we’d have it made in the shade. And since we’ve made so much progress already, why must the pastor browbeat us with the law? Why must he strain the limits of our comprehension with discussion of such fine points of doctrine? Why must we endure another year of the same old liturgy and the old-fashioned, unpopular hymns?
How about some practical advice on how to improve my marriage, how to talk to my kids, how to keep the government from taking away all my money? How about some crusading for political issues like abortion, women’s rights, serving in a war, or gay marriage? How about changing the way our church does things, so it can attract new people and look successful again? How about even making some inconvenient doctrines go away, like closed communion, the literal six-day creation, and the rule against men and women living together outside of marriage? Wouldn’t that make it easier for us to address our loved ones, who have strayed into other churches, or who have shacked up together, or who have learned the theory of evolution in school? If God is so big on finding the lost, wouldn’t He get behind this? If Jesus is so happy to mix with sinners, wouldn’t He want this too?
Maybe you haven’t personally considered these thoughts. But believe me, the church has mulled them over. Not just Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but Protestant Church as well. Not just the Protestant Church, but Lutheranism. Not just Lutheranism, but a major slice of the Missouri Synod. Voices representing our church body, right here in this city. And we aren’t far from agreeing with them. The message that “Jesus receives sinners and eats with them” can lead us to the point where we regard nothing as being really sinful, except maybe being hung up on moral and doctrinal rules. The message that heaven rejoices to find the lost can lead us to the point where the only thing we care about is getting more people to join our church, by whatever means necessary. How we worship, what we teach, and the pattern of life we strive to follow, can be reduced to questions of “style” and “emphasis” until, for the sake of finding the lost, we lose ourselves. Our generation invites us daily to be lost again, lost to the power of Law and Gospel, lost to the blessings of Word and Sacrament, lost to the heritage of sacred liturgy and pure teaching that are our strongest support in times of conflict, doubt, temptation, and death.
And then again, we the faithful, stick-in-the-mud Lutherans, run the danger of being like the embittered son who complained when his father forgave the prodigal brother, or like the Pharisees who complained when Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, or like the “ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” We’ve been around the block, spiritually. Most of us are not new converts. Most of us are not ready to confess some deep, mortifying shame like the sin of the prodigal son. Most of us probably think we’re doing more or less all right in our moral and spiritual lives. We are not in the habit of crawling to God and groveling in abject humility, as the prodigal son intended to do when he returned to his father. As a matter of form, yes, we will admit that we are “by nature” sinners, and that we “have sinned,” etc., etc. We may even think, “That’s right,” when we confess that we deserve nothing but God’s punishment, now and forever. But most of the time, we are not troubled by such thoughts. And sometimes, we are scandalized by what we see or hear about the behavior of others, especially when those people remain in good standing with the church. What happens to the consciousness of our own sinfulness when we are thinking and feeling these things?
Christ tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son not only to comfort people, like the prostitutes and tax collectors, who were sorry about their sins. He also tells it as a warning to the Pharisees, who complain about how much time and attention Jesus spends on such well-known and obvious sinners. And this story is repeated for our benefit, not only for the comfort’s sake, but also for the warning. The danger of the Pharisees and the ninety-nine just persons is also our danger. On account of Christ, God is pleased with sinners. He shows particular favor, also known as grace, to all humble, repentant sinners who trust in His forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. He is pleased with them for Jesus’ sake, because of what Jesus has done for them.
But He is not pleased, nor do the angels in heaven rejoice, when a doctrinally-instructed, morally-upright, religious person justifies himself, and needs no rescue. In fact, God is offended by such a righteousness. It is the one sin that still separates sinners from God, because it reckons the holy work, life, suffering, and death of Jesus to be worth nothing. It is the one sin that is not forgiven, because it casts aside God’s forgiveness. Beware lest we become like the Pharisees, who see no need for repentance, as if we had achieved righteousness enough by practicing our faith. No amount of practice can do that. The most fitting attitude for us is that of the prodigal son, who turned back to his father to beg for forgiveness. That is to say, repentance befits us. And never forget that every moment we spend in communion with God, is the result of Him going out and finding us, stooping to pick us up and brush us off, forgiving us, and joyfully treasuring us in His heart.
God once slaughtered the fatted calf for all sinners, all His lost lambs and prodigal children. He gave His only-begotten Son for all of us. When Christ was sacrificed on account of sin, God became our Father, running to meet us and to embrace us as His sons and heirs. Without this amazing grace of God, we could scarcely hope to be treated as slaves. But in Christ, God kissed us, clothed us in righteousness, decked us in gifts of the Holy Spirit like precious jewels. He proclaimed a feast where His servants on earth and heaven celebrate together. Rejoice! For we who were dead have been made alive; we who were lost have been found. This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!