The text is possibly the most famous biblical text of all time, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. But there is a problem with that. There is also 2000 years of piety around the text. Sometimes piety is a great thing. Most times. It usually is a virtue and prevents us doing something really stupid. But occasionally piety gets in the way of an authentic meditation on a text. We can’t hear or imagine the text because of everything else around it. This sermon attempts that meditation. These texts are not about about repentance, not really. They aren’t about sorting into prodigal and elders. They aren’t about spurring us on to greater feats of piety. They are a picture of God. The God who does come for us. The God who does clean us. The God who welcomes us back to the household. The God who wants only sons. (Not excluding daughters here, but the God who wants only members of the household, not hired men. And households don’t operate on the law. Households live on grace.
The text, a quick read, is the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And these are such clear and tender pictures of the grace of the gospel, a preacher might be doing injustice to them by preaching anything but their simplicity. That is my request for a bit of grace at the start. Because that simplicity is there, but I push a little bit beyond that simplicity here. And the reason is that our context has changed. And I think that we as Christians need to change the context in our heads when we hear these parables. We need to be a little wiser in regards to law and gospel and ears to hear. So jumping off of a Luther himself sermon, this sermon looks at just who are the lost sheep, as well as the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, and the sinners and tax collectors, both those who come to hear Jesus and those who are riotously secure in houses on the sand.
The text is the Prodigal Son, so you already know it. It is the gospel. Nothing can separate us from the Love of the Father.
But this sermon wants to meditate on the text in a little different way. How, if we haven’t been conditioned to hear it as we have been, would we hear it? What did the original hearers think? (I think they would have jumped at the two brothers theme. Jesus doesn’t go where an OT raised person would expect. More in the sermon.) What would someone in our West hearing this for the first time think? (I think this might be more common that we know. And I think it would be the absolute Sovereignty of the Father in the story. And the prideful natures of the sons. Again, more in the sermon.) Hearing it new today, yes, it is a parable about love and grace, but it is also a parable about pride. The only thing that separates us from the Love of the Father is our pride. But He is sovereign. And how he has done things, was necessary. And he doesn’t consult us. Do we humble ourselves, or would we rather be outside the party and the love?
Congregationally we were saying good bye to beloved members. The day also had the national overtones of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I might be wrong in this, but to me part of preaching is giving the hearers ways to understand or recognize the Kingdom of God in our midst, even in sad things, especially in sad things. The primary theme of the texts of the day was not perseverance. The primary theme was forgiveness. But there is a secondary theme that hints at perseverance in the Christian life. This sermon attempted to spotlight that secondary thread for the purpose of understanding the day.
As with most days, the hymnody of the church is so much better than anything we say. Those hymns are sermons that meant so much to so many that they survived in some cases millennia and translation, in others simply centuries. Jesus Sinners Doth Receive was the Hymn of the Day on the primary theme, but I left in our final hymn. LSB 839, O Christ, Our True and Only Light. If one heard the message that we were attempting to speak, this hymn was a good and proper response. It reminds us that in this world Christ is our only true light. It reminds us that here we walk in darkness, the metaphorical equivalent of the text and sermon’s wilderness. It asks for the one to be reunited with the 99, and the perfect 100 to find the eternal joy. And it asks that we might be a part of that. Beautiful hymn.
The assigned lectionary text for today was the parable of the Prodigal Son, but one of the things that I found out in preparation is that the church fathers never really treated the prodigal separately from the two parables preceeding it. And when you do the translation, they do seem to roll together with specific roles for a point. So, this sermon attempts to address these parables as the church fathers did.
We’ve focused on the theme of division in Lent so far, but Luke 15 turns that focus around. It assumes the division, and starts portraying reunion. THe question these parables focus on to the church fathers was not evangelism or restoring a wandering brother. That is a valid moral lesson. We are the body of Christ and have those responsibilities. But instead, these parables were about God’s action on behalf of his elect. The perfect number will not be broken. There will not be 99 sheep, or 9 coins, or 1 brother. God will gather all of the elect no matter where they find themselves and through whatever troubles.
And how God does this is first through the good shepherd who has carried us on his shoulders on that cross. Then he calls, gathers and enlightens us through the church – the woman with a lamp looking for that coin with the image of the King. And the purpose of this is to reunite us with the Father. All that the Father has is ours. That doesn’t change regardless of our actions. He has chosen to give us the Kingdom. It is just necessary that we come in and rejoice.
These are both parables of prodigal grace and repentance. Dogmatically this is one of those areas where you are forced to nod your head yes to a couple of things in contradiction. It is all grace. The shepherd calls and carries home. If so, then why repent? State of grace, oh happy condition, sin as a please and still have remission. But it is grace. Repentance is the first step of the Kingdom. If that is the case, then why do I need grace? I just do the work of repentance. But that requires grace. Aquinas had it all worked out. Unfortunately Aquinas was out of favor intellectually when Luther came around. But that is neither here nor there.
My take is that these texts set in their context are suppose to be funny. They are absurd in a way that illuminates both our lost condition and the prodigal nature of grace. You have to get the joke, you have to accept the premise of grace, for the rest to make sense. But once you accept he premise it is one of those “oh, crap” moments. I was lost, but now I’m found. Grace comes with a hidden imperative. Home is that way. Go joyfully.
The text is the prodigal son. Actually the entire 15th Chapter of Luke should be taken together, but the assigned text was just the last of three parables. I struggled this week to find the clarity. Part of that I think was that pastors, especially those who are trying to be orthodox, feel something different from this parable.
The orthodox preacher teaches law and gospel. Both of them have their place. The church since the reformation has been about a specific viewpoint on the gospel. And that viewpoint is neatly captured by the prodigal or by the hymn amazing grace. I once was lost by now am found. The focal point is all on the individual and the God they are being reconciled to. Now what gets taken for granted in that reformation mentality is the whole. The prodigal is reconciled to the family of God. The prodigal is restored to the church. But let’s call it the reformation on steroids, TROS eventually loses the church. What we have is a whole lot of people in churches of one. They have achieved a state they think of as wholeness between them and their god. And then the church attempting to shepherd that person in holiness points out that the law is how God intended things to be. But in TROS the reply is “that’s not my God” or “God didn’t mean that” or some such answer. And the communicant in this church of one, if the true church persists, starts shouting things like Pharisee, or unloving older brother. You just need to accept me, because god has.
That is a completely different order than what the prodigal did. The prodigal may have thought he was returning but keeping his “freedom” – “make me a hired man”. That prodigal at the state wanted to enjoy the benefits of the family while still keeping his little shack just outside and rejecting those parts of the family he didn’t like. But by the time he has arose (a loaded term) and walked the path back and felt the compassion of the father in his embrace that demand or caveat on the repentance is gone. The prodigal submits himself completely to the household.
The question that both sons get asked is this: do you trust the Father’s judgment and ways? Older sons must accept the repentance of prodigals because God has. God works on repentance and absolution. Neither of those does away with the law. What they do is demonstrate that we have all fallen short. But prodigals, those being restored to the whole have to submit to that household. It is not Pharisaical for the church to point out that partial repentance is no repentance at all. In fact that is called Shepherding. (Ezek 33:8-11)
God is about restoring his people, restoring a whole. But we do not define that whole. All we can do is exclude ourselves from it. Do we accept the grace of the Father to be part of his family, or do we stand outside. We can stand outside in a far country. We can stand outside within the walls demanding our way. Both are forms of slavery to our sin. Only in submission and repentance do we find freedom. Do you truth the Father’s ways best revealed in Christ and the cross? The decision is life or death.