Fourth Sunday in Lent, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of best-known stories in our Bible. It’s so familiar that we probably think we have it all figured out.
But the parables of Jesus don’t make for neat and tidy, single-minded interpretations. Rather, Jesus’ parables lend themselves to multiple layers of meanings that are evocative and expansive and not limiting. Thus, I am drawn to exploring with you today the parable of the Prodigal Son in ways that perhaps you’ve not thought of before.
My particular take is actually inspired by Paul’s words in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
What might it mean that God made Christ to be sin? One traditional interpretation is that Christ took our sins unto himself on the cross bearing our burdens and punishment for us, instead of us. A vicarious satisfaction. That’s one take on it.
But it’s also true that as Emmanuel, God with us, Christ shares the fullness of our humanity, and even if he did not himself commit sin, Jesus of Nazareth nonetheless could not help but experience the full range of human suffering caused by human sin. Sin and the ways of death via the power of the Roman empire put him on the cross where he suffered immensely in his humanity apart from any burden he was carrying on our behalf. That’s another way in which Christ was made to be sin.
To explore all of this further, let’s consider where Christ may be seen in today’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Parables generally serve to point us to Christ. But parables being what they are in conveying unexpected meaning, perhaps we can see Christ where we would not look for him. Maybe Christ appears in the last place we would look for him. One such unexpected turn is perhaps to see Christ in the younger, Prodigal Son himself, one who made himself to be sin.
Listen again to this: After the Father gave the younger son, the Prodigal, his allotted inheritance, that “younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country… [where] he spent everything.”
Reading that with Christ-colored glasses, I see Christ coming from heaven to this earth, a distant country, brimming with the fullness of inheritance from and of God, the one whom Jesus calls, abba, father.
And Jesus in his public ministry and especially at its conclusion, ended up spending everything and in ways that some might at first glance deem as a squandering of the divine inheritance in getting himself into situations and circumstances that ended up with him being killed.
Some might even consider Jesus’ actions in his ministry as dissolute. Dissolute living often focuses on sexual and other kinds of immortality. Well, Jesus did eat and converse with sinners, tax collectors and sometimes, perhaps, prostitutes. This was viewed by the religious leaders as scandalous, dissolute living, if you will.
Dissolute can also mean unrestrained in behavior that causes disapproval. Well, there were plenty of religious leaders who quite disapproved of Jesus’ unrestrained, bold actions in eating with sinners and tax collectors!
Then, too, and yet again, we have in Luke’s account perhaps a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the response of the Father to the return of the younger son: “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again” and in response to the older brother: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” This is biblical code language that points us in the direction of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In these ways, Luke’s account gives us hints to see Christ even in the Prodigal Son.
But what about Paul’s view that God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin? There may be a fuller identification between Christ and the Prodigal Son, and for this I turn to Martin Luther to help us understand this possibility of seeing Christ even in the Prodigal sinner.
I often turn to Luther’s treatise, “Freedom of a Christian,” because that particular writing of Luther’s offers so much to us for understanding Christian basics. This is what Luther says there about how faith unites Christ with the believer in a way similar to how people are joined in marriage. Luther writes: An “incomparable grace of faith is this, that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband; by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage – nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages – is accomplished between them… then it follows that all they have become is theirs in common, good things as well as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, the believing soul may take that to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as his…” even sin and evil.
This is understood as a happy exchange between Christ and persons of faith. In faith, we receive all that Christ has and is, and in turn, Christ receives, becomes all that we are, even in our sin. God, thus, made Christ to be sin who knew no sin. This union between Christ and believers helps us perhaps see Christ even in connection with the wanton, sinful behavior of the Prodigal Son.
In the fullness of Jesus’ divine humanity, Christ fully identifies with sinners, so much so that Christ becomes that sinner, and this in order to awaken sinners from brokenness and death, turning them to repentance, to amendment of life, to life from sin and death.
This is perhaps what happens to the Prodigal Son when he comes to himself, comes to his senses, the truth about himself, to return to his father in repentance.
This is what happens when Christ enters into the fullness of our humanity, being “made to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the happy exchange Luther writes about. So it is that the Prodigal Son could “come to himself” and return to his father.
Thus, we can variously see Christ perhaps even in the Prodigal. But of course, we also see Christ elsewhere in this story. Certainly, we can recognize the divine love of Christ in the response of the father who “while [the son] was still far off, saw him and “was filled with compassion” and “ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Another happy exchange.
When it’s all said and done, it seems to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up this way: prodigal waste is met with prodigal grace in Christ and in Christ’s full identification with humanity, even becoming sin to make for God’s righteousness in us.
And what’s the meaning of prodigal? Prodigality is to spend resources freely, recklessly with wasteful extravagance. Or prodigality is having or giving something on a lavish scale. Is this not what God in Christ does for us and for the world?
Who is the real prodigal here? Jesus Christ is the Prodigal Son, it seems to me, the son also of a prodigal father who loves and forgives lavishly, recklessly even.
But then what about us? Where do we fit into this story? I see the pattern of our Christian life together in features of the story.
In our sin, we also squander in many ways our inheritance from God. But when the proclamation of God’s word in Christ takes root in us, we, too, come to ourselves and get up to make our confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” We did that here this morning when we started at the font at the very beginning of worship with the order for confession and forgiveness.
And even before we get the words out of our mouths, God in Christ runs to meet us, filled with compassion and arms are flung about us and we are kissed – the kiss of the Peace of Christ. That’s what Christian absolution is like.
Then, still at the font, coming up out of the waters of baptism, a robe – the best one, that is, the baptismal garment – is put on us.
And a feast is called and we come to the table to eat and celebrate, for the one dead is alive again. Christ yes, but we, too, who are raised in Christ by water, word, and Spirit, and who share in the resurrected life of Christ when we eat bread and drink wine at the banquet table where there is music and dancing, and where, like God’s people at Gilgal in the reading from Joshua, we eat “the produce of the land, unleavened cakes… and the crops of the land of Canaan.” (Joshua 5:11b-12)
What a happy exchange here each and every Sunday, our sacramental wedding feast celebrating life from death as we remember with thanksgiving that Christ was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.
But then there’s the problem of the reaction of the older brother in the parable who resented the prodigal generosity of the father in killing the fatted calf in celebration of the return of the one who was lost and now was found, who was dead, but now alive.
The older brother and his reaction in anger and envy is our mission field. Remember how today’s passage began: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes [that is, the self-righteous religious leaders of Jesus’ day and our day] were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)
There are movements on the left and the right extremes of the theological and political spectrums that relish grumbling and which seek to exclude people, to cancel them, to excommunicate those perceived to be impure, unrighteous. That’s what the older brother wanted to do to his younger brother. That passion to excommunicate is what made for the religious leaders’ grumbling.
But not so with the father in the story, and not so with us, we who also have enjoyed the happy exchange with Christ. We are about a different mission.
Listen again to how Paul describes our mission, our ministry: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us through Christ to God, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s own self, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ….” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a)
As ambassadors of Christ, we are sent to the older brothers and sisters and siblings of this grumpy, grumbling world, those resentful, overcome with grievances, and wanting to exclude. And we are called to coax them into the banquet hall, softening their hearts in the power of the Spirit, that they may sing and dance with us, celebrating new life from death, celebrating our becoming God’s righteousness by God’s grace.
In short, we are sent to reconcile, not to cancel or excommunicate or exclude. What a magnificent mission that God has entrusted to us! Let’s leave this place to encourage everyone to come into the banquet hall where there is feasting in thanksgiving for God’s gracious, lavish, reckless, wanton, forgiving, reconciling, abundant mercy!
Thanks be to God. Amen.