The Pharisees despise the sinners coming to Jesus for the same reason Planned Parenthood despises unborn babies. They don’t understand the worth of humans. They think people are worth something because of what they do, what they make of themselves, and since these sinners have made nothing of themselves, and babies have done nothing to distinguish themselves, they consider them worthless and expendable. So Jesus tells the Pharisees three parables about the worth and value of humans. In our day, we need this teaching more than ever.
First we have the lost sheep. This sheep wasn’t the shepherd’s pet. The point of the parable is not that the shepherd loves the sheep. It’s that he considered the sheep valuable. We get confused about this, because we think in terms of the Good Shepherd and Psalm 23, where God compares Himself to a shepherd who adores His sheep and lay down his life for them because He loves them. But here in our parable we have a shepherd who owns a hundred sheep, and if he loses one of them, he’ll lose part of his wealth. That lost sheep is worth something, in real dollars, and that’s the point the Pharisees can’t deny. “Which one of you wouldn’t go out and find the lost sheep?” Jesus says. Which one of you wouldn’t drop everything you’re doing if you lose your wallet? Appointments get canceled, you call the bank, you make it your top priority to find that wallet, because it’s worth something to you. And the parable of the lost coin drills home the same point even more clearly. The woman doesn’t love the coin. She has no affection for it. But she knows its worth. If you’d drop everything to go and find one sheep out of a hundred, certainly you’d do the same to go and find one coin out of ten. It’s a tenth of your wealth, it’s got monetary value, objective worth.
And the Pharisees understand this. They can see the value, the worth, of stuff, of property and money. But what about the value of people?
People belong to God. Whether they know it or not, they belong to Him. He made them, He became one of them, He shed His blood for them, He’s jealous for them and sends out His Word to bring them to Him. And if He invests them with this worth, with this value, then no one can argue against it, no one can point to the sins that are so despicable and then declare sinners worthless. No one can point to the size of a baby, the economic devastation he’ll bring to his poor mother, the burden of carrying him for nine months, and say, this baby isn’t worth it. No one can point to blacks or whites and say they matter more, or they’re worth less. They have worth, we have worth, because God values us. Far more than a shepherd values his sheep, far more than a woman her money, God values the people He made in His image and died to redeem.
And so Jesus transitions from sheep and coin, from monetary value, to a higher kind of value. The value of love. The value a father puts on his child. I remember my grandfather, a few months before he died, when my youngest brother was born, telling my dad that he was the richest man he knew. My dad wasn’t rich. He lived on a single income, a low pastor’s salary, to provide for a wife and 12 kids. He was poor by American standards. But the worth of children is far more valuable than money or possessions. Every good father knows this. There’s not one of us children, even though we’ve caused him pain and given him gray hairs and too often disobeyed him and disrespected him and made him stay up late at night worrying about us, not one of us Dad would give up for all the money in the world.
And this is what Jesus drives home with the parable of the lost son. And he does drive it home. He’s been talking about riches, money and possessions, things people know are worth something, and now he reverses it. This son costs the father money, takes his inheritance, a third of the father’s wealth. In monetary value the son is worse than worthless, he’s a deficit, an impediment to wealth. If the father were interested in money, he would have disinherited his son, thrown him out of the house, kept the money for himself. But no, he loves this son. And there, there alone, in the father’s love, is the son’s worth. And this even when the son shows himself totally unworthy of his love, even when he tells his father he wishes he were dead – that’s what it means to ask for your inheritance before your father dies – even when he goes off and shames his father’s name by living in sin and spending his father’s money on prostitutes and drunkenness, the father loves him and sees him as worth far more than all his wealth. And Jesus shows this. The father isn’t just waiting for his son to come back. He’s looking for him. He sees him from far away. He runs to him and showers him with kisses. And after the kid has wasted away a third of his money, the father shows what little he thinks of his wealth, and throws a lavish feast, spends even more money, to celebrate and honor this son of his.
And why? Because he loves him. That’s it. That’s his worth. There’s no logic here. There’s no reasoning it out. He loves his son, and so he thinks him more valuable than all the world.
This is the love of God for sinners. It isn’t logical. The Pharisees are. Sin should be punished. Sinners should be thrown into hell. They should have no business sitting and eating with God. But God’s love is this, that He takes the sinner’s punishment on Himself, that He subjects Himself to the sinner’s hell by suffering it on the cross, that He gives up His riches and spends His wealth and honor on unworthy sinners, seeks out those who have rejected Him, who have preferred to live as if their Father were dead, who have found themselves miserable and unclean, He seeks them out, and when they come and confess that they are unworthy, that they don’t deserve to be called His son, He gives them His name, clothes their shame with his righteousness, refuses even to mention their sin, gives them the worth and value of His own blood shed for them, and rejoices with them.
This scene is so beautiful that it takes up all our attention. The prodigal son and the gracious father. But there is another character in the parable. And we have to deal with him too, the older brother who stayed in his father’s house while the younger brother ran away.
And really he’s the point of the story, because he represents the Pharisees, and it’s the Pharisees Jesus is addressing. You can and should identify with the lost son because you know your sin and you know what it means for your God to relieve you of all your guilt, to forgive you when you fail, and to love the unworthy. You know the pain of sin, the filth of it, and the mercy of your dear Father, that He would not only forgive it for Jesus’ sake, but guard you from it and teach you to hate it, as we sing, “O let me loathe all sin forever, as death and poison to my soul, that I through willful sinning never may see Thy judgment take its toll.” But it’s the older brother’s hatred of repentance, of reconciliation, of his father’s love that serves as Jesus’ great warning here.
Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the older brother despising the sins his younger brother committed. He should. His Father did. His little brother learned to. Sex outside marriage, drunkenness, open disrespect for authority. Christians should despise dirty stuff like this, things that everyone, Christian or not, should know are bad for you, bad for society. We should despise the rioting and looting and tearing down statues and openly defying law and order we’ve been seeing in our country. I’ve had so many members guiltily tell me in the last weeks that they’re angry at what’s going on, governments telling churches how to distribute the Lord’s Supper, the burning and looting of our cities, the refusal of state and city governments to do anything about it, the Supreme Court decision pushing transgenderism on us, which will certainly lead to the persecution of the Christian Church. Good. Be angry at all this. Don’t feel bad about being angry at sin. Being angry at sin wasn’t the older brother’s problem. It wasn’t the Pharisees’ problem. God’s angry at sin. Christians should be angry at what God is angry at. We memorize this, remember, and the Psalmist says it, “God is angry with sinners every day.” We apply it to ourselves when we sin, that God is angry with us, and we run to His mercy in Christ, who bore God’s anger for us.
The older brother’s problem and the Pharisee’s problem is simply that they don’t love repentance. They don’t want anger at sin to turn into joy at sinners repenting. They won’t pray with Abraham over Sodom. They won’t weep with Jesus over Jerusalem. They don’t like what makes every human worth something, and that’s not what we do, it’s what God does, God’s love, his grace in making us and dying for us and giving us His Spirit. And they don’t love this mercy of God because they don’t know their own sin, their own worthlessness, and so they haven’t found their worth in God.
And this is a warning to us Christians. Never let your desire for justice, your anger at sin, override your desire for the forgiveness bought by your Savior’s blood. You don’t ask for justice when you come here to church, you ask for mercy. And God gives it. God turns away His anger. He runs to meet you here. And this is what gives God joy, what makes the angels in heaven rejoice and sing, not when Sodom is destroyed, not when Jerusalem is sacked, but when sinners repent and find their rest in Him. So this is what we pray for, for everyone, it’s our joy and God’s joy, and we want it to be the world’s joy.
Sin is worthlessness and when people love it they live like they’re worthless. The beauty of being a Christian is knowing what makes life valuable. God has given you the good life. He gives you value, your Father loves you, wants to be with you, your Brother the only begotten Son has laid down His life for you and feeds you Sunday after Sunday with His own body and blood and will be with you always, forever, as His Spirit gives you faith and love. And so the angels rejoice. They sing with us again today. They are happy for us, because they see how happy God is to have us as His own. God grant us the joy of knowing Him forever, God grant it to our children, to bring home those who are lost and to strengthen those who stand, so that we all rejoice together in the feast here on earth and the heavenly feast to come. Amen.