Fourth Sunday in Lent [c] March 27, 2022
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: … “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants,[d] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘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. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
In the Name of Jesus.
The parable of the prodigal son—but we might call it the parable of the three bondages. These Three bondages which bind each of us. Jesus, in telling the parable, is about the business of freeing us from bondage.
[Jesus said,] “When the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Jesus wants no one under any bondage at all.
Three bondages that bind us.
The first we might call the bondage of passions. The bondage of our will. This is the bondage which seems like freedom, because it has us pursuing what we want, what we think will bring us pleasure, what will make us happy.
This bondage of our will is the bondage which has the younger son coveting money so that he can despise his father and family and gather all that he has and go out on a journey to a far country to pursue a great time in fun living. This bondage to our passions has us searching out experiences to bring us pleasure, even when the pleasure is artificial and fleeting. Gluttony, drunkenness, out of place passions, laziness, sloth, apathy, greed, boastfulness, pride—this bondage of our will that even when we run from it in our outward actions, it still lays in our hearts as we think our happiness and pleasure to be more important than our neighbor.
From this bondage, Jesus frees us. He frees us by stinging us with the Law. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus.
With this judgment of Law, Jesus accuses us of loving ourselves, of being in bondage to our passions, even at expense of neighbor. Would one who loves neighbor spend time in gluttony or drunkenness or sexual passions instead of working at a job to serve neighbor? Would one who loves neighbor be caught up in sloth instead of working to serve neighbor? Would one who loves neighbor parade his wealth or accomplishments before his neighbor?
Jesus frees us from bondage to our passions and will by accusing us with his Law. With his Law he breaks us down, so that, with the younger son, we are finally able to say to our Father in Heaven,
“Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” [Luke 15:21]
But there we are given to see the second bondage. Under the Law’s accusation, we now find ourselves in bondage to the Law.
We stand before the Father accused. Having been exposed in the bondage of our passions and will, we now stand guilty, with no righteousness of our own, and, along with that younger son, the yoke of guilt and shame is thrown over our shoulders—that’s the bondage of the Law.
So, two bondages. First, the bondage of our passions which drive us to look out for ourselves, then, the bondage of the Law, binding us with guilt.
Then there’s the older son. He doesn’t jump out as being under the bondage of passions. He’s stayed home and done what he’s supposed to do.
And he doesn’t jump out as being under the bondage of the Law. How can you be under the Law’s bondage if you’ve done everything required by the Law? Luke 15:30:
[The older son] answered his father, “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!”
Not seemingly under the bondage of passions, nor under the bondage of the Law, the older son finds himself under the deadliest bondage of all: the bondage of self-justification.
He justifies himself. He hears the Law, and he uses the Law not to see his sin, not to see that of which he is given repentance, but he uses the Law to justify himself.
“See your other son over there, Father,”
the older son is saying,
“he is not righteous; he is guilty of not being a good son.”
The older son uses the Law to lodge the accusation. He’s not making the accusation up. He is right. The Law is always right. The younger son is, indeed, guilty of the Law.
So he will use the Law to accuse his brother. In this, he’s using the Law to justify himself, since, after all, he has not done what his brother has done.
This is what Paul tells us about the Law, what the Apostle says it does to us. It either accuses or excuses. It either accuses us of our sin, which is what Jesus would have it do, so that we then, realizing we cannot justify ourselves, look to Jesus for his mercy and his word of justification. Or, in our sinful flesh, we use that same Law to excuse ourselves. And the best way to use the Law to excuse yourself is to turn the Law on some other poor sinner and accuse him. Romans 2:15:
The work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accusing or excusing them.
So the older son uses the Law to accuse his brother, thus excusing himself. He positions himself as one standing in need of no mercy, no forgiveness.
When the older son uses the Law to justify himself, that’s when we hear the father saying,
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
Do we catch what the father did here to his older son? We know what the father did to his younger son who was broken under the yoke of the Law. He forgave him. He showed mercy. He reconciled him. He restored him.
But now we catch what the father did to the older son. He said,
“Son, you are always with me, all that is mine is yours.”
The father speaks so subtly, so kindly, we might not even catch it.
The older son thought his status in the family was due to his obedience, to his service. Luke 15:29:
[The older son] answered his father, ‘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!’
But when the older son appeals to his own obedience under the Law and his service for his status in the family, that is, when he appeals to his own self-justification, the father says, simply,
Son, you are always with me. All that is mine is yours.
Nothing in those words about obedience, about Law, about service, about worthiness or self-justification by works. Only a kind reminder that everything comes not by works, but as gift from the father.
That’s what this parable gives us. Everything comes as gift from the father.
The father wants no one under bondage.
So the Father in Heaven sends his Son to set the sinner free, so that when the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. [John 8:36] The Father sends his Son, and his Son, Jesus, speaks this parable to set us free from bondage.
The first bondage, the bondage of the younger brother, the bondage of our passions, of our will? Jesus sets us free from that by preaching to us his Law, which accuses us, binding us in guilt and shame.
Then the second bondage, the bondage of the Law? Jesus sets us free from that by atoning for our sin on the cross, by speaking that atonement to us in the preaching of his Gospel, so that, hearing the Gospel of all sins forgiven in Christ Jesus, we find ourselves justified not by our obedience, but by the voice of Jesus forgiving our sin.
The third bondage, the bondage of the older brother, the deadly bondage of self-justification? Jesus sets us free from that by proclaiming to us, as the parable’s father did to the older brother, that we are not justified by our obedience, we will never be self-justified, but we are justified simply and surely by the voice of the Father telling us that all that he has, he gives to us.
What he gives to us is his Son. His Son who forgives the sin of our passions, who frees us from the bondage of the Law, and who justifies us by his word of forgiveness so that we need no longer pretend to justify ourselves.
In the Name of Jesus.