Scripture Readings: Joshua 5:9–12 | Psalm 32 | 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 | Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Our Gospel reading today recounts a well-known, and well-beloved parable… a powerful story offering surprising comfort and hope… good news for all who have wandered, and lost themselves… a window into the heart of God’s abundant saving grace, which calls us all to be transformed by His New Creation.
Before we dig in to this parable and try to discern it’s message for us this morning, perhaps we should take a step back and remember it’s place in Luke’s wider story. For the last few chapters in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been hard at work revealing the character of God’s good Kingdom. He has been teaching with many parables, short stories and punchy word-pictures that often have the effect of shaking up the expectations of those listening. He has also been more directly confronting the beliefs and practices of many regarding what it really means to be faithful to the LORD… about what it means to be aligned and in sync with what the Living God is up to in the world.
Luke tells us today that many were moved by what Jesus was saying and doing, but that not everyone appreciated what they were hearing… or seeing. Luke 15:1-2 says
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
If Jesus claims to be sent from God, and to walk in God’s holy ways, they grumbled, then how could He stand to spend time and share meals with those kind of people?
Before we look down on the Pharisees and scribes, let’s not ignore our own easy prejudices… our own tendencies to avoid the ‘wrong kind of people’, whoever that may be. Who are the ones that we would find hard to welcome and to share a meal with? Who do we find it hard to imagine taking part in God’s Kingdom?
In answer to the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus tells three parables: about a Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, and a Lost Son… or rather, Lost Sons. All three of these parables speak of the surprising and saving love of God, but the longest, the story of the Lost Sons, ups the ante, and drives home the point… and a challenge.
First off, we hear about the shameful story of the younger son, who insults his father’s honour, wastes every penny of his inheritance by chasing after his own desires, and is left destitute in a foreign land… having lost everything… not only money, but friendship, dignity, and hope. He has no one who cares for him. He’s burned every single bridge.
But in his lowest moment, he remembers his father, and how his father had treated his servants with kindness. Of course, it was out of the question to be welcomed back into the family after all he had done… but maybe his father would have pity enough to hire him? Maybe? So the youngest son returns, planning to sell himself to survive.
But Jesus paints for us a picture of welcome no one would have anticipated. At the first sight of his shameful, ruined son, the father is filled with compassion and races toward the wretch, welcoming him home with a warm embrace and throwing a joy-filled feast in celebration. The scholar Roger Van Harn unpacks the significance of the father’s welcome, and what it meant for the young man’s future:
“What follows are the signs of restoration. The best robe was the father’s robe. The signet ring was a sign of restored authority and responsibility. The shoes were a sign that he was indeed a son, not a servant. The killing of the fatted calf was a sign that the whole community was invited to celebrate the restoration of the relationship. The unexpected, extravagant display of grace in restoring his son is accounted for by the father’s own words: ‘Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’”
The younger son had indeed brought shame and dishonour on his family, and lost everything… but what mattered most to the father was that this wayward son had returned. That they were reunited, reconciled. That new life could begin.
What a beautiful picture of grace, forgiveness, and abundant, generous love… offering comfort and hope to all of us who have made a mess of our lives. This story is a glimpse into the gracious love of the Living God, who above all longs for His wayward children to return to Him and find new life in His arms… but the story’s not over. Let’s turn now to the story of the eldest son.
Unlike his shameful brother, the elder son had done his duty. He had been loyal and diligent, setting aside his own desires to serve his father… anticipating the day he would be rewarded for his faithfulness, unlike that reprobate brother of his, who was thankfully gone for good.
But then the lost younger son returns… and the oldest hears that he has been welcomed home with a feast, and fully restored into the family. The elder son is incensed at the thought of welcoming home this ‘son of his father’ he can’t bring himself to call brother…. and so he refuses to join in the party. He cuts himself off from the joy of his father, and stands at a distance, grumbling.
Again, the father does the unexpected: he goes out in search of his other lost son, and pleads with him to come home from the fields and join in the joyful celebration. Far from an expression of favoritism, the father loves both of his sons, and longs for them both to be reunited in his love:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32).
Then Jesus ends the story with the elder son’s response left hanging, leaving his listeners to wonder ‘How will he respond to the father’s invitation?’ Will he hold onto his resentment and bitterness, and refuse to welcome home this sinner who has finally returned? Or will he relent and follow his father back to the house and join in the celebration, reunited and ready to share in a new life together?
Of course, this story was told to invite others to choose how they too would respond. How were the Pharisees and scribes to respond to the surprisingly gracious welcome that Jesus was offering to tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, and all the ‘wrong’ sorts of people, who had drawn near to Jesus, seeking from Him the New Life of God’s Kingdom?
Perhaps more to the point: How will you and I respond? How will our lives either reject or embody this gracious, abundant love of God Jesus offers… love that does not shy from welcoming sinners, and sharing all that we have with them? The love that longs for all of us to be restored and reconciled?
This parable offers us all an invitation to rejoice in the gracious, rescuing love of the Living God, not only as it bears fruit in our own lives, but in all those who will draw near to Jesus and seek out New Life in Him? It is calling us not just to acknowledge this love from a safe distance, grumbling with our arms crossed, but rather to actively share in the New Life of Jesus Christ… extending His welcome… inviting others with our words and our actions to draw near to in Him in faith, and come to His table… where we are all offered the forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. The joyful celebration of sinners returning home, rescued by God’s truly faithful Son who let Himself be lost on the cross so that we all might be found… who died for us, so that we might live, reunited to our Father forever. Who rose again from the grave, so that we might know that in Jesus Christ the risen Lord, God has begun His New Creation… transforming us even today… not the least by transforming the way we see and treat those all around us.
St. Paul spoke of this in his letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-19 he writes: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Christ came to seek and to save the lost… and to rescue us all through offering His life once and for all… to transform us by His saving love, not just into better people… like the elder brother seemed at first, compared to the younger son… but to reunite us to the very heart of the Father… to reconcile us all to the Living God, and fill us with His Holy Spirit, so that we can live reconciled together as the beginning of God’s New Creation.
So now, remembering that in Christ Jesus God has welcomed us all, and bids us join in the joyful celebration and the New Life of His Kingdom, how can we respond today to His forgiveness, grace and abundant, saving love? How can we let go of the prejudices, and grudges that threaten to keep us apart? And how can we help those around us drawn near to Jesus, and share in His New Creation too? Amen.
 Roger E. Van Harn, “Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 409–410.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School