Sermon 58




Come to Your Senses!

Luke 15:17

March 14, 2010


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Today we have before us the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son – perhaps the best known parable of Jesus, next to the one on the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). This parable on the prodigal son is great – inspiring the text of the beloved hymn, Amazing Grace, by John Newton (1725-1807), and also the radio humorist, Garrison Keillor, to say that the only eulogy he wants read at his funeral is this parable (The Lutheran, February 2002, p. 22).


The Prodigal Son

This parable is also internally great for its three leading figures – the woebegone son, after whom it’s named, and then the forgiving father and jealous older brother. The famous German Lutheran scholar, Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), argued in his popular book, The Waiting Father (1959), that this parable should actually be named after the father since it’s “only because... [he] was open and receptive... that [the son] was able to... be reconciled” (p. 28). But that’s not quite right. For if that naughty boy hadn’t repented of his dissolute, “loose” (RSV) or “riotous” (KJV) ways (Luke 15:13) – he never would have gone home to look for reconciliation with his father in the first place. On that score, then, the younger, disobedient son is the key figure – as has been said for years – because repentance is so central to forgiveness – as Martin Luther (1483-1546) long ago pointed out, calling it in fact a requirement of forgiveness itself (Luther’s Works 12:333).

     So the heart of this parable then is the line that “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17). That’s because this line is a euphemism for repentance. When the younger son comes to his senses he realizes how wrong he is – and that starts the ball rolling in the direction of his new life (Luke 15:24, 32). But many don’t see it that way. Barbara Grace Witten has written a whole book on this theological rebellion, entitled All Is Forgiven (Princeton, 1993). In it she tells of her survey of contemporary American preaching on this parable and how by in large preachers avoid addressing repentance or the changing of the prodigal son’s mind – μετανοια [metanoia] in the Greek (pp. 35, 39, 65, 78, 82, 107, 140). And if they somehow do manage to touch on repentance, what they have to say is so watered down that the difficulty in repenting and the dangers in dissolute living are lost. Sweetness and light trump fear and shame.



In the old Latin Bible our key line from Luke 15:17, “he comes to himself,” is given a helpful twist – in se autem reversus. Here the note of reversal is sounded – with the putting of pressure on the boy to repent and live a new life. This is illuminating because it captures what’s so difficult about repenting. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – that avid reader of Luther’s sermons – expresses this reversus and its inherent internal turmoil in a memorable way. “Only in this way is... the struggle the truth,” he writes. “when the single individual fights for himself with himself within himself” (Kierkegaard’s Writings 5:143). It’s just that sort of inner battle that brings about the reversus of repentance and our new life with God – whereby we admit he’s right and we’re wrong (LW 51:318).

     And all of us need to learn from this reversus – because all Christians are threatened by drifting away from our great salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3). Once we’ve been saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) – we can still make a shipwreck of our salvation (1 Timothy 1:19). So when we’re told that nothing can snatch us from our Father’s hand (John 10:29) – that doesn’t mean that we can’t ruin our faith all on our own (contra Luke 11:28; 1 Peter 5:9) (LW 28:252-253; 51:128). For God’s faithfulness doesn’t keep us from being faithless (2 Timothy 2:13). Therefore Lutherans condemn “those who teach that persons who have once become godly cannot fall again” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 35]. Because of that danger and risk we need to “live in harmony” with our baptism and keep it as a “daily” preoccupation (LW 35:39; BC, p. 445) – seeing to it that we’re even converted on a “daily” basis as well [quottidie converti] (LW 17:117).


Sexual Filth

By studying the prodigal son carefully we’ll be able to work more diligently at being converted on a daily basis. And the first thing we learn from such a study is our weakness for sexual filth. In the parable we’re told that he wanted to run off to a far away country so he could have sexual dalliances with whores and not be seen or caught by his family and friends (Luke 15:13, 30). That’s what he spent his fortune on – illicit sexual favors. And that tempts us all.

     Just think how advertisers use immodestly clad women to sell nearly anything (T. Reichert & J. Lambiase, Sex in Advertising, 2002)! Or think how the brawny, sexy fireman’s calendars are sold out right away to women of all ages! The prodigal son escaped to that far away place because he refused to be bound by the vows of the holy estate of matrimony. God gives us those confinements in which to express ourselves lovingly and sexually. But we want to burst our bonds asunder (Psalm 2:3)! We refuse the sexual confinements set within the restrictions of the marriage vows – forsaking all others and keeping ourselves only for our husband or wife. This freedom-in-confinement is the glory of Christianity (Romans 6:16-18) and is well-expressed in that all but forgotten hymn by George Matheson (1842-1906), “Make Me a Captive Lord, and Then I Shall Be Free” [Service Book & Hymnal (1958), Hymn 508]. So let us beware and struggle not to make the same mistake.

     In Luther’s Large Catechism (1529) he tells us that keeping marriage holy will make for “less of the filthy, dissolute, disorderly conduct which now is so rampant everywhere in public prostitution and other shameful vices” (BC, p. 394). This theological conviction is confirmed in anthropological studies which have shown that humans – if not constrained by the Spirit of the Lord – are promiscuous like the sexually wild chimpanzees [Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (1992) pp. 25, 70]. This shameful behavior hasn’t abated much over the last 450 years – but keeps up at its depressing rate (Infidelity: A Survival Guide, 1998; Madam: Inside a Nevada Brothel, 2001). Just think of the rampant prostitution in AIDS-infested, sub-Saharan Africa [Keith B. Richburg, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (1998) p.124]!


The Battleground

These same sexual allurements – that the prodigal son caved in to – throw us all into the battle between the spirit and the flesh. The classic Biblical passage on this struggle is in Galatians 5:16-24:


Walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.... Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness.... But the fruit of the Spirit is... patience,... faithfulness,... self-control.... Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.


On this battlefield we learn that flesh and Spirit don’t co-exist together peacefully. So if it feels good – that doesn’t mean you should do it, as that old mantra from the Summer of Love in 1967 had it. No! we are to crucify the flesh instead with its passions and desires rather than simply giving in to them. Those wayward desires always make it look like the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. But that’s a lie – and that’s why there’s an adage against it. What’s on the other side of the hill is actually only a herd of pigs eating their slop. That’s what the prodigal son found out the hard way. So heed the wisdom of the Lord. See in the licentiousness of the flesh, destruction and gloom – rather than some garden of delights. And see in the patience and self-control of the Spirit, life and freedom – rather than drudgery and despair.


Nose to Nose With Pigs

The prodigal son turns away from his dissolute life and sexual filth when he bottoms-out – finding himself starving while feeding the pigs their slop. At that moment of degradation and humiliation and despair, he comes to his senses. This is our second lesson to learn from this parable. It tells us that we’ll continue in our sin as long as we wallow in its deceits and passing pleasures (Hebrews 3:13, 11:25). But once we’ve been cut to the quick (Acts 2:37), then our eyes will be opened. It’s as if some one had grabbed us and shook us until we come to our senses and discover how we’ve hurt ourselves. That’s exactly what extreme situations are for. They clear the fog so we can see what’s going on. That’s why we’re told that no one will enter the kingdom of God except through “many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). And that’s why Kierkegaard called the sickbed the best preacher (KW 17:164). As long as we’re sailing along without a care – we’ll continue sinning without the least bit of resistance. For it’s only when our life comes crashing down around us that we have a chance to break free from our dissolute ways. So in order to help us, God must be hard on us and send us disasters. For without them we are lost. If the prodigal son had not ended up nose to nose with those filthy pigs, he never would have repented.

     So the Lutheran Confessions rightly teach that the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 28:21


calls it God’s alien work to terrify because God’s own proper work is to quicken and console. But he terrifies, he says, to make room for consolation and quickening because hearts that do not feel God’s wrath in their smugness spurn consolation (BC, p. 189).


Luther famously called this terrifying quickening being “driven to Christ” or agitatur ad Christum (LW 16:232). Furthermore he writes (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker, 3:130) that


the righteous, while they live here, have flesh and blood, in which sin is rooted. To suppress this sin God will lead them into great misery and anxiety, poverty, persecution and all kinds of danger... until the flesh becomes completely subject to the Spirit. That, however, does not take place until death...


Well the prodigal son found out about this great misery and anxiety, poverty and all kinds of danger – and so shall we when we sally off to some far place for our dabbling in dissolute delights!


No Excuses

Finally mark well what the prodigal son said when he repented. He doesn’t blame his father for giving him his inheritance too soon – before he was mature enough to handle it (Luke 15:12). No, he heaps all the blame upon himself. Nor does he blame the women he abused for sexually selling themselves to him. No, he takes all the blame himself. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa he cries – “by my most grievous fault” he bewails his sins [Lutheran Book of Worship (1979) p. 155]. So he emphatically resolves (Luke 15:19) that he must go and tell his father that


I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.


And so he grovels in abject self-abasement – and rightly so for he has been willfully and defiantly reveling in sexual filth and deep rebellion. Now all excuses have come to an end (Luke 14:18; B. Cosby & A. Poussaint, Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, 2007; A. Dershowitz, The Abuse Excuse, 1994). Now all explanations of extenuating circumstances count for nothing. Now he must confess his sins in contrite repentance and nothing more. For only that will do. Anything else – God will surely despise (Psalm 51:17). So learn this lesson well from the prodigal son. Don’t try to defend yourself before the Almighty God – for that would be nothing more than demonic (LW 22:397)! But instead simply say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).


Knowing How It Ends

But what if the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mathew 26:41)? What then? What if we can’t muster the reversus of the prodigal son? What if that act of self-accusation seems like a super-human feat for us? What then? Are we finished off? Are we doomed to an eternity of eating slop with the pigs?

     No! for we have more than the prodigal son had in that distant land where he found himself wallowing in dissolute ways. We have the whole parable before us. We know how it all ends. We have seen his father running to him, embracing him and kissing him – while he was still far off (Luke 15:20). And that picture pulls us ahead. It can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves (John 6:44; Romans 8:3). It changes us from within (2 Corinthians 3:18). It gives us hope – hope in someone other than our sinful selves (Hebrews 12:2). From our perspective the weakness of the prodigal son seems awfully mighty to us. Why does he pick himself up and go home in shame and not just die in the pig sty? How does he summon the strength to pivot around like that – in the slippery mud and in the obsessive filth? Well, we don’t have to spend too much time on that – wondering if we could do the same.

     And that’s because we know about God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, God’s love for us is not unpredictable and uneven. In him God’s love for us is sealed (John 6:27) – that is to say, it is certain and nothing we can do or will do will be able to dislodge it. And that’s because his love for us is not grounded in our lovability (LW 31:57; 30:30) – but in the fact that he sent his only Son Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).


Keeping the Cross in the Parable

We have been warned that the church has within it those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and who will try to empty it of its power (Philippians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 1:17). And it’s no different now. Today there are those trying to use this profound parable of the prodigal son to show how God doesn’t need Christ Jesus to die for us so that he can love us [M. Winter, The Atonement (1995) p. 89; The Nature of the Atonement, ed. Beilby & Eddy (2006) p. 104]. On this view grace doesn’t have to wait for the crucifixion before it can be lavished upon us (contra John 1:17, 19:30; Ephesians 1:7-8). That’s because the father loves the prodigal son without any intervening sacrifice being made (contra BC, pp. 414, 541, 550, 561) – nor, for that matter, with any repayment of his squandered inheritance being made. He simply sees him coming home and welcomes him lovingly. Nothing more happens – nor is needed to happen. And all of that is because God is simply love (1 John 4:8). No miraculous, divine sacrifice is needed “to move God to mercy” (contra LW 51:277). He just loves us – pure and simple.

     But this revision of Christianity and Holy Scriptures is a travesty, designed to drive a wedge between this glorious parable and the death of Christ on Golgotha so that these two Scriptural truths may be forced against each other. All of this is easily avoided, however – and its disingenuousness exposed – by simply reading this parable in the context of the whole of Scriptures, as it should be (LW 48:54; 9:21; 29:27). Then the wedge falls out – and the crucifixion of Christ is clearly seen to be assumed in the parable. Then Christ’s sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:26) is clearly seen as the rational for the father welcoming his bad boy home. Then Christ offering up of his life as a sacrifice for sin to his father in heaven (Luke 23:49; Hebrews 9:14; Ephesians 5:2) is seen to be what turns our sinful poverty into the riches of God’s blessings (2 Corinthians 8:9). And only then can we see the light shining in our darkness (Luke 1:79) – as it did when the prodigal son finally made it home. And with all of that in hand, we can then see with Luther what is truly assumed about the death of Jesus in this parable – which Luther himself expresses so well in the following harsh, sarcastic and sharp rhetorical question:


Why else did Christ die, except to pay for our sins and to purchase grace for us [so that God, for his sake, could] forgive us our sins? (LW 52:253).


Indeed, all other suppositions are false. That’s because they’re built on a disregard of Christianity [H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937) p. 193] which vainly supposes that


a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.


Foreswear all such perversions! Rejoice in the cross of Christ instead (Galatians 6:14) – which undergirds the love of God in this parable. Rejoice and come to the altar today – to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, for the newness of life (John 6:53).


Fearing Food

And then, for the good work which faith requires, continue to fast in Lent – that you may draw closer to God, and he to you (James 4:8). Do that being guided by the Lutheran Confessions which say that fasting is a “spiritual exercise of fear and faith” (BC, p. 221).

     So register the fear of food – noting its dangers. For we’re often out of balance – either due to stuffing ourselves or starving ourselves [C. Costin, The Eating Disorders Sourcebook, 1996, 2007; Allhoff & Monroe, Food & Philosophy, 2007]. This might be because we’re “first of all bodies” and only second of all minds [P. Sponheim, Faith & Process (1979) p. 176]. So because of that bodily hazard, be more serious about controlling yourselves by fasting. Don’t under-estimate food. By eating of the forbidden tree, we lost paradise (Genesis 3:6); and by eating of the miraculous loaves, Christ was obscured (John 6:26-27). So beware. Fear food that you might fast and fight against the hold it has on us.

     But also note that this discipline needs faith. So call on God for help – that you might also keep your senses about you. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)