Repent of Repentance
Lent is a season of repentance in the Church, but how much do we really know about repentance? A chief issue in the Reformation was repentance. One of the things the Lutherans said is "Such repentance is not partial and fragmentary.It does not debate what is or is not sin. Rather, it hurls everything together and says: Everything in us is nothing but sin"(SC, III, III, 36). We said we are to repent of everything; I say repent of repentance.
Repent of a repentance that wants to work its way back into the Father's good graces. This is the younger son in the parable. After he has insulted his father by demanding his share of the farm, which was the equivalent of saying he wished he was dead, he liquefied his share and broke up the family farm. Then He purposely leaves "for a distant country." Where's that? Everywhere and nowhere; anywhere where his father is not. There this young rebel squandered in no time the wealth that had taken generations to build.
No regrets; no second thoughts; no repentance up till now. Then famine strikes the distant country, and the young man begins to be in want. He doesn't "hire himself out" to a citizen of that distant country as the insert translates. He joined himself; he fastened himself to one. The citizen doesn't want or need him. You don't send someone you want or need to do the lowest of the low job of feeding pigs. The Pharisees and teachers of the law Jesus is telling the parable to must have gasped. The young man is living in perpetual religious defilement. But what's this? He repents. He realizes how far he's fallen. From heir of the household he's fallen to beneath of one of his father's hired men. He will go back saying, "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."
Repent of such a repentance as this. Why? Doesn't this sound right? Haven't you yourself come to this point before? Wouldn't you accept such repentance from your child? They not only say they are sorry for breaking the lamp, they're going to pay for it. Haven't you in fact required such a repentance as this? A child repents of doing the very thing you told them not to do lest they break something, and there they stand before the broken whatever saying how sorry they are and you say, "Well, sorry isn't good enough." That's what the young man believes. He can and must mend the break between his father and him by working his way back into his good graces. He can earn money as a hired man and pay back his father.
You're going to get no argument from the Devil, the world, or your own conscience that this is the way to go. This is pull yourself up by the boot straps, take responsibility, pay what you owe, religion. You sinned willfully against your Father; you wasted His good gifts. Therefore, you can cause Him to forgive you by saying you're sorry and promising to do better.
Repent I say of repentance that thinks it can work its way back into the Father's house, and repent of repentance that confesses other people's sins. This is the elder son. He doesn't say, "Father, I've sinned against heaven and you." He doesn't even call his dad "father;" he confesses his brother's sin, and his own holiness. He's never disobeyed his father even once. His brother, on the other hand, has squandered the father's property. And if you really want to get down to it, the father has sinned against him. He never sacrificed so much as a young goat for him, the obedient one, but he sacrificed the most special animal on the place for the disobedient one. Imagine how much more insulted and wronged the elder son would have felt if the servant had told him about the ring that restored the younger sons business authority, the sandals which restored his authority over slaves, and the robe which showed the father had received him back as his son?
Repent of repenting of other people's sins. Such a repentance shows you know the first and third uses of the law. You toe the line because of the threats of the law, and you live your life according to the instructions of the law. But you've missed the chief use of the law, the second where the law is a mirror to show you your sins. You use the law as a stop sign to stop your gross outbursts of sins and as guide for living. You consult the law to find out what you're to and not to do, but you never look at yourself in it, so sins always belong to someone else not you.
Once more you'll get no argument from the Devil, the World, or your Flesh. After all, who really is in favor of parties for prodigals? The elder son really was more deserving of a party. He didn't break up and forsake the family farm. He didn't waste the family's resources. He did obey his father. The younger son didn't and he really was guilty of insulting the father, hurting the father, and embarrassing him before the whole community. Had the father made the younger son one of his hired hands, that would have been all right. That would have been fair. But to welcome the son back into the house as if he hadn't sinned at all was outrageous.
Do you see how repentance of the younger and older son agree? Sorry isn't good enough for sins; you have to make up for them. You can't return to the father's house as if nothing happened. You can't live your life with a clear conscience; no you have to live with if not a guilty one than at least a stained one until you can make up for your sins. I think the brothers would agree the younger needs such a repentance as this while the older doesn't need to repent at all.
Repent of a repentance that wants to work its way back into the Father's house; that confesses other people's sins not your own; and repent of a repentance that doesn't flow from God's kindness but from your sense of wickedness. Ponder Romans 2:4, "Don't you know that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" If you dwell on your wickedness, how badly you've sinned, you will focus on how sorry you are and how you can make up for your sins. You will think, "I haven't felt sorry long enough to be forgiven and/or I haven't done enough." Both sons start out here. Both start out focused on the wickedness of the behavior in question. One of them is won over by the Father's kindness; the other is enraged by it.
The younger son returns with the wrong repentance of working his way back into his father's house, but notice what happens. He says the first part of his speech, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son," but that's it. Gone is the, "Make me like one of your hired men." Where'd it go?
Before the son says one word, he sees his aged father running to embrace him as he returns shoeless, ring-less, robe-less, besotted by pig filth. Before the son utters one word of repentance, the father is covering him with kisses. The kindness of the father overwhelms him. He is welcoming him the prodigal, the rebel, the wasteful back into his arms, his home, his life with no strings attached. Such kindness, such complete forgiveness stops the younger son from uttering one promise to do better, one pledge to pay back. To utter them would have been to reject the father's embrace, kisses and love. It would have been to question that his father had really forgiven him.
What you've got to see is that the elder son gets the same treatment. The father humbles himself for the sake of rebellious son who won't enter into the joy of his father's forgiveness. The father goes out of the party to get the son who is rejecting the joy of his father's house. Though he insults his father by not calling him such, the father doesn't say, "My son," but uses a Greek term of affection, "My child." And in the face of his child's rage against him for not only freely forgiving the prodigal but for keeping him in slavery, the father responds with kindness: "Child you are always with me; everything I have is yours." The belligerent elder son is standing outside the father's house, but the father says you're with me. The proud, self-righteous son complains the father hasn't given him anything, but the father says all things mine are thine. Did this lead the elder son to repent and enter into the joy of the father's forgiveness?
What about you? God the Father left His heavenly house in the Person of His Son to come and get you. He embraced and kissed your sin-smeared, rebellious body and soul saying, "This is My son; this is my daughter." In the parable receiving the sons back into his home cost the father money and dignity, receiving you back cost God the Father His beloved Son. The father in the parable kills the fattened calf to celebrate that his son has returned home safe; God the Father kills His dear Son to bring you home. The embraces and kisses you receive from the Father in Word and Sacrament were paid for by the slapping and spitting Jesus received for your sins. The robe of righteousness which the Father gives you in Baptism was paid for by Jesus being stripped naked. The ring which gives you free access to the treasurers of the Father's forgiveness was earned by Jesus being kicked out of the Father's house for your sins. The banquet the Father invites you to is one of His Son's Body and Blood that was given and shed for your sins.
Repent of a repentance that thinks it has to earn it's way into the banquet; repent of a repentance that sees other people in need of the Father's forgiveness more than you. See that the only "requirements" for entering into the forgiveness of the Father is being dead and lost. The Father for Jesus' sake rejoices in giving life to the dead and finding the lost. Such kindness leads sinners to repent back to the Father's house where there's a party for prodigals still going on. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20100314); Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32