- Lent 4.19 “No Matter What I Do…” Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
It was probably 10 years ago. I came home from church one weekday evening and found my wife and two kids huddled together on the couch over an old, slim, white paperback. They were laughing so hard they could barely speak. Laughter verging on tears. I asked what was so funny. Struggling for coherence, Bonnie coughed out: “We found your 8th grade confirmation workbook.” More laugher ensued. “And it’s funny?” I asked. “Hilarious,” Bonnie said, doubling over, uncontrollable laughter beginning again. “It explains so much about you!”
I was… annoyed— you know when they’re laughing at you, not with you? Yeah. I guess Bon had hunted it up because Christopher was in confirmation class at the time and she thought it would be inspiring for him. It was—just not in the way one would hope. I did not recall finding Gerhard Forde’s “Free To Be!”—a little short essay exercise book on Luther’s Small Catechism—funny at all (not everything Forde wrote is great, Berett). It was published in 1971 or something like that and breathed deeply the air of hippies and the early 70’s which—hipsters, I know you think that was a real groovy and happening time—but for many of us who lived it, it was not. “Free To Be!” had this horrible orange cover in some tie-dye pattern. I had systematically, from sheer boredom (and a more minimalist aesthetic sensibility), erased the whole front and back so it was plain white. It didn’t help, really.
Trying to maintain a semblance of cool, I asked, casually, “What, for example, is so funny?” Bonnie, with an enthusiasm I found quite irritating said “Well, where to start? First of all, no more than 25% of the assignments are completed. And at least a third of the answers are marked wrong. This is a big fat “F” if I ever saw one!” [more laughing at not with ensued]. “You really failed confirmation class, on any reasonable grading curve! There are more snide remarks written in the margins than answers to questions—like this one: the chapter is titled “A Gift” and next to it in pencil you’ve written “3:30pm”. You’re probably only confirmed ‘cause your dad was president of the congregation.
“It’s like you haven’t changed at all from 13 to 45—which is either amazing or horrifying or probably just Yes! as you like to say!” “Okay,” I said, still trying to be cool, “so what’s an example of a wrong answer?” “Well,” Bonnie replied with too much joy, “this is my favorite. The question is ‘what have you learned in this chapter on forgiveness of sin that will change the way you live this week?’ They are clearly looking for half a page, and you write just one sentence: “I have learned that no matter what I do, God has to forgive me.” And there’s a big red X, a big, red: ‘No! See me’!” Laughing fits rendered Bon incoherent. I walk away. My efforts to recover the book were unsuccessful. I think it’s being held still as leverage.
I only vaguely recall those (too frequent for my taste) conversations with Pastor Reinke, then Pastor “Wray”. Few of them went well. I still think that’s the right answer though to the life application question. “No matter what I do, God has to forgive me” is exactly the point of the whole Gospel as nearly as I can tell, and is certainly the point of our Gospel today of the prodigal son. And OK, maybe I identify with prodigals a little too much. Maybe I am one? But maybe that’s why I get it? Maybe this is why I went into the ministry?—a need for better answers to the basic Xnity question? Hey, Jesus says: “unless you become as little children, you’ll never get it.” Well, some of us take Him serious on this. You’re only young once but you can be immature forever—and what if that’s just the way Jesus likes us?
So, what do you think is the point of the parable of the prodigal son? Hmm? What about this story will change the way you live your life this week? Here’s why I think “No matter what I do, God has to forgive me!” is the right answer: it’s what the prodigal son believed. It’s literally what saved him. It’s what the older brother could not believe, and what condemns him along with the Pharisees who hated Jesus for even suggesting their sanitized for your protection holy-rolling answers were actually all wrong, the worst sort of hypocrisy.
Let me point out a couple things in this story that are often missed and you judge for yourself what the right answer on the “how this changes the way you live” question really is! First, off, is the plain fact, that, despite his prodigal living, the Father completely approves of His son, has no problem with and no memory of the badness. He simply doesn’t care what the boy has done. He only cares that he’s found his way home; that he’s come back for more handouts from Dad. The best robe and the ring are signs of most favored status in the ancient world—that this son is the heir and the apple of his Father’s eye. The fatted calf killing and feasting only confirms this. No matter what the boy did (and the Father really doesn’t let him even confess it as planned) the Father has to forgive him. Because He loves him as his best, most favored Son. There’s lots more estate to be prodigious with! More where that came from, boy!
Now, many will say this is because the boy was heartily sorry for his sins. Seeing the remorse, the contrition was surely the condition for this forgiveness. Uh…no. Nothing in the story says that, and a couple things suggest the kid is more hardly sorry than heartily sorry and probably has confused those two adjectives from the order of confession (this happens!). Jesus says the reason the kid came back was not because he was cut up about being reckless and prodigal. No. He came back because he was hungry!—and because his Father’s hired hands had a better deal. The kid never actually says the bit about having sinned against heaven and Dad, which to my ear sounds more hardly than heartily sorry…
This is very simply a story of saving faith. And what the prodigal son believes is simply that no matter what he does, his Father has to forgive him. Now, when I say “has to” I mean it like irresistible grace. Someone complained to Gerhard Forde (I believe it was) that irresistible grace was a totalitarian idea of Augustine’s and not Scriptures’. He replied something like “I don’t think God’s grace is irresistible like Nazi torture is irresistible but more like the prettiest girl in sophomore English class is irresistible. Don’t you find it so?” Forde got better when he got older. God can obviously do what He wants, but His love, His mercy, His sense of humor compel Him to forgive us. He just has to. It’s who He is…
One word changed this whole text for me… most people think the prodigal son asked for the part of the estate stipulated in the will. The text says he just asked for the “goods that fall” whatever falls from the father’s table. And most people think it says the Father gave him what he asked. But it doesn’t. The text says he gave them both sons, prodigal and Pharisees—everything He had! So, Faith lives large off God’s grace; while unbelievers live small, mean, un-merry, little lives—because they won’t believe God gives us His all. Prodigies believe no matter what I do, God has to forgive me. We know God doesn’t really care what we’ve done, or where we’be been but only, finally, that we come home; and, at His Table, Feast on all His Treasures till Peace surpassing all understanding guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.