Fourth Sunday in Lent (2022)
Today we hear one of the most well worn passages of scripture. When I saw this passage it almost felt like putting on a pair of slippers, cozy, known, reassuring. I also believe we have a history of what we think this passage means. Please suspend that.
The parable of the prodigal son actually comes third in a series of parables so by the time Jesus tells this we should be sensing a theme. The first parable is the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go get the one wayward sheep. The second parable is the lost coin where a woman searches high and low for a silver coin. Each of these parables have their meaning explained:
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This is not the case with the parable of the prodigal. It ends with this confounding passage:
It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
Whereas the other two parables are about repentance, this story seems to be just as much about acceptance.
This should cause each of us to ponder for a moment - Just exactly who is the prodigal son? Is it Jesus, squandering His life on us poor sinners with the church being the jealous brother? Is it a sinner who is recieved back into the arms of God ? Is it me who is still likely to REALLY get out there and blow it big time?
The other readings today don’t really seem to care who the prodigal son correlates to. What they want us to think about is how you and I view him. Given the audience of this parable, the pharisees and scribes surrounded by other sinners, we begin to see a division in the people of God.
Jesus tells this story so that everyone who hears it may enter into a new perspective. Here is what I mean by that; I am willing to bet that just as much as the religious authorities scorned the other people in the room, I bet it worked the other way too. I bet derision worked both ways.
I’ll never forget the time I rode around in a combine in Nebraska for a few hours with a bean farmer and eventually the conversation turned to how his beans actually were sold on the market. Instantly the conversation turned acrid and he bemoaned the commodities traders who just profit off his labors. Just 24 hours later I was outside of Omaha at a suburban church and low and behold I was sitting in a pew with… a commodity trader who bemoaned the farmers. They had no idea how difficult it was to find markets and export and trade.
One of the many ways to utilize this parable is to soften hearts and repent of how we have all treated each other. Whenever someone apologizes for their actions we almost immediately ask the question that arises from this story.
But do you mean it?
In verse 21 of our reading we are all forced to ask: But does he mean it?
And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Everyone in the room is constantly asking this of ourselves and our neighbor. Do we really mean it? For those of us who have wronged others and wronged our God, robbing ourselves and our world of flourishing and harmony we want to see that someone really means it.
This is perhaps most easily grasped with kids. When I worked at summer camp it was entirely predictable that at some point some little boy would throw a stick at another little boy. It should be written into the liability contract specifically. Then we would go and calm the situation down and bring both little boys face to face and the one who was wounded typically had the fire of 1000 suns as he stared at the other kid. The perp would be asked to apologize and his gaze was EVERYWHERE but upon the victim. (Make eye motions)
Naturally, our inclination in this situation is to retain the sins of those who have sinned against us- when we do this we demonstrate that we don’t want forgiveness, we want penance.
The Psalmist tells us:
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
You and I don’t quite get there though, it’s not that quite simple. Like I said, we want penance. We want to see other people, we want to see ourselves squirm. Penance was a practice that arose during the third century of the church where someone was excluded from communion and then enrolled in a prescribed course of prayer, fasting and financial entanglements in order to make up for their sins.
We all kind of want that right? We want to be able to make a mistake and then hold up a confirmation of all the things that we have done to rectify the situation. The prodigal son does this in his speech.
He wants to be demoted. I am no longer worthy He says.
He wants to prove to everyone around that he is REALLY sorry! We also want him to prove it. But is he? We just don’t know, that is because as the book of Samuel tells us - man looks on the outside and God looks on the heart.
This is why as Lutheran Christians we have such a beef with Penance. Sure - fast, pray, give alms do those things but they may or may not reflect the posture of your heart. Further - to think that those things, to think that our piddly little actions actually make up for our sins is to rob the cross of Christ of its extreme cost.
I had a high school buddy who’s dad had a favorite punishment. We had a BIG church in Spokane, 400-500 on a Sunday and whenever my buddy would mess up his dad would make him sweep the parking lot. Now this guy could sweep the entire thing twice and never once repent.
Imagine what would have happened if someone had come and done that work for him?
Christ is the penance of God that moves our hearts.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Christ is the only exhibit of salvation and either the blood of Jesus is enough or it isn’t. When it comes to salvation the actually putting on the ring and restoration - the work of Jesus is enough.
The father of the prodigal son is a picture of salvation. His grace does the work of saving, not the sons groveling.
What this means is that if you and I are looking for assurance of our salvation, assurance that on the last day the Lord will put a ring on your finger, shoes on your feet and welcome you to the feast we should look to the Grace of God found in Christ. Not our heart, not our hands. Christ is the super abundant work that avails heaven and earth to you.
This is freedom. No longer do we keep track of how you treated me or if I called you back. The record of Christ is the only record that matters. St Paul tells us that because Christ is the currency for penance we have a new way of relating with God and each other.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Man, our entire world needs this lesson. When someone is indebted to me and they ask what they can do to make it up my answer is always more. When someone asks what they can do to make up for a past injustice the answer will always be more.
With Christ, God has given His eternal son. With Christ our story starts over.
Church, let us see the neighbors and our own bodies as God does, not as prodigals trying to prove ourselves, but as Saints. Forgiven. Saved. Redeemed.