June 17, 2018
God is like a shepherd. But God isn't a literal shepherd. This is a metaphor used by Jesus to teach us about himself. But if you were to follow the analogy too far, it would eventually fall apart. There are many things about literal shepherds that are quite different from our God and Lord, Jesus; Jesus doesn't sheer, milk, slaughter, or sell his sheep. Likewise, God is like a woman seeking out a lost coin. But there are many obvious differences between God and a homemaker.
But God is a Father. This is not a metaphor. God is the Father from eternity, who has begotten the Son before all worlds and God the Father has loved God the Son with fatherly love since from eternity. So, when Jesus speaks of an earthly father, he isn't simply drawing a picture of what God is like. Rather, earthly fathers should be like the heavenly Father. And where earthly fathers differ from our heavenly Father, this does not demonstrate the difference between God and fathers, as it does when comparing him to actual shepherds and women. Rather, when earthly fathers differ from God it demonstrates where they fall short of true godly fatherhood.
Likewise, we stray like lost sheep. We are as helpless as a lost coin. Yet, we are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. When Jesus tells the story popularly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he is explaining in further detail who these tax-collectors and sinners are, with whom he is eating. The Pharisees and scribes think that these tax-collectors and sinners are enemies of God, because they have broken God's commandments. Yet, when they say, "This one receives sinners and eats with them.", they maliciously preach the Gospel. Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. What does this say about these sinners? It says that they are not in fact enemies of God. Rather, this says that these lost sinners are sons of God through faith.
They are like lost sheep, who need to be found by their shepherd. When you lose a sheep you don't simply say, "That naughty sheep. He deserves what he got. Let him perish!" That would be a foolish. Also, sheep are helpless. They are dependent on their shepherds to protect them. A lost sheep doesn't find its way home, but rather hunkers down in the brush terrified and waits for its shepherd to rescue it.
A coin is even more helpless than a sheep. A sheep can at least bleat. A coin is an inanimate object. Jesus uses a coin to show that we are saved by grace apart from our works. To be saved by grace means that God is the only one working for your salvation. You do not contribute to your salvation in any way. You do not have free will to choose God. You are a sinner. Sinners sin. Choosing God is good. But sinners can't do good. God must choose the sinner. This is why Jesus uses a coin to describe us.
Yet, the analogy of sheep and coins falls short for a number of reasons. One, you don't really blame a sheep or a coin for getting lost. Sheep are sheep: dumb animals that need to be watched closely. You wouldn't say that a sheep is sinning for getting lost. It's just doing what sheep do. Even more so for a coin. Coins can't sin. Yet, a son can do evil. And we see this quite clearly. The younger son shows contempt for his father by asking for his inheritance early. It is like saying, I want you dead. He sins again when he gathers up all he has and goes to a far country. He takes his father's wealth, but he doesn't want his father's fellowship. He wants to be independent of his father's household. This is what we do when we demand God give us wealth and security and curse him when he doesn't provide what we want, yet we have no desire to be part of God's household; we spurn the word of God and live as if God does not matter at all.
By speaking of this prodigal Son, Jesus is clarifying that these tax-collectors and sinners are indeed sinners. Jesus isn't saying that sin doesn't matter or that they were simply lost and it wasn't really their fault. No. These tax-collectors and sinners sinned against God and merited both temporal and eternal punishment. Yet, by speaking of this prodigal Son, Jesus clarifies something else much more profound. These sinners are not simply lost property, like livestock or money. They are children of God. They are beyond priceless to God, who loves them.
We know this parable by the name of The Prodigal Son, because of his wasteful spending. Yet, it would be more appropriately titled, The Parable of the Compassionate Father. We learn more about our heavenly Father through this parable than we do about ourselves. We know how wicked we are. But unless Jesus reveal it to us, we do not know how compassionate and merciful our God is.
Some would say that because the prodigal son returns home that it is within our power to turn to God and that we need to initiate our return toward God. Of course, this conflicts with the parables of the lost sheep and coin, who showed no effort to be found. But when we look closely, we see that it is the Father who seeks out the son. The son sees the futility of his ways when he finds himself at the brink of starvation, yet he returns home with the intention of being a servant. He understands the Law. The Law makes everyone a slave. Yet, the boy didn't understand the Gospel. It was the father, who saw his son from afar; who ran to meet him; who interrupted his foolish talk about being a servant and made it abundantly clear that he is his son. The father spoke the Gospel to his son, and if he had not done this, his son would have remained intent on being a servant and intent on being separated from his father.
This is important for us to understand. You cannot become a Christian and have God as your Father unless you hear the Gospel. It is common for Christians to sit and wait for their wayward loved ones to return back to the Church, which is the household of God. They follow the nursery rhyme, "Leave them alone and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them.", instead of the parable of Christ. But they won't return home unless they hear the Gospel. As St. Paul says, "How will they believe on him in whom they have never heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching?" (Romans 10:15)
Unless the father runs and calls upon his son, the boy remains a slave. Unless the tax collectors and sinners hear the words of God's love from Jesus, they remain alienated from God. God doesn't speak to the heart without using his Word, which speaks to the ears.
In this parable, Jesus honors fatherhood, by teaching us that all fathers receive their fatherhood from God. Yet, God also uses fatherhood to teach us about underserved grace. I love my wife and I have promised to love her and cherish her in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse until death parts us. And I still mean it. Yet, when I first laid eyes on her, I wasn't ready to make such a commitment. First, I had to have a few conversations with her, before I knew I wanted her to be my wife. Yet, you fathers know what I'm talking about when I speak of the first time I laid eyes on each of my children. They didn't need to do anything for me to love them. There was no courtship. I saw them and I loved them, unconditionally, with no questions asked. This isn't to say that a father loves his children more than his wife, but rather to show that a father's love is one hundred percent by grace. A child does nothing to earn his father's love.
And even when his children sin, a father still loves them. This is why most people understand how comforting the statement from the 103rd Psalm is, "As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him." If a child becomes alienated from his father's house, the father wants his child back, even after tremendous heartbreak. And though, there may be exceptions among sinful fathers, there is no exception with our heavenly Father.
Fatherhood is a great honor, yet it is also a great responsibility. And fathers must learn from their heavenly Father what this responsibility is. The prodigal son sinned long before he felt the ill effects of his sin. Yet, without feeling the hunger and despair, he would not have turned home in repentance. Likewise, children need to be disciplined by their fathers and fathers, who love their children will carry out this indispensable task. As Proverbs 23:13 states, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die."
Yet the greatest responsibility of any father is to raise his children in the fear and love of the Lord. You are only an earthly father. God is your children's heavenly Father. He loves them more than you do and he will be their Father for all eternity. When you bring your child to the waters of Baptism, you are confessing that your heavenly Father is your child's true Father.
Anyone can be a biological father, that's not hard. And even to be a good father by the world's standards isn't too complicated. You need shelter, food, and clothing, so of course you provide these same things to your children. And passing on what is important to you to your children is the most natural thing in the world. It isn't a great achievement to raise your child to be a Hawkeyes fan if you yourself love the Hawkeyes. People will always talk to their children about what is most important to them.
But it's difficult to pass on to your children what truly is most important. Because it is difficult to remember ourselves what is most important. But fathers must remember that their role as spiritual father is significantly more important than their role as biological father, financial benefactor, or instructor on sports orthodoxy.
God says in Deuteronomy 4:10, "Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so." It is a father's responsibility to teach the word of the Lord to his children. He should listen to the sermon in church and then explain what it means to his children in a simple way, just as he does with the Small Catechism in their daily devotions. This is what King Solomon means in Proverbs 22 when he says, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." Children need to be taught the word of God, otherwise, they will not remain in God's household. And it is the father's number one responsibility to teach his children God's Word, even above the pastor's responsibility. Every father should be the spiritual father of his home.
You teach your children the word of God so that God is your children's heavenly father. God become your child's heavenly father through baptism and through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only way to the Father. See the example of the tax-collectors and sinners. They gathered near to hear Jesus and for that Jesus calls them sons of God.
The most important thing for you to teach your children is the free forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus, who died for them. That is the Gospel. This does not mean that you ignore your child's sin. It's not loving to accept the evil that your children do as good. That's not what your heavenly Father does. Rather, this means that when your children sin your goal is always for them to repent, so that they can receive the free forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ. Your goal as a spiritual father is for your children to know the compassion of their heavenly Father through Jesus.
Although, being a spiritual father to your children is often a joyful and rewarding task, it can also bring much guilt upon the conscience, when you realize that you have not done your due diligence in teaching your child God's Word, when devotions fall out of the family routine, when you miss church for no good reason, and when the word of God and the mighty works of Jesus are seldom the topic of conversation in your home. Great responsibility leaves much room for failure. And so, as a spiritual father you must always remember that you too have a compassionate Father. And you know your heavenly Father's compassion through the words of Jesus Christ, who receives sinners gladly and eats with them. And every time you return to your Father's house, having squandered the good gifts he gave you on vain things and after you have spent much time living as if you were not a member of his household, your heavenly Father runs to meet you, he speaks kind words to you and he invites you to feast at his banquet, a meal prepared by Christ himself. And as you, a self-proclaimed poor miserable sinner, approach the table of your Lord, all the angels in heaven rejoice that a sinner has returned to God's household. So happy is your heavenly Father to forgive you.
Thank God for fathers, who show their children their heavenly Father through the love of Jesus. And thank God that he himself is our compassionate Father, who welcomes us his children into his home. Amen.