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The Parable of the Sinful Sons
Luke 15:11-32

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fourth Sunday in Lent—March 14, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The word “prodigal” means “wasteful.”  The familiar story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel Reading is commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” because it is named after the younger son, who went away to a distant country and wasted all he had, “squandered his wealth.”

But, this parable is not about just one sinful son.  It is about two sons, both equally sinful, but in different ways.  So, it might be better to call this “The Parable of the Sinful Sons”: the seeable sinful son, and the secretly sinful son.

The younger son is the seeable sinful son, because, like the tax collectors and sinners listening to this parable, the younger son’s sin is blatant and obvious.  In that ancient culture there hardly be anything more shameful than this son asking for his inheritance before his father’s death.  It was very humiliating of his father.  It was a severe violation of the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”  For, when this younger son asked for his inheritance, he was really saying, “I don’t care about you, all I want is your money.  You’re not dying fast enough for me, old man.  I want it now.”

No doubt the father would be deeply hurt, but the story says he decided to go ahead and divide up his property, putting it into what we would call a life estate.  His sons would hold legal title, but he would retain the income from the land until his death. In return for signing over his land, the sons were expected to provide for their father for the rest of his life.

But, then the younger son commits another, even greater wrong against his father.  The story says that instead of supporting his father as he was expected, he takes the money and runs.  He abuses his trusteeship and technical ownership, sells his portion of his father’s estate, and moves away to a distant country.  He has no care or concern for his father, but instead he squanders his wealth in wild living.  That is why he is called the “prodigal” son—the seeable sinful son.

The older son, on the other hand, is the secretly sinful son.  Because, like the Pharisees who were also listening to this parable, the older son’s sin is carefully hidden and covered up behind a phony façade.

As the eldest son, he actually would receive two-thirds of the estate, twice what his younger brother would get.  On the surface, it looks like this son obeys the Fourth Commandment, honoring his father by dutifully remaining to work the land and support him.

But, then the story takes a different turn.  The distant country where the younger son lives is hit by a famine.  He has wasted his wealth, and so he returns home.  That is when the true attitude of the secretly sinful son comes out.

His heart is filled with bitterness and hatred.  He doesn’t stay and support his father out of love.  All the while he really resents it.   It turns out the older son is also concerned only about getting his father’s money, and worried that his wayward brother might now take part of his share.

He can’t even bring himself to use the word “brother,” but angrily says to his father, “This son of yours.”  His anger is so great that he won’t even welcome his brother safely home, but stays outside the house.  This in itself would be considered very disrespectful and humiliating for his father.  As the oldest son, he would be expected to be there, at his father’s side.

So, while everything looks good on the surface with the older son, underneath the façade he is angry, bitter, hateful, greedy—the secretly sinful son.

Which sinful son are you?  Are you the seeable sinful son?  Are your sins blatant and obvious?  St. Paul writes in Galatians, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and indecency; idolatry and evil; hatred, fighting, jealousy; fits of rage, selfishness, dissension, quarreling, envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Like the tax collectors and sinners listening to this parable, are you the seeable sinful son?

Or, are you the secretly sinful son?  Are your sins carefully hidden and covered up?  Jesus said to the hypocritical Pharisees, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs which look good on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. . .  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”

St. Paul says in Galatians, “Do not deceive yourselves, God cannot be fooled.”  You may have everyone else fooled, but God already knows your secret sins.  An old saying puts it this way: “Take heed, God sees hearts the way we see faces.”  Like the Pharisees listening to this parable, are you the self-righteous, holier-than-thou, hypocritical, secretly sinful son?

Two sinful sons.  Both deserve the same punishment—to be cut off by their father and cast out.  That too is the punishment our sins deserve, our seeable sins, and our secret sins.  We deserve to be cut off by our heavenly Father and cast into hell. But, like the father in the parable, our heavenly Father is loving and forgiving. 

When the younger son repents of his sin and returns home, he expects his father to punish him and treat him harshly.  But, instead, while he is still far off, his father runs out to meet him, restores him to the family, rejoices that his son, who was as good as dead, is alive again.  His son, who was lost, is found.  And when the older son’s hatred and anger and greed finally comes boiling to the surface, again the father does not punish, but instead goes out to him, reassures him of his constant love.

But, what about the older son?  Did he too repent?  The parable doesn’t tell us the ending.  The cover of today’s bulletin shows the father in the parable embracing a weeping son.  But, which son is it?  It seems obvious this is the younger son, when he returns home.  But, could this not be the unspoken end of the parable?  Could not this drawing actually be the older son, repenting of his wrong, ready to enter his father’s house, where there will now be double joy, for two sons were lost and are found?

Like the father’s joy in the parable when his son returned to him, Jesus says there is “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.”  Like the younger sinful son, repent of your seeable sins.  And, like the older sinful son, repent of your secret sins.  God’s own Son made satisfaction for all your sins, by his life, death, and resurrection.  On his account your heavenly Father loves, your heavenly Father forgives you, your heavenly Father welcomes you with open arms.  Turn to the Lord, weeping in his loving arms, confessing your wrongs against him, receiving his gracious forgiveness.

Like the prodigal son welcomed back into the family by the forgiving father, you are brought back into your heavenly father’s family through Holy Baptism.  Like the great celebration given by the father in the parable, your heavenly Father invites you to the joyous Feast here in his house.

St. Paul writes in Ephesians, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . .  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive through Christ.”  Your heavenly Father says of you, like the father in the parable, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”


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