Often Prodigal, Always Forgiven

+ My first ever sermon.  I preached at University Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA on March 10, 2013 +

Text: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3,11b-32)

Grace and peace to you from God our Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ, who welcomes us back when we stray, comforts us when we hurt, and picks us up when we fall.

The son has returned and the feast has ended. What happens now? Does everyone live happily ever after? Does the prodigal son live his life without ever sinning again? Maybe. But I’m going to guess probably not. The Father absolved his son of his transgressions, but that doesn’t mean that the son is suddenly perfect and sinless; he is going to sin again. Even the older brother, who stayed in the father’s house the whole time, isn’t exactly being Christ-like in his jealousy of his brother’s feast. This isn’t to say that he’s not a good man or isn’t a good brother – he’s human.

Just this morning, we all confessed our sins before God and each other, and were told that our sins were forgiven, which they were. Great, so we’re done, right? No. I, for one, shudder to think how many times I will sin just in the time it will take me to drive home after church today, though the number of sins may directly correlate with the amount of traffic on I-5.

But that’s ok! The fact is: humans sin. As the Apostle Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We always have and always will. What’s important is that God loves us and forgives us. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what the lost son did on his journey and how he wasted his inheritance; when he came home, he was instantly forgiven. The elder brother, who we assume is living a good and honest life at his father’s house, sins in the parable, but the father comes out to plead with him. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’” This is why Luther says that a Christian is “simultaneously [a] saint and sinner,” no matter how much we mess up, God forgives us. We are loved by God and nothing we can do can stop that, even though we continue to sin. We usually want to do God’s will, but so often fall short. And yet, every time we come back to God, God always runs toward us; welcoming us back and tells us that we are God’s beloved children and are forgiven.

Jean Valjean from Les Misérables

I think one of my favorite illustrations of today’s Gospel reading comes from one of my favorite books, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Hugo’s novel is set in early 19th Century France and explores many topics ranging from love, duty, class oppression, and more about the Parisian sewer system than you would ever want to know. But one of the most central themes is about grace and reconciliation. The main character, Jean Valjean, is sent to prison for 19 years as a result of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. When he is paroled, he is a calloused and angry man unable to find work because he was a criminal. He is wandering hungry and homeless when a bishop takes Valjean into his home and gives him food and a place to sleep. That night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and flees, but is soon brought back by the police. Even as Valjean is facing the prospect of going back to prison for many more years, the bishop insists that the silver was a gift and even gives him precious silver candlesticks as well before he sends the police away.

The bishop then says that, with the silver, he has bought Valjean’s soul for God, that his sins are forgiven, and he should now live a Godly life. Much like the son in the parable, Valjean is overwhelmed by this unexpected generosity. He was expecting to go back to prison, but was given a chance at a new life.

Many of you may know that story from the musical or the recent movie, which are based on the book, but what happens next isn’t in the musical. The very day that Valjean is absolved of his sins, he leaves town and steals a coin from a child on the road. Hugo implies that this sin was inadvertent, that it was a holdover from Valjean’s old, evil ways, but Valjean is horrified when he realizes what he has done and goes back to the bishop for another absolution. After that, he lives a good and generous life.

So Valjean is absolved of his sins and given a new life, and what’s the first thing he does? He sins again. And yet, he is forgiven again. Even though the rest of his life is filled with generous deeds and good intentions, he continues to sin, but is still continuously forgiven. Throughout his life, Valjean keeps the candlesticks the bishop gave him as a constant reminder of the grace given him and the new life he now can live.

While Valjean commits himself to a new life full of good works and generous deeds, he doesn’t do good to gain salvation, but rather as a byproduct of the grace that was bestowed upon him by ­God through the bishop. He feels liberated and wants to spread his good fortune to others. In many ways, this is a very Lutheran way of looking at the idea of good works. We desire to help others because of the grace that has been given to us. Even though we have been freed from our bondage to sin and are saved through God’s grace, that doesn’t mean we should just live a life of sin knowing we will still be saved. We know, as Valjean knew, that our works cannot gain or lose us salvation. Rather, we believe that we are called to help those around us by works of kindness and love as an expression of our faith and extension of God’s love. Luther said, “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works.” Our works do not define us, but are expressions of our faith. It is through our faith that we are compelled to do good for our neighbors.

While Jesus didn’t expand upon what the son did after the feast, I think he lived his life liberated, much like Jean Valjean, doing good works for those around him and knowing that even if he should stumble and sin, his Father would be there to forgive and renew him.

Later in this service, we are going to have a feast not unlike the one from the parable. A feast where all are welcome and God’s love is shared. A feast that foreshadows the one we will share with the saints at the end of our days. We will remember when Jesus died for us on a cross to forgive us of all of our iniquities and allow us to live a new life in him. Every time we come to the table, broken as we are, God still runs to us and embraces us, dresses us in the best robes, and exclaims that ‘let us rejoice! For my child who was lost is now found!’


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