God is merciful, and He deals with us in mercy. This is what Jesus teaches us with this set of parables. First, Jesus shows us that His Father loves us and is merciful, even though we are sinful. He does not want to hold a sinner’s transgression against him, but He desires to receive him back as a son. Second, Jesus shows us that every son of God must also be merciful to his brothers, his fellow Christians, because Jesus’ Father is merciful, and He loves all His sons with a greater love than any earthly father.
We read that the tax collectors and sinners “drew near to Him to hear Him,” and the Pharisees and Scribes complained that Jesus received them and ate with them. In their thinking, by receiving tax-collectors, men who betrayed their countrymen by profiting from Gentile taxes, and sinners, prostitutes who defiled their bodies with sexual immorality, Jesus approves of them. But surely so great a teacher should keep Himself undefiled and have no part with those who openly violate the law of God. Yet in condemning others, the Pharisees and Scribes, who should know the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms, condemn themselves.
The Scriptures clearly teach that God is merciful above all else. The people of Israel received their inheritance by grace. The history of God’s people is the story of God’s gracious love towards fallen mankind, of His mercy towards a disobedient and contrary people. The constant refrain of praise in the OT Scriptures is “Give thanks to the LORD for He is good – His mercy endureth forever.”
The Pharisees and Scribes had forgotten that God established Israel as His holy people by grace. Their fathers were recipients of God’s mercy. He brought His people Israel up out of the land of Egypt to settle them in the Promised Land. First they passed through the Red Sea. Only then did they journey on and receive the Law at Sinai.
The Pharisees and Scribes had forgotten about God’s mercy and instead cared only for keeping the law. And in their zeal to obey God’s law they twisted it. They made works of the law their source of pride. Keeping the commandments of God became an outward demonstration of personal obedience. They thought that their obedience to the law made them worthy before God, like laborers who successfully completed the task set before them by their master.
But God’s law commands that a man love and serve God and his neighbor as a son loves and serves his father and brother. That’s not how the Pharisees understood it. The Pharisees had made a taskmaster out of God. They saw the tax-collectors and prostitutes as disgraceful laborers who disregarded their duty to keep God’s commands, while they saw themselves as diligent workers who did what was required of them and were therefore worthy of praise before God.
Workers can be dismissed. And when you’re fired, you don’t go back and ask for another chance. In the Pharisees’ mind, the tax-collectors and sinners failed to do what was required of them by God’s law and therefore forfeited their place with God. But Jesus came to call the tax-collectors and sinners to repentance, just as God constantly called disobedient Israel to repentance in the Old Testament, something else the Pharisees forgot. He came to show the tax-collectors and sinners God’s gracious mercy. He came to lead them out of their sinful ways, to offer them forgiveness, and to restore them to a God-pleasing way of life as children of God.
The Pharisees failed to understand this. They thought the tax-collectors and sinners had lost their chance. They didn’t see them as deserving of love, which is what the law of God commands. They saw them as you might see incompetent coworkers. You complain about them and want nothing to do with them and are glad when they’ve quit or been fired. You don’t want to see them again. So Jesus preaches these parables to show just how much God values every child of his.
What man, having a hundred sheep, would not seek after one that had strayed and leave the rest in the wilderness? The answer is no worldly businessman. Raising ninety-nine sheep and losing only one isn’t bad at all! Why risk the whole flock for one sheep? And what shepherd would rejoice when he found his lost sheep and bear it home on his shoulders, calling his friends and relatives to celebrate for the sake of one sheep?
Or what woman, having lost one of ten coins, would tear up her house, searching every spot and sweeping every inch of floor, for the sake a single coin?
Isn’t such attention foolish and undeserved? Only a shepherd who cared for that individual sheep who had strayed would seek it out, only a woman who cherished that particular coin would upend her house to find it. Only a man who truly loved his sheep would be so delighted at its safe return that he would rejoice and call others to do the same. Only a woman who valued her silver piece for its own sake would be overjoyed to find it and call others to share in her joy.
Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand that God loves all those who are His. He is not content to cut His losses. Those He loves He will seek out, and He delights to find them. Even when others find His love wasted and foolish. He calls all to rejoice with Him, for something marvelous has happened – what was lost is found and is returned to its owner’s care.
Jesus then continues with the next parable, showing the Pharisees that not only does God love everything that is His, but He wants to deal with every man as a father, not as a taskmaster.
A certain man had two sons. The younger demanded the inheritance. Now, an inheritance is given when the father has died. Therefore, the son’s demand dishonored his father. Still, his father divides the inheritance, and the sons take their portions. The younger, having taken advantage of his father’s marvelous generosity, forsakes his father and travels to a far-off land to waste away his inheritance in sin.
But he discovers that sinful desires can never be filled. He sought to use his inheritance to cover the expenses of his sinful pleasure-seeking in that far-off land, but the price of its delights was too high, the demands too great. When the lusts of the heart are enflamed by what is sinful, no man can escape sin’s clutches but becomes enslaved by sin. And the younger son finds that there is no grace in that distant land, there is no generosity like his father’s, there is no bond of love and service stemming from the relationship of a father to his son. There is only indifference and exaction of payment. And when a man cannot pay, the creditors take whatever he has left of value, and he is discarded as worthless.
The younger son finds himself alone and without aid. He is forced to feed slop to pigs, to live in muck and filth, starving away, as good as dead.
With this, Jesus shows us that man separated from the Father has nothing. The sinner can only long and hunger but will remain empty and unsatisfied. Apart from the Father’s riches, man is in poverty and misery. Truly, as St Paul says, the wages of sin is death!
And this is what the younger son discovers when he comes to himself. He sees where his selfish desires and his greed have led him. And he thinks back to his homeland, to its abundance and the generosity of his father who gave him all he had, and he longs for what he despised. As he perishes, he understands that he is a sinner, he sees his sinful condition, and he aches to return to his father, that he might confess his sinfulness and be saved from his misery.
So he returns home, thinking that perhaps he can be received back not as a son but as a laborer and earn his keep. But when he was still afar off, his father saw him and hastened to meet him. And the son’s works-righteous scheme fled his mind as he was embraced by his father. The son confesses that he has sinned and is unworthy to be called a son. He repents.
And although he is unworthy in every way, his father receives him back, not as servant but as a son. What the son squandered the father restores. He clothes him in a robe and gives him the ring due a son. He calls for feasting and celebration. He sacrifices a calf and feeds his child. He withholds nothing from him, for he is his son.
And this is why Jesus eats with sinners and tax-collectors. His Father is merciful and wants to be reconciled with each and every one of us, and He sent Jesus to seek and save the lost, to save us. The sinners and tax -collectors were wayward, public sinners just like the prodigal son. They too shared in the prodigal son’s lot. They too discovered that the wages of sin is death. They too found themselves in need of mercy, but no one would show them any. And that brought them to repentance. And when they came to Him, they found mercy with Jesus, mercy more rich than anyone would ever possibly dare lay claim to. They found a place at Jesus’ table, they found mercy at Jesus’ side.
Jesus concludes His parables by showing the Pharisees just how sinful they really are when they question and disdain God’s mercy. They are like the elder son who is so infuriated when he returns from his day’s work and finds his brother back in the house that he refuses to celebrate the return of his brother and instead questions his father’s merciful judgement. When his father comes out and entreats his son to join him, the elder son appeals to his works: has he not labored much for the sake of his father and served without blame while his brother sinned publicly and shamed the family? Why is his brother being rewarded for disobedience? Where then is his reward for obedience? Should not something, even something less than a calf, be given to him as a reward?
The elder son condemns himself when he claims that his father owes him a reward. As the father in the parable says, all that his son has his father gave him. He already received his portion of the inheritance along with his younger brother. The father is not indebted to his son. No son labors for his inheritance but receives the inheritance by blood. It is unmerited. And if his standing is not by merit, neither is his brother’s. The elder son refuses to see that his father treats his sons with love, that his relationship to his sons is one of love. He neither honors his father nor loves his brother. He thinks his father is his employer, his brother his coworker. He thinks only in terms of payment and punishment.
This is the Pharisees’ religion. There is no room in the Pharisees’ program for mercy, there is only a place for praise and reward. And that means they have no place for God the Father. There’s only room for them. Everyone else is excluded. If they will not learn to see that, because their Maker loves what He created, that He is gracious and merciful beyond all measure to every creature, that this is intrinsic to His essence, then they will have no place with God. If they hate that He is merciful, then they hate Who He is in Himself.
And that doesn’t make them servants of God, it makes them enemies of God. Because they care about the wrong things, the Pharisees don’t want to be treated as sons. They don’t want to receive everything from their Father in heaven. They are that prideful. They think God commends them as workers, and this qualifies them to despise their brother and refuse him the love due a sibling because he stumbled into sin. But people who refuse to practice mercy will one day likewise be refused it. If you refuse to respect God as your merciful Father and treat sinners He has brought to repentance as your brothers and fellow inheritors, if you refuse to show them love as God has commanded, then God will withhold mercy from you and refuse to let you into His house.
God only deals with you as a son who inherits by blood, and he refuses to give you anything as a laborer worthy of a wage, for He gives freely on account of Who He is, as the Merciful One. No one demands payment from Him. God the Father is indebted to no one, but all are indebted to him.
This is what the Pharisees didn’t understand, but it is what we must understand. We need to understand what Jesus teaches us with this set of Parables. He teaches us that, because God is merciful, He does not hold the debt of our sins against us but forgives us He calls sons, and He expects us to do the same to one another. He sent His Son to pay the price required for the sins of the whole world, whether flagrant sins like those of the Gentiles, or prideful, hypocritical sins like those of the Pharisees, that all who believe may be numbered among His people and dwell in His house as sons forever.
For as the father in the parable treated his sons kindly, so our Father has mercy on every repentant sinner. As the father sacrificed a calf for one son and bade the elder partake of it, so has God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself, pouring out His wrath over sin on one body sacrificed for sin on the altar of the cross, that one new man might be created in place of the two at enmity with each other, whether Jew or Gentile, elder or younger brother, that all hostility would be ended and peace be preached to those who strayed far off and to those who were near, that every man would be reconciled to His Father in heaven and to his brother on earth, that every man would be made an heir, not of the hundredth part, not of the tenth portion, not of the half, but of all the fullness of God’s riches on account of Christ.
So let us rejoice and ever be thankful, blessing God that we have been made full partakers of mercies more rich than any would dare to claim. Let us rejoice, for Christ has born our transgressions and carried us upon His shoulders, that we might be returned to our fold. Let us rejoice, for our mother, the Church, has found what is precious and returned it to its proper place. Let us rejoice, for we who were dead are now alive in Christ and reconciled to our loving Father. We who once wore sackcloth are clothed with gladness. We who were empty are filled with the meat of Christ. We who mourned break forth into singing and leap for joy. The house is prepared, and all are welcome. The feast is begun, and all partake. This is the everlasting inheritance of a son of the Father, and it is wonderful indeed!
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen!