That son got what was coming to him. He’s got to learn his lesson. Or does he? Who needs to learn the lesson here?
The older son is the one who must learn the lesson. He got what was coming to him alright. His father said so. Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. Never does the father say that the older son forfeited his inheritance. Never does the father say that the younger son forfeited his sonship, even after the younger son basically told dad to drop dead. That’s what is behind the request for his share of the inheritance. The younger son wants his share of what is his. So dad does the unthinkable. He gives the boy his body, the part of himself that will one day belong to the son.
You can see why the older son is resentful. You throw away an inheritance by wasting it away with prostitutes and parties. Soon you discover the world owes you nothing. The world won’t give you anything either. Even when you work, you get what you get. The boy didn’t know what he lost until he lost it all. When he comes home, rehearsing his sob story all the way, Dad cuts him off and treats him like a son. Think of it. This is the guy who wasted his share of his inheritance, something that was given to him early by his father in an irrational gesture. Then Dad gets even more irrational by throwing a party for the lost son now found.
Or is the lost son actually the lost son? Jesus throws a twist into the parable by ending with the older son. Look where he is when the party is going on. The older son was in the field. If you are an older son, especially if you are the oldest son, and your father will give you your share of the inheritance one day, you are probably not out standing in the field working. You are by his side, being his shadow, watching him and working side-by-side with him. The day is going to come when you will do what he has done. You are the apprentice, he is the master.
Instead, you are in the field working. You’re sending the message to everyone that you don’t trust the old man. You have to show everyone, even Dad, that you have to earn your keep. The world owes you nothing. You get what you get when you work. It’s as if he thinks Dad will pull a fast one when the estate is settled. The older son is hedging his bets. He has a backstop just in case dad changes his mind.
The older son’s indignance sounds familiar because what he says is what we are thinking. Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! Put another way: Look, I’ve been a Christian all my life. I haven’t missed church in years. I always tithe. You don’t give me the good stuff in return. I still get sick. My friends are dying. My family cares about themselves more than me. But when these sinners come crawling back to Your doorstep after all these years when they acted like You didn’t exist, You welcome them as if they never left!
Who is the one who has left? Since when did the Christian faith become all about rewarding your piety and punishing “those sinners out there”. Look at yourself first. You are “those sinners out there”. A lost sheep is found, a lost coin is found, and you’re happy for the person. A lost son is found, and everything changes because you didn’t get to see the lost son get his recompense. Worse yet, you didn’t get to set the parameters for his repentance. He just comes skipping up the lane as if Dad has no choice but to welcome him home. How about some hardcore penance? I’d like to see some remorse here. I’ll let you know when you are remorseful enough. Meanwhile I’ll take the party, thank you very much. I’ve earned it.
You’ve earned nothing but eternal death. Your only hope for eternal life is a Savior Who, as the Pharisees and scribes say, receives sinners and eats with them. Jesus only receives sinners. The righteous and the holy have no need for a Savior, or so they think. Jesus also dies for the self-righteous and self-holy ones, too. Those who think they need Jesus to affirm their righteousness and holiness are left speechless, just like the older son is speechless at the end of Luke chapter 15. The father tells the older son: It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
Jesus never gives us what the older brother says. It’s worthless to predict his answer. It’s not worthless to predict your answer. Consider what Jesus lays before you today. A lost sheep is carried home. A lost coin is found. A lost son, a dead son, lives and is found. What about the real lost son, though? The real lost son is the older son, who thinks Dad’s inheritance must be earned and cannot be a gift.
Dad’s inheritance is always a gift. You can never earn something freely given, no matter how hard you try or how much you insist. You are lost, but now found in Christ. You are dead, but now alive in Christ. The celebration is living by faith in the Son of God, Who loves you and gave His life for you. Living by faith in Jesus is staying connected to His gifts of forgiveness and life. You’re connected in Baptism. You’re connected in preaching. You’re connecting in the Lord’s Supper. Font, pulpit, and altar are the furniture for the party. Jesus is the life of the party, for life flows from Him. The celebration is for you, the lost one, the little one, the dead one. You are found. You are precious. You are alive. All these are yours in Jesus Christ, Who lost His life and took it back so you may live with Him and celebrate His faithfulness to His Father for your sake.
As the prophet Micah says: Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You didn’t get what was coming to you. But Jesus did, for your sake. Rejoice!