The Prodigal Son, Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 9, 1986 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Coney Island, New York
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 9, 1986
The Prodigal Son
Text Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the greatest stories ever told. The word “prodigal” here means “extravagant, wasteful, being a spendthrift.” The word is mostly used for the son, who goes off and leaves the father wasting his inheritance. The father, however, is also prodigal in the sense of forgiving and in the joy at the return and repentance of his son. Even the elder, self-righteous son is prodigal in the sense that he is wasting his time caught in narrow minded duty, never exploring who he is, what a father-son relationship really is, and what is going on in him.
You see, people can be very moral, they can be clean cut, and they can seem to be all right to you, but you don’t know where they are inside. You see, a lot of people don’t know who they are, how they are, and what they would really do if they risked being free. Some people would rather just live in a groove and just look jealously at those who are courageous enough to climb out of the groove and try to fill their real personhood, try to become their real selves.
You can have a whole flock of sheep, but some of them will be wolves in sheep’s clothes. Now if you are caught in a fold and you realize that what you are supposed to be, you are not, and you are living a lie and no one wants to touch the problem you’re in with a ten foot pole, then what do you do?
This prodigal son cut loose. “Everyone here is too good.” he said to himself. “And I can’t believe that they are all that good. And inside myself I just want to sin and sin and sin.” So he got his inheritance and went up to the Decapolis, the Ten Greek Cities, where you could go to the Roman baths, could enjoy Greek theater, eat pork, and forget all about Jewish ritual. He really didn’t like being kosher anymore.
In this kind of a rebellion, I believe that you swing and strike out and then finally say to yourself, “This is not really me. I am not really happy. I am more miserable now than I ever was.” But at this point in your life you start seeing something for yourself. You experience the fact that what joy the world promised with its loose living and selfishness was a deception. It’s like seeing a beautiful oasis in the desert and leaving your real garden to get it, you discover that you chased a mirage, an illusion. But some people who have not experienced this rude joke that the world plays on people, get all filled by the love of the world and sin and therefore inside themselves they are not good. While being “good” their heart turned bad within them and they merely control their inner nature while doing their duty.
Not all people have the problem of the prodigal son. Some can understand right from the start that God makes promises that are kept and that the promises of the world are empty. Others, however, remain with this group wearing good camouflage, and growing ever more self-righteous, because they have never eaten the forbidden fruit in the world and they feel like in their “goodness” they have been short-changed by life. With that their moral uprightness changes into a moral “uptightness” and they act like the elder son: they don’t rejoice at someone being saved. They don’t help in welcoming a sinner back. They end up making sure that sinners don’t come back. And there is the problem.
Look, if you have this problem, don’t feel that you have to leave. Feel free enough to show your other side – and know that you will be loved anyway. Have the courage to be yourself as you are. You don’t have to lie. You don’t have to put on an act. If you feel rotten, you can be rotten, until it’s out of your system. How many so-called “good” people feel like criminals inside? Bring it up. Talk about it! Fight about it and work it through. That approach is better than having to separate and get into the valley of suffering like the prodigal son. You may really have to sin. If you do, then do it. [As Luther said, “Sin boldly, but more boldly still, believe!”] But you will be lost, you will be dead, you may not make it through. But if you are courageous, and you are going out in an attempt to live your inner truth, instead of the lie that you are living, then you can go with blessings. Go in the name of Christ, who also stayed with sinners. “It isn’t the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” The saints don’t need Christ, but the sinner does. The righteous don’t need Christ, but the sinner does. The self-righteous, however, also need Christ, but they are far harder to forgive, because they conceal their sin. The self-righteous even conceal it from themselves. The poor prodigal son can’t hide the fact that he has just wasted his whole inheritance. He can’t hide the fact that he is sinful. At this point he repents and all of heaven starts rejoicing, because he was dead and he is alive; he was lost, but now he’s found!
But what to do about the self-righteous? They act found, but they are lost. They act alive, but inside they are rotten and dead.
Thank God that the father is also prodigal. He loves the elder son too. He also wants the elder son to feel his love. He is dismayed because somehow the elder son became inhuman. Now for his elder son, the father wants to exchange a warm and vibrantly beating heart for that cold stone that hardened there bitterly over the years.
And there is hope for the self-righteous – but they have to learn that, outer righteousness, when lived by a person hiding a rotten heart, will end up being a trap. And usually they place someone with a human loving heart into their trap, then closing it tight, try to break such a compassionate person.
There is another son of the Father besides the prodigal and elder son. Jesus Christ is the Son who does not sin and loves the right, is tempted in all ways as we were, but loved God more. He is moral but also compassionate and merciful. He does not judge but needs to save. He sits among the rebellious and points to their self-deception, their anger, their detours and says, “You can be human and moral too. You can be yourself and still be prodigal, extravagant. You can be a saint and love sinners lavishly, because you want them to have real fulfillment that takes place with their reconciliation, their atonement with God.
Taking a compassionate human stance makes you vulnerable. If you still have love for sin and you sit with sinners, you might sin with them. But if your heart is pure, you can love God and love what pleases God. Then you can sit with sinners and help them passover into a better life in which they are reconciled with God and end their being self-destructive and destructive of others.
If you look at yourself, you may identify with the younger brother or elder brother or the father. Let’s look to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father. Jesus loved sinners passionately and loved what would save them in the way of life. That passion can melt the older brother’s heart too, when he looks at the cross and sees who it is he nailed there. It can save the younger brother as well, who drove in the nails at the cross, because he did not care anymore. Jesus can turn the older brother inside out and forgive him. He can shore up the acting out of the younger brother and transform his rebellious heart into a thankful and welcome heart. You see Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Stay in the church, his body and you will come around.
Really, I personally know from experience. So does the prodigal son. So will the elder brother, when he realizes that none of us are self-righteous. We can only be made righteous by the blood of Christ. Amen.
 Self-righteousness is a monster that causes and provokes sin, according to Luther in his Galatians Commentary. It is the tinder, the fuel, the source of sin.