[Picture by N.C Wyeth in “The Parables of Jesus” by S. Parkes Cadman (1931)]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the Third Sunday After Trinity, 7/7/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Third Sunday After Trinity, click here.
It was a beautiful summer day, full of promise and hope, so long ago now, when we as a people made a decision that would alter the course of human history.
To be ruled over from afar no longer seemed tolerable or just. To be subjects of a King was no longer tasteful. The freedom we knew did not feel like the freedom we came to desire.
And so, on a perfectly good afternoon, we declared independence. Thus, the great rebellion, began – and with it a long and costly war of revolt.
That is how it happened so many summers ago in Eden, when Adam and Eve decided to do things their own way: to reject the grace of their Father; to deny that He truly cared for them and knew what was best for them; to chase after those things that appeared good in their own, not yet fully mature, eyes.
And, to be sure, God allowed them to do so. From the very start, they were far freer than they guessed. God gave them guidance and warning, but He would not turn his children into puppets. He loved them and so, in the beginning, He made our first parents free: free to love Him back, and free to walk away. Even for God, to be denied by the other is the great risk that love requires.
That kind of freedom is exercised again in the great parable before us this morning. The Prodigal is a son because he has a father. And in his father’s house he has every good thing: family and friends, food and riches, comfort and joy.
But he would not be satisfied with these things as long as they were given under his father’s rule. As long as the prodigal son remained in his father’s house, he was dependent on him.
“Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me.”
And he divided his property between them.
You heard how it goes. The son uses his new-found freedom to destroy himself, chasing after those things which seem best to him. All this works out fine until he runs out of resources and begins to be in need. He becomes so much in need, in fact, that he gives up his new-found freedom. He sells himself into slavery, and soon longs to eat the food that’s thrown to the pigs.
You might ask yourself: Was it worth it? Was declaring independence everything the son had hoped for? Did it even work? Was he actually freer in this foreign land than he was before, when he was in his father’s home?
What about you? What happens when you declare independence? What happens when you take your heavenly Father’s gifts and go do what you want with them?
What happens when you spend time and resources on things that don’t really matter? What happens when you choose not to heed your Father’s gracious words to you? What happens when you give yourself over to the things of this world?
To endless entertainment and distraction; to drunkenness and illicit sex; to reckless living? Are you still free? Or have you become a slave? The answer becomes clear when those things run out, when famine comes, and you find yourself debased and deformed, hungry and hurting.
All of a sudden, you realize that the freedom you have is not the freedom you desired. Jesus talks about that realization this way:
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! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’”
The prodigal imagines that he needs to come up with a good line, one that sounds pious and sincere. But it’s not completely pious any more than it’s completely sincere. Certainly, he means it at least a little; he understands that life would be better as a servant in his father’s house. But he also thinks that he needs to convince his father that he is sufficiently repentant, and so he rehearses his lines all the way home, practicing what he’ll say.
All this goes to show that for the many years he spent at home, he does not understand his father. Imagine your own dear child, gone far from home, who by his own fault has made a hash of his life, who is starving and sick, poor and deluded, pushing pigs out of the way to eat their food.
You see him a long way off, and you know that he is too bitter to know your love for him. You see him a long way off, and you know that he is too weak to make the journey. You see him a long way off, and you know that he cannot bring his revolution to an end. What will you do?
Will you declare that he is as dead to you as you were to him? Will you allow the war he began to continue? Will you let him die there on the road?
Or will you declare peace?
Will you run to your child? Will you pick him up in your arms like when he was a baby? Will you wash his wounds and fill him with good food, and clothe him? Will you show him back to his childhood room, with his bed freshly made?
If even you who are sinful would do such things for your children, consider how great your Father’s love for you is, and what He has done for you.
He has sent His only begotten Son to seek out and save rebels – to save you. And that Son, Jesus, has given Himself into death rather than see you die in some strange land. By the blood of His Sacrifice He has declared peace between God and man. By the waters of Baptism, He has clothed you with His righteousness. With His risen Body, He provides for you a feast.
He has brought an end to your war. He has beat your swords into plowshares. He has declared you dependent – on His grace, on His mercy, on His love.
He has also declared you free. You are free from your sin, and so it holds no power over you. You are free from death, and so the grave will not hold you. You are free to love as you have been loved.
What greater freedom could be declared than this one? This liberty that all other liberties are called to serve and exalt.
Let us celebrate. You were dead and now are alive. You were lost and now you are found. You were captives, and now you are free.
To Christ be all the glory, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.