Proper 18C Sermon (1998)

Proper 18 (Sept. 4-10)
Texts: Luke 14:25-33;
Deut 30:15-20; Philemon


What’s going on with our Gospel lessons in recent weeks? Did you hear what Jesus said this morning? Hate mother and father, wife and children? Have we reached rock bottom yet? Three weeks ago we heard Jesus saying he came to divide households, three against two, two against three, father against son, and on and on. Last week, Jesus was at a dinner with the Pharisees, who the upholders of family values in his day, and he tells his host, ‘When you throw a wedding banquet, don’t invite your family; invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.’ I talked about Jesus challenging us to go beyond traditional family values. But this week it’s even worse. Jesus seems to be saying to throw out family values altogether. One thing’s for certain: If you come to church to hear about family values, we sure haven’t heard that in the last several weeks from Jesus — at least not in any ordinary sense. “Hate your mother and father, wife and child”?! What is Jesus trying to say?!

I have to be honest and say that I’m not sure what Jesus is saying here. But I think we have finally reached rock bottom. There is help, if we continue on a bit further in Luke’s gospel. For what comes next, after these harshest of words, is perhaps the most beloved story from Jesus’ ministry, namely, his Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story of the Prodigal Son gives us the reconstruction of a family, if you will, a father and son reconciled. So if Jesus seems to be tearing apart the family in these chapters before the Prodigal Son, perhaps that is what he needed to do in order for us to fully hear how the family is brought back together. Perhaps we need to be willing to hear how messed up our families really are before we can hear how God can put them back together again. Perhaps we need to hit rock bottom before we can hear the words of grace and salvation.

And we might even raise the stakes a bit higher. It’s not just that families are falling apart, or should fall apart, before God puts them back together. It’s that our families are dead — they’re dead! — and God needs to bring them to life again. Next week, we will hear about the lost sheep and the lost coin, two short preludes to the Prodigal Son. But in the story of the Prodigal Son itself the stakes are raised in just such a manner. The Prodigal Son was not just lost and found. He was dead and then alive again. Dead and alive! Do you remember the story? When the son returns home, the father calls for a party and loudly proclaims, “‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” Well, that’s where we want to get to today, the celebration, for our Lord’s Banquet table is once more set for us today. But, beginning with these harsh words in today’s gospel, I think we might need to be dead first and raised again, in order to get to the celebration — just like the Prodigal Son himself.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one that we read during Lent in our assigned lectionary texts. We won’t read it during this time that we are reading all the other parts around it. Frankly, it leaves a huge hole that way. We can’t hope to understanding such a difficult text as today’s, without the climax of Jesus’ teaching in the story of the Prodigal Son. So we’re going to fill-in that hole today, and take another look at this most-beloved of parables.

I said that the stakes are high — virtually, that of life and death itself. We must first see that immediately as the story begins there is a presumed but very real death of sorts. The Prodigal Son comes to his father asking for his share of the inheritance right now. Well, when does a son usually get his inheritance from his father? That’s right, when the father dies! When he’s dead! In other words, the son tells his father to drop legally dead right on the spot. And the more amazing thing is that the father obliges him. The father, as if he is already dead, divides his property between his two sons. That’s the first death in the story.

Next, of course, Jesus us tells us that the Prodigal Son wastes his entire living. He’s next to dead. We are free, naturally, to imagine our own forms of riotousness: women, drugs, casinos, whatever. What Jesus does tell us is that one day the younger son finally comes to his senses while bending over a pig trough, envying their slop, because he is starving. In essence, he wakes up dead.

Yet the son still does not realize he is dead. What should have been his life as he’s father son is gone; the life he should have had is dead. But the son comes up with another scheme. He formulates a bright new plan of his own for faking out a quasi-life for himself: this time as one of his father’s hired hands. Sonship he may no longer be able to claim, but hired-handship … ah, there’s a possibility. Maybe the old man will be senile enough to make a deal.

Let me simply read what comes next, that moment of grace that takes your breath away:

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)

Just marvelous, isn’t it?

I want for us to notice one very important detail, though. Do you remember the son’s plan? He was going to ask his dad to be a hired hand. Listen again, though, to what he says to his father after his father runs out to greet him, hugging him and kissing him: “Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'” Period. Full stop. No hired-hand nonsense at all. In other words, the full brunt of his predicament has finally hit him. His life as son is dead. His confession has taken on a full and completely truthful grasp of the situation. He is dead! We must assume that, when he had demanded his share of the inheritance, he thought he was choosing life. But here he finally realizes that he had instead chosen death. Even if it hadn’t turned out so badly, even if he hadn’t wasted his father’s money, the reality is that his gracious life as a son was dead. He had killed it thinking that he was choosing life. And there in the compassionate and forgiving embrace of his father, he was finally able to make that full confession.

This is extremely important. What this parable is saying to us is that such a confession of being dead can only come after the forgiveness. We usually think about it the other way around, don’t we? We make our confession first and then comes forgiveness, right? But, no, in this story the son doesn’t come to full confession until after he is already forgiven. And the one who forgives him, the father, is the same one who at the beginning of the story freely accepted his own death. The father let his son kill him by letting him take an inheritance that can only properly come after one is dead.

It is the same for you and me! God freely takes on death through Jesus Christ but welcomes us home with full forgiveness, as a free and gracious gift. Only when, like the prodigal, we are finally confronted with the unqualified gift of someone who died — in advance, to forgive us no matter what — only then can we see that confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. It is the after-the-last-gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, given to each of us at our baptisms, surrounds us, beats upon us all through our lives. Our times of confession are merely to wake us up to what we already have: forgiveness, resurrection. We sons and daughters of God were dead and are alive again. And so we celebrate.

This isn’t quite the end of the story, of course. Unfortunately, there is the matter of the older brother who refuses to join the party. Why? Because he refuses to believe that he’s dead. Don’t forget that he got the same deal at the beginning of the story. When his younger brother demanded the inheritance, his father gave him his share, too. He could have refused it. But he went along with it, and the implications are thus that his father was dead to him, too, and he to his father. The older son, of course, went on to use his share of the property much more wisely. He has been responsible. But that very responsibility has closed his eyes to the important fact that to take his share of the property means he is dead to his father. Unlike his brother he cannot confess that he is dead. He refuses to join such a celebration.

Perhaps this can help us finally understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. How would we ordinarily judge the two brothers with regards to their father? For the younger son to have demanded the inheritance, we would ordinarily say, ‘Gee, he must have really hated his father to do something as terrible as that!’ Meanwhile, we would probably judge the older son to have at least been more faithful to his father, sticking around to run the family farm. We might ignore, as the older son himself did, that he did in fact take his share of the property, just like his brother. But, in the end, who was in a better position to honestly confess that he was dead to his father? The younger son who had done such a hateful thing.

Perhaps the lesson of Jesus’ words this morning is that we are closer to being able to make honest confessions when we hate our father and mother, wife and child, all the possessions that God has given us. Oh, that doesn’t mean we hate them forever. But what if like the older brother we simply take our share of gracious gifts from God — our mother and father, our wife and child, our possessions — and we enjoy them as if the heavenly father who gave them to us was dead? Isn’t that what our sinfulness is about? That we do precisely that? We take such gifts from God as if they were ours to do with whatever we please? No, we must hate such gifts first, before we let that happen, or we will be as far away from making a true confession, we will be as far away from being raised from the dead, we will be as far away from entering the celebration as was the older brother. I wouldn’t say that we actually have to follow the whole path of the Prodigal Son, being wasteful and irresponsible and hateful to our families. But we must somehow recognize, as did the prodigal, that we have already been hateful to our heavenly father and have become to dead to God in our sins (cf., Eph. 2:1-7: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins…”). And that “somehow” is of course in looking to the cross of Jesus, who let himself be seen by others as a prodigal son. Jesus let himself become dead as the useless, wasteful brother so that we might see how God our heavenly father graces his family with compassion and raises us to new life. As we come to know the embrace of our Lord on the cross we are able to come to our true confession. We are able to see that we have become dead to God in our sins. And we also come to see that we, the daughters and sons of God, who were dead are alive again. And so we celebrate! We celebrate the gifts of mother and father, spouse and child, the gift of possessions, and we are able to share them with others as does our compassionate heavenly father shares with us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 5-6, 1998

I am greatly indebted in this sermon, both to the insights and even some of the same wording, to the exposition of these passages by Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 134-144.

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