Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Beloved in Christ, is forgiveness truly possible? Can someone truly receive real forgiveness? I don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “Okay I’m too angry and frustrated with the situation and so I’ll just accept the apology and not do anything against you, all the while I harbor a grudge against you and never really warm up to you.” I don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “I don’t trust you for a minute or believe your apology for a second, but I’m just going to pretend that I do because it’s expected of me.” And I certainly don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “Well, I never considered the matter all that significant, even if you did, and so I’m more than happy to overlook such a trivial thing.” I’m talking about real forgiveness, where everyone agrees that someone has seriously wronged another person and the wronged person truly and heartily forgives the other person from the bottom of their heart.
In today’s Gospel we see that our Lord Jesus Christ believes in that kind of forgiveness and freely gives it. And He tells a parable where there is only one person who believes that that kind of forgiveness is available, namely, the father of the two sons. But as we will see, the two sons do not believe such forgiveness is possible or maybe even desirable.
Let me begin with the older son first. He may make his appearance last, but it is obvious that he doesn’t believe in forgiveness or redemption of any kind. He has the crasser attitude toward forgiveness—it would be highly unfair towards those who did what they were supposed to do in the first place—but his own sin is subtler and has disguised itself so much that it has fooled him into believing that he doesn’t need forgiveness and therefore forgiveness shouldn’t be offered to anybody.
|Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)|
Return of the Prodigal Son
But what do I mean when I assert that he too has sinned and is in need of forgiveness? Well, first of all, consider what he did when his younger brother demanded his share of the property. In his culture he as the eldest son was supposed to bring about some reconciliation between his father and his brother. He was supposed to have sat down with his brother and talked him out of his foolish request. But he did nothing. He just let his brother misbehave because it would make him look better.
But it there’s more. The father didn’t just give his property to the younger son, but to the older one as well. The parable clearly tells us that “he divided his property between them.” Granted, the older son didn’t sell his share and then move away. But he didn’t exactly protest either when the father gave him his share. He should have. He should have said that it was the wrong thing to do and that he wasn’t going to claim a single thing before his father’s death. But he silently went along with what his father was doing. The younger brother may have instigated the division of property, but the older brother shared the guilt for letting it take place.
And then we see his attitude fully on display when his younger brother finally arrived home. Listen to his words to 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.” Now is that how a loving son shows his affection for his father? Does he say, “I’ve been slaving away for you for many years,” as if his dad were the world’s harshest taskmaster? And do you think that a father who was so generous to his youngest son, even to the point of giving him the inheritance in advance, would begrudge his son a little party with his friends? No. The older son was as distant from his father as was the younger son. The sad thing is that he didn’t know that the father who forgave and loved his younger son also loved him and wanted to forgive his churlish attitude.
That is a real tragedy: not knowing your own faults, your own most grievous faults, and thus not realizing that you need forgiveness or that forgiveness is available to you. But the younger son reminds us that even people who are deeply burdened by their sins don’t understand that God forgives them. And so we turn now to the younger son.
We see that the younger son had no clearer concept of forgiveness than the older son did. To his credit, he did recognize that he had done wrong. He acknowledged that his bad behavior had broken the natural father-son relationship. At most he hoped that he could become an employee of his dad’s, for he knew that his father was a good boss to have. He thought about working hard and proving himself to his father—not to be taken back as a son, but to be recognized at least as a decent human being. And so he made the same mistake as his older brother. The older brother told his father that he had been slaving away for his dad all those years. The younger brother wanted to be treated as one of the hired servants. Neither brother believed that they had a gracious father who wanted to treat them as his beloved sons.
If only they had known that their father loved them and forgave them! Not in some kind of half-hearted way, either. No, He forgave them from the bottom of his heart. And he did so at tremendous cost to himself and his own dignity. I think that we as westerners are likely to overlook some of the ways in which the father in the parable was downright generous in his forgiveness. Of course, first, most fathers in just about every culture would understand a child’s request for the inheritance to be nothing short of telling him, “Drop dead.” Such insolence was very much frowned upon in our Lord’s society. Most people would have expected a father to treat his child as dead after such an insult, no matter how much they came groveling later on. But notice also that the father doesn’t allow his son to grovel. His son begins his speech, but the father cuts him off. The son would naturally have stooped to kiss his father’s hand, a custom of that day, but instead the father falls upon his son’s neck, which prevented the son from doing that. It isn’t because the father is angry. Quite the opposite. He doesn’t want his son to grovel in the least, but is glad to forgive him wholeheartedly. He doesn’t want the other people in the village to see his son groveling, lest they mistreat his son, even though he is at peace with him.
To reinforce that he has completely forgiven his son and that no one in the village should interfere or act as if the son needed to make further amends, the father threw a banquet that would feed the entire town. He made sure that everyone saw that he had put his own best robe on his son and put his own ring on his son’s finger. This reconciliation would have been a costly affair, to be sure, and the father had to bear all that expense. But if he had not done it, the villagers might well have lynched the son.
In the same way, God forgives us at great cost. It isn’t just a word or two spoken half-heartedly. It is something that cost God the Father His very own Son and that cost the Son His very own life. Nor was this a decision made on the spur of a moment, when God was overwhelmed by emotion and decided to pay such an extravagant cost—an impulse buy, if you will. No, it had been decided before the dawn of time that this is what the Son would do. The Father and the Holy Spirit poured themselves out into the Son’s work, so that it would have their blessing. The entire Triune God was intent on saving us human beings. No cost was too great to pay in order for mankind to be redeemed.
And that forgiveness is ours today. It is real and total forgiveness. We aren’t put on probation for a while or made to be servants until we can show that we are worthy of God’s trust again. Nor is it a one-time deal, as so many people mistakenly think. You don’t just get one chance to be forgiven after you royally screw up and nothing thereafter. Rather, God gives forgiveness throughout our entire life, because He knows that we will struggle with sin as long as we live.
God forgives lavishly and generously, for He knows that is exactly what we need. And that is why He gives that gift in many forms. He forgives us by washing our sins in holy baptism and calling us His beloved children. He forgives us our sins through the Word of God, as it is read both in church and at home. He forgives our sins by holy absolution, where the pastor by God’s command and not his own initiative imparts the forgiveness that God has commanded to be given to all repentant sinners. He also forgives our sins by imparting Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. There we are given the very means by which Christ won forgiveness for us—the body once nailed to the cross and the blood once shed on Calvary for us.
And that is why we gather every week. There are places that can entertain you better. There are other places that can lecture you on various enlightening topics. But only here, that is, in the holy Christian church, do you find the forgiveness of sin offered again and again. Real forgiveness for real sinners.
Yes, real forgiveness is possible for real sinners who have committed real sins. May you believe that with all your heart! In Jesus’ name. Amen.