Evangelium in Evangelio
For centuries the Parable of the Prodigal Son has been known as the Gospel in the Gospel. Everyone thinks they know this. I'm going to break it down for you using sermon themes I've used in the past as the 3 parts of this sermon on the Evangelium in Evangelio.
Are you really in favor of parties for prodigals? That was the sermon theme as early as 1998. We all know the elder son is wrong for his harsh treatment of his younger brother. We think: That wouldn't be me. Think again. Your younger brother breaks up the family farm, sells his part to other people, abandons the family, and disgraces its name by prodigal living and you're okay with welcoming him back as if nothing happened? Welcoming him back home with all the rights and privileges of sonship? Maybe it's because you don't know what the word prodigal means? It's from the Latin prodigus which means 'lavish'. The English text does a fair job of catching the wickedness of the Prodigal's actions. "He squandered" not his father's 'wealth' but his father's 'being'. The verse before says the Father divides literally his bion. We'd say his 'livelihood.'
Everything the father had to support his biological life with, was divided between the 2 sons. And the younger literally "scattered' it by dissolute, profligate, or unsaved living in a far country outside the faith of his father. Now it may be that the elder son exaggerates when he says the younger had literally "devoured" his father's bion with prostitutes, but there is no doubt he debased the faith. He "marries" one whose at home in the far country. The Greek word mistranslated "hired himself out" is the same word for man leaving his father and mother and 'cleaving' to his wife. He does this while living a life that makes him perpetually unclean in the OT Church.
And you're in favor of partying hearty with such? Really? This is the 11th hour Johnny-come-lately to Church receiving the same as all day, every day Christians like you. And you're okay with that? From my experience, always a low bar to appeal to, but it's all I have. From my experience with marrying in church live-in-lovers once they've repented, baptizing out of wedlock babies in the Divine Service, and not requiring out of wedlock mothers to confess their sins at least before the Board of Elders, people are not okay with throwing parties for prodigals. We all believe you can lose weight without diet or exercise. That you can learn a language without study or memorizing. That you can get rich without working. But none of us believes anyone can be forgiven without deserving it somehow.
Repent of repentance. That was the theme in 2010. Where do you see the Prodigal repenting? Most find it in verses 17-20. "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father." "Coming to his senses" surely sounds like repentance. People who've come back after falling away from the faith often say, "I was a totally different person. I didn't even recognize myself."
The literal translation here is, "After coming into himself, he formally says." It's not the ordinary word for speaking. It denotes more formal speech, and it's important here. But first lets go to where the Prodigal is at this moment because perhaps you've been here. Your sinful decisions catch up to you. You left what you thought was slavery to a marriage, a job, a family, a parent, a church, and found instead a 1,000 harsher masters. You thought you were empty before within your Father's house. But you've tried and tried to be filled with what you find outside, and can't. Waking up to this may be contrition but it's not repentance. What?
Follow the text. He comes to himself and realizes the simple fact that hired men in his father's house are better off than he. Speaking formally to himself, he formulates a plan to work his way back into his father's house. But doesn't he says? "I've sinned against heaven and against you"? Isn't this proper repentance? Like David when sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah, he realizes that all sins are first against God. Okay, but what does he say next? More repentance right: "I'm no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men."
That would've been fair to the elder son, and it seems fair to us too. No one ought to be able to go directly from wild living to living in God's good graces. But this is not repentance, yet. This is a plan to work his way back into his father's good graces. Repentance comes when the Prodigal doesn't go through with his plan to work his way back into the household. Many commentators don't see this. They say, he intends to make the offer getting so far as, "'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son...'" And then his father interrupts him saying, "'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
Here's what we know from the text. The Prodigal intends to make the offer to work for his father to stay in his house, but he doesn't make it. He repented of saying that. Why? Remember we say, "Confession has two parts. First we confess our sins. Second we receive absolution." You clearly heard the first part. He confesses his sins. Do you see the second, the Absolution? It's his father running the gauntlet of public humiliation the villagers would heap on the pig-besotted son. "'Great men never run in public'" is attributed to Aristotle (Bailey, Poet & Peasant, 181, fn. 179 says source he got from doesn't have Aristotle citation). Before the Prodigal makes one word of confession, one promise to do better we are told this by the Holy Spirit: "So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." That word 'compassion' is only used in the Gospel for Christ and for the Christ-figure in parables. And it describes a physical feeling. Our "gut-wrenching" or "heartrending" are close.
Repent of thinking your repentance is what moves God to forgive you. Repentance, as opposed to contrition, is shown here to be giving up pride, excuses, or promises to do better and receiving the Father's undeserved grace. This is something prostitutes and tax collectors did, but not chief priests and elders. Hence, Jesus, says the tax collectors and prostitutes go to heaven before the leaders of the OT Church (Mt. 21:31). How about you? And make no mistakes this parable is directed toward those within the formal church. The opening 3 verses tell you that: "Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.' Then Jesus told them this parable:" See? The parable is for us within the church. Hence I use another 2010 theme for this part: "Lost in the Church".
There are two lost sons in our text, one inside, one outside. Both thought making merry was something apart from their father. One in a far country, one with his friends. Both get their inheritance early. The father humbles himself publicly to go get both sons. You see this clearly in the younger son's case. The 'filled with compassion', the running to him, throwing his arms around the apostate son who smelled of unclean pigs, and then covering him with kisses. This isn't the simple word for kiss, a peck, but over and over he kissed the pig-stained, son who wished him dead! The elder son is just as far outside of his father's house though still outwardly being in it. Let's follow this son and see what he is prodigal with.
He's in the field working faithfully as he always does when the Prodigal returns and a huge party is thrown for him. All the village is there. They killed the fattened calf, actually the Greek can be translated 'sacrificed' and the robes put on the Prodigal could be translated 'best', 'first', 'chief'. In any case, they are certainly the father's and had religious significance as might have the meal. The point being they welcome back the son who lived in such an un-saved fashion. The word 'wild living' is in Greek asotos zao, "un-saved' living. When the son hears the party going on he asks, "What in the world is going on?" This Greek form indicates he can't think of any possible reason for a party to be going on in his father's house. This is all those who think of church as something they do for God. Who wants to go into that? Not the elder son.
Here's the public absolution of this very public insult. The father goes out to him and begs him, pleads with his son who is enraged at a party for a prodigal. 'Angry' here is the Greek word for settled, determined wrath of God against sinners. The father's grace is what moves him to such red-hot anger, yet the father goes to him and begs him to come in. This is the word in 2 Cor. 5:20: "We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." What we are shown here in pictures is what 2 Cor. 5 sets out it words. And it's here we also find what moves the father to seek his lost sons. 2 Cor. 5:18-21 says that God reconciled us to Himself by making Christ to be sin and us the righteousness of God in Him. The Gospel pleads with you on Christ's behalf. You be reconciled to God who first reconciled the whole world to Himself in Christ.
The Gospel within the Gospel is that the Father comes out to you too whether you be a Prodigal or Elder son. But if you're in the Church, hear it as the elder. The elder son won't call him father but just says, "Look" as he begins berating him. To the elder son, the Father doesn't say, "My son" but the tender, endearing "My child". Does the son who heard yet one more preaching of the Gospel go into the Father's house? Or is he prodigal with such gracious love? How about you? Amen
Rev. Paul R Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20220327); Luke 15:1-3,11-32