“The Prodigal Celebration” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
Our text today is the Holy Gospel from Luke 15. It is the famous and well-loved Parable of the Prodigal Son. But today I want to suggest to you that we might also call it the Parable of “The Prodigal Celebration.”
More on that later. But first we should set the scene for this parable in the ministry of Jesus. Thus far in his ministry Jesus has been preaching the good news of the kingdom. He has been calling sinners to repentance, so that they would receive from him forgiveness for their sins. Jesus has been gathering disciples, followers, who are eager to hear the divine wisdom coming from his lips. And the people who are following Jesus are not always the best and the brightest or the cream of the crop. Indeed, Jesus has been reaching out to the least, the last, and the lost. He’s been calling people whom the religious elite of Israel would look down on. For example, there was Matthew the tax collector, an occupation that was widely looked down upon, and not without reason. Jesus would even have meals with these people, these public sinners, and that was rather shocking. It wasn’t that Jesus approved of their sin or condoned it–far from it. But when sinners realized their sin and their lostness, Jesus offered them a safe haven to come to–back to God. So sinners troubled in their conscience were flocking to Jesus, for they knew that’s where they could find forgiveness and restoration.
So that’s the situation we’re dealing with when we enter Luke chapter 15. Jesus is hanging out with sinners, and the respectable people didn’t like it: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus perceives what’s going on, and so he begins to tell some parables that address the attitude of the scribes and the Pharisees. First he tells a parable of a shepherd who goes out to find his one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he brings it home. He invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him, because he has found his lost sheep. Same thing with a woman who finds a lost coin she’s been searching for. She invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.
Then Jesus compares this to the rejoicing that’s going on in heaven when he, Jesus, finds a lost sinner and brings him or her “back home,” so to speak. The implication, of course, is that if heaven is rejoicing over a lost sinner being restored, how come you guys, you scribes and Pharisees, aren’t rejoicing also? Why are you grumbling about the great thing Jesus is doing in bringing back the lost?
That sets up, then, the longest and the strongest emotionally of these Luke 15 parables, namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You probably know how it starts. The dad has two sons, and the younger of the two demands his share of the inheritance now. That is equivalent to saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead! I want what’s coming to me!” Very disrespectful. Shameful, actually, disgracing the family in front of the community. The father would have every right to punish this son for his outrageous behavior. But he doesn’t. He lets the younger son have his share of the estate, and off the son goes, leaving home to go it on his own in a far country.
At first things seem to go well. It’s all fun and games. The boy is rolling in the dough, and he’s spending it freely on whatever he feels like. He’s running through the money like it’s going out of style. Our text says, “He squandered his property in reckless living.” And that’s where this word “prodigal” comes in. The term “prodigal” in this context means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” This is why we call him the “prodigal” son.
But then the resources start to run dry. The young man is reduced, diminished, humbled. He has to take a job feeding pigs, which is about as low as you can go, if you’re a Jewish boy. He’s about hit bottom.
Then he starts to come to his senses. He remembers the goodness of his father’s home: “If I only can get back there, things will be better. Even my dad’s servants are doing better than I’m doing! But wait! After I have disgraced my father so, been so disrespectful to him, how can I ever show my face there again? But I know my father is kind and generous, so I’ll take a chance. But I’ve sinned against him so badly and wasted all the resources he gave me, so, so. . . . I’ve got it! I’ll ask if I can work off all that I’ve wasted, and at least that way I can get back as a servant, if not a son!”
So he arose and headed back home. But even before he gets back to the ranch–he’s still a long way off–Dad has been looking out the window, waiting for and looking for his son to come back. And when he sees the boy, still a far way off, what does Dad do? He, the father, goes running out to meet him! This is unheard of! This is amazing! And he doesn’t run out to give the son what-for or to chew him out. No, he runs out to embrace him! He falls on his neck and showers him with affection! The son starts to recite his rehearsed speech about working it off as a servant, but Dad cuts him off before he can get to that. You see, the father doesn’t want another hired hand. He wants his son back.
“‘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.’ And they began to celebrate.”
OK, now here is where we get to the word “prodigal” in a somewhat different sense. It still means “excessive” or “extravagant,” but now I’m using it in a positive sense. This is the “prodigal celebration” I was talking about. It’s way over the top! Lavish, extravagant, pulling out all the stops. The father is lavishing his grace and generosity on this son, who clearly doesn’t deserve it! Clothing him with the best robe, restoring his authority with the signet ring, providing shoes for his feet, and even slaughtering the fattened calf to be the main course of the feast. The father’s joy is so great, he’s pulling out all the stops, and this is costly stuff he’s supplying. Very lavish, very extravagant, very “prodigal” this joyful celebration!
Friends, this parable is a picture of how God welcomes us back. He does so extravagantly. Lavishly does he shower his love and his grace on us, and we surely don’t deserve it. In our baptism, God clothes us with the robe of Christ’s righteousness. He restores us to back to the household with the signet ring of the cross. Our feet are shod with the gospel of peace.
And notice, at the center of this prodigal celebration, this lavish, extravagant celebration, there is a feast. And in this feast, the feast of salvation, it is not a fattened calf that is slaughtered. Rather, it is the Lamb of God who is slain and sacrificed. It is Christ Jesus, God’s own Son, his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased–it is Jesus who is sacrificed for sinners. Christ went to the cross for you, dear friends, so that your sins would be forgiven. And they are. This is costly grace indeed. Christ’s holy precious blood was shed for you, so that now you are restored to God’s household. No work-it-off scheme necessary. Jesus has already taken care of that. God wants you back as his child, and now we can call on him as dear children ask their dear father. What could be more “prodigal,” in the good sense, than this?
Well, but then there’s still the older son to deal with. This was the stay-at-home son, the one who didn’t leave home. But he is resentful and jealous of all the attention and the big celebration the younger son is getting. He won’t go in and join in the celebration. So again the father does something amazing, something costly, something extravagant. He goes out to this son too. He puts up with the older son’s disrespect. He’s patient with this older son, who is dishonoring his father and despising his brother.
Of course, the older son’s attitude is equivalent to that of the scribes and the Pharisees. They are grumbling against God, really, when they complain about how Jesus is receiving sinners and eating with them. They really ought to be rejoicing, like God does, whenever a lost child is brought back home. God is rejoicing, heaven is rejoicing, so why aren’t you?
The story is left open-ended. The younger son has been restored, but the older son is still standing outside and grumbling. Will they, the scribes and Pharisees, realize their own lostness and come in and join the party? We’re not told.
But what we do know is that God has restored us, and for that we will be eternally grateful. God is having a lavish celebration right here and right now. You are here at the celebration, here in the Lord’s house, where heaven and earth come together. There is music. There is rejoicing. And there is a feast. It is the Lord’s Supper, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, the Lamb of God sacrificed for sinners like you and me.
And this feast points us ahead to the heavenly banquet still to come. Talk about pulling out all the stops! What a party that will be! Heavenly music like we have never heard! Joy beyond imagining! And at the center of it all will be Christ our Savior, risen from the dead, who lives and reigns to all eternity.
Yes, there is a big-time, blow-out, prodigal celebration in store for us all, and we’re getting a little sampling of it here today. And so it is not with grumbling, but rather with gratitude, that we can say about Jesus: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”