The Prodigal Son and II Corinthians 5:19
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Our NT readings for this morning seem at first glance to be connected only by virtue of familiarity, and the passage from Joshua appears inscrutably irrelevant (Joshua 5:9-12). What does eating the produce of Canaan have to do with being new creatures and ambassadors for Christ, and what does either one have to do with the famed parable of the Prodigal Son?
Surprisingly, we find the answer in the first verse of our Psalm for today, Psalm 32: “How blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” How does that actually happen? How is the forgiveness of sins initiated? How does our sin get “covered?” What is our role in that process? Who makes the first move? What is the actual source of our awareness of sin, our repentance, our regeneration or rebirth, our turning to God in faith and conversion, our being forgiven and justified and our being adopted as God’s own sons and daughters? This would be the perfect place to insert a theological discussion of the Ordo Salutis, the “order of salvation,” but such conversations are more appropriate to the theology classroom than to the Sunday morning homily!
So, instead, we will take a step back: “How blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” The passage from Joshua records the very words of the Lord to Joshua on the occasion of the Israelites finally entering the Promised Land: God says, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” This was God’s doing, something only He could do. On the very next day the manna stopped and the Israelites were able to eat from the produce of the land. God had fulfilled His promises to Abraham and Jacob. See God act: He keeps His promises and is faithful to His chosen people.
What does Paul have to say about the way God acts towards us as believers? He told the believers at Corinth, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (II Cor. 5:18). This is the very heart of the Gospel. It gets no more succinct than in the next verse, of which the major 20th century theologian Karl Barth said, “Dogmatics has no more exalted and profound word – essentially, it has no other word – than this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”
Again, it is God at work, taking the initiative, setting the stage for our responses, drawing us to Himself, preparing the way, opening to us the spiritual Promised Land. If we carry that understanding of how God is and how God acts over to our Gospel parable, we will want to change its name from the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” to the “Parable of the Loving Father.” That very refocusing of our approach to the parable quickly removes one of its more perplexing aspects: what about the older son, the one who stays home serving his father and becomes intensely jealous and even angry when the return of the reprobate son gets such an over-the-top response from his father on a level he has never once experienced for himself?
What is it that we are to learn about God from this parable? He is loving, patient, longsuffering, forgiving, of great lovingkindness, slow to anger: wait! This is last week’s homily over again! Exodus 34:6 “The LORD, the LORD God, (is) compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; Who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, Who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” That’s the sort of Person God revealed Himself to be to Moses on Mt. Sinai. That’s the way God related to His people in faithfulness to His covenant with them. That’s the way the father in our parable related to both of his sons. Yes, the prodigal son confessed his sin and declared his unworthiness. But it was “While (the Prodigal Son) was still a long way off, (that) his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him… and said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found’” (Luke 15:20-24). This definitely is God talking!
And when the faithful older son “became angry and was not willing to go in… his father came out and began pleading with him. 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” Here is chesed at work: the lovingkindness of God. The father pleads with his older son to see things from a divine perspective rather than a purely human one; he does not chastise his son for being unlike himself; he affirms that his son is heir to all that he has; and he changes the perspective back to celebrating the return of the prodigal, without making the slightest attempt to excuse his waywardness.
We always want to know more about God, don’t we? We always want an opportunity to ask God all of our “how” and “why” questions, especially the “why’s.” But not only has God told us what He is like, He also provides one live demo after another. When we see how faithfully He fulfilled His promises to the Israelites, and when we see how He took the initiative to reconcile us to Himself through His Son, and when we hear His Son tell us a compelling parable about what God is like, we have more than enough ground for echoing the words of David in Psalm 103:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
3 Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases;
4 Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
5 Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
6 The LORD performs righteous deeds and judgments for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel.
8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.
17 But the lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children.
That’s David’s description of how God acts, and it also is Jesus’ description of the Father in our parable. That’s what God is like.
Not every one of us has rebelled or wandered as far away from God as the prodigal son. Not all of us have been as resentful of God’s graciousness towards others as the angry son. Not all of us have fallen into the sins that we tend to regard as more heinous than other sins. Some of us may even be able to feel rather good about ourselves and our worthiness, especially in an age when the media continually bombards us with the message that we deserve every good thing that possibly could come our way. But when we come to terms with God’s perfections and try to measure our actions in relationship to God’s character, we can only rejoice in the fact that our God is One Who has taken the initiative on our behalf and Who, in Christ, has gone about the task of reconciling the world to Himself.
“Therefore,” writes the apostle Paul to the Corinthians in one of his three “therefore’s” in this short passage, 20 “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” What a message for Lent as we look towards the Cross!
God took the initiative. Yet God wants us to take on the role of “ambassadors” for the Kingdom to which we now belong: not the kingdom of the United States, but the Kingdom of God. Are we assuming that role? Are we truly ambassadors for God’s Kingdom? Are we as intensely involved in Kingdom things as we are in American politics? In the other “therefore” that is of special significance for us this morning, Paul writes, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all these things are from God, Who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Listen to this again in the context of everything we have discovered together this morning. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.” Are we “new creatures,” or “renewed creatures?” However new or old the Christian faith may be to any of us, it is “new” in the grand scheme of things eternal. The point is that our “newness” in Christ should set us apart, should separate us from the world around us, from the worldly culture of which we should no longer be a part.
And what else? Paul says “All these things are from God,” not of our own invention, neither are they springing from our own human character. They are God-things, foreign to our own fallen nature, but perhaps connected directly to the image of God in which we were first created. “These things are from God, Who reconciled us to Himself.” There we go again with the divine initiative whereby God makes us His own, sometimes even when we come kicking and screaming. Do you know anyone on whom God seems to have laid His hand of mercy and yet who continues fiercely to resist His grace? Perhaps you can help, because the very next phrase in Paul’s writing says this: “God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
What an awesome responsibility! Yes, God takes the initiative. God reaches out to us and to all Whom He calls in love. But He also entrusts to us the “the ministry of reconciliation” whereby we become God’s voice, God’s hands and feet, God’s intermediaries in this life where, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. So we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (I Thes. 2:4).
Couldn’t God have done this some other way than to make us His ambassadors, the persons to whom the ministry of reconciliation has been given, the ones who have been “approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel?” Sure. God is sovereign. He could have done things any number of other ways. In special circumstances, He still does! But He has dropped this very considerable responsibility squarely in our laps and we cannot escape it. Yes, we can shirk it, to our own considerable detriment. But as followers of Jesus Christ, God has assigned ambassadorial duties to us and given to us a “ministry of reconciliation.”
Shouldn’t we be able to embrace that responsibility with amazed joy, thanking God daily that He has indeed entrusted this awesome privilege to us? All we really have to do is let others know what God done for us in Christ: He has reconciled the world to Himself! Yes, Dr. Barth, “Dogmatics has no more exalted and profound word – essentially, it has no other word – than this.” It is the message of reconciliation which we have been given as a sacred trust.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19); “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15); do not be ashamed of the Gospel, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (II Tim. 4:2). Just do it, for Jesus promised that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen