The prodigal Son made quite a picture. Destitute, dressed in rags he came dragging himself down the road to home. He had plenty of time on his hands to review the laundry list of his sins, to do some moral bookkeeping. The accounts were not impressive. He had squandered, wasted his inheritance. He had given himself wholeheartedly to corruption. The results were predictably destructive of his humanity. He was spent, literally, in every way. Now, with low expectations he headed home. If he were lucky, his father would treat him like one the hired help.
Was the young man repentant over this sorry state of affairs? The story Jesus tells is ambiguous at this point. Perhaps this is as it should be. For to focus on what may have been his intentions is to engage in the moral bookkeeping of self-righteousness, to keep the story under the law. The story has a great deal to say about that.
Someone once pointed out that this parable could have three titles: ‘The Prodigal Son, ‘the Forgiving Father’, ‘the Unforgiving Brother’. All three work well. At the same time, when we look at the parable it is plain to see where Jesus placed the emphasis. The story concludes with the dialog between the father and the older brother, the moral bookkeeper. And he had no doubts about the kind of treatment his brother ought to have received. He, after all, had stayed home, kept his nose clean and done everything that was required of him. He kept the law. He deserved his father’s respect. The accounts were clear. And on that basis he was exactly right. But his father was not keeping books. The lost one was found. It was time to celebrate!
Jesus ticked a lot of people off with stories like this. After all, doesn’t the elder brother raise the same objections we do about fairness and what is right? Don’t we want everything to be an equation that works under the law? But the grace of God in Christ makes an end of moral, legal bookkeeping. And this grace is not cheap. God’s forgiveness comes at the price of a bloody cross.
None of us could withstand a rigorous, uncompromising accounting of our lives. The very thought is almost too much to contemplate. But thanks be to God who welcomes sinners out of sheer grace and mercy for the sake of our dear, blessed Jesus.
As you once again prepare to celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, remember it was God’s love and mercy for you that brought Him here. And as He came once at Bethlehem, He comes still in His promising Word and the sacraments.
So, light the yule log! Throw the accounting books on the fire! Decorate everything to the hilt! Turn up the music! Set the tables with every good thing and let’s get this Christmas party started! Christ was born for sinners! And if that is a name you will own then join your voice with mine:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come!