The Prodigal Son: A Misnamed Parable

It seems to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is misnamed.  It ought to be called the parable of the joyless brother.

At the outset, to stage the parable, St. Luke tells us that Jesus is receiving and eating with sinners (Luke 15:1ff).  The Pharisees and scribes grumble about this, thinking that to do so is to defile oneself and become stained.  So Jesus tells them four parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, and the shrewd manager, which is tied to the preceding three as we shall see.

The first parable of the lost sheep tells how the shepherd rejoices when he finds it.  “Just so,” says our Lord, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  The second is like it.  A woman finds her lost coin, and upon fining it rejoices with her friends.  “Just so,” says our Lord again, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  The third parable is the Prodigal Son.

The wayward son slanders the father, squanders his inheritance on foul and nasty things, eats with the filth of creation, starves, and finally considers to return to his father where he will beg off being his son and simply exist as his slave.  He is a repentant sinner.  The father will have none of it, but runs to greet his son, embraces him, puts the family ring on his finger, dresses him, and has a feast in his son’s honor.  The older brother is joyless.  He’s angry that the younger was so received.  He did not rejoice with the angels in heaven over the sinner who repented.  “It is fitting,” our Lord says to those who do not rejoice over the repentant sinner, “to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  It is fitting to rejoice.

Then He tells them why it is fitting to rejoice in the parable of the shrewd manager.  The shrewd manager made friends with repentant sinners (those who owed his master money) so that they would receive him into their homes.  The parable doesn’t single out repentance, but it can be assumed in parable fashion that settling the account – as the lost sheep and coin, and finally the prodigal son’s accounts were “settled” – includes repentance.  The repentant sinners rejoiced with the shrewd manager who had freed them from their debt (or lessened it considerably), thereby becoming his friends.  Why was this important for the shrewd manager? So that they would receive him into their homes.  Our Lord therefore says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth” – as the elder brother should have done with the younger – “so that they will receive you in the eternal dwellings.”

Not rejoicing with sinners who repent and are forgiven – received by Jesus –  is dangerous.  These sinners with whom our Lord eats and drinks are received by Him and will receive those who bring them the gospel in word and deed.  But they will not receive those who do not rejoice with them because they will not know them.  Not only so, but those who do not rejoice with them hold their debt over their head, thinking they are undeserving of the mercy given.  Such a one has no place in the kingdom of heaven.   May we be known by those over whom the angels rejoice that we too may rejoice with them in the heavenly places.

Evangelizing, Ministering, and Reaching Out

Our Lord ordained His apostles giving them this command based on His authority, “Go into all the world and disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I commanded you, and behold, I am with you all all the days until the completion of the age.” (Matt. 28:19, 20, my translation)

This is not a so-called “Great Commission” or even a directive for every member of the Church. This is the Apostolic Commission, a decree to be fulfilled by and in the sent ones, the apostles.  And, to be sure, they have and are accomplishing it through the Church by their writings and their witness. For wherever the Church is, there is the preaching of the apostles.  Our Lord’s commission is a specific call given to a specific group, to which none of us belong since none of us are apostles.

That being said, St. Paul (an apostle) said to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2).  Here St. Paul tells us what ordination is: the entrusting of the apostolic office to one who will teach it.  That which St. Timothy entrusted to others, he himself was entrusted with (1 Tim. 20) by the laying on of hands and prophecy (1 Tim. 4:14).  So the apostles, in keeping the command of Jesus to disciple all the nations, entrusted men with the gospel that the preaching and teaching would continue when they were no longer physically able to do it.  This has become known as the Apostolic Office or the Office of the Holy Ministry (apostolic succession…ah…).  Those ordained into this office, entrusted with the gospel, are to continue teaching what the apostles taught.  Without this teaching there is no confidence in the promise of our Lord, “Behold, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”  Therefore, the Christians gather together to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” (Acts 2:42).  Where do they gather? To the one who has been entrusted with the gospel (which is the apostles’ teaching) by the laying on of hands and prophecy, commanded to pay careful attention to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28).

I have been placed as an overseer in Hoisington, KS; placed here as a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1).  Having received the prophecy and the laying on of hands, I have been entrusted with the gospel and the teaching of the apostles, that those the Lord calls to Himself in this place will have that which He promised (Eph. 4:12), and that they may be confident that the Lord is among them.  (May God our Father grant me His Spirit that I may fulfill my office according to His will.)

So to whom have I been sent?   To those who call themselves members of Concordia Lutheran Church? Or to all who live where I live?

I think the latter.  No, not everyone in Hoisington called me here, but then, neither did all the members of Concordia.  Only those who took the time to come to the call meetings and be involved, and even they were instruments of our Lord to do His bidding.  I don’t know everyone where I live, but then, neither do I know everyone who thinks they belong to Concordia.  Yes, there are other pastors in Hoisington, and they have the same vocation as I do, regardless of denomination affiliation.  We deal in thoughts of congregations because that’s how our administration has taught us to think.  But the apostle Paul didn’t think that way when he sent Titus to Crete.  Neither did Timothy entrust faithful men with the gospel, thinking, I’m sending or placing this man here at such-and-such a church.  Rather, he and Titus established overseers in towns, where people lived.  Some of those people believed, were baptized, and continued in the faith. Some didn’t.  A congregation is not attached to a constitution or bylaws or even charter members or to a building.  A congregation is attached to the apostolic office; so we confess that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

This doesn’t mean that if there is no resident pastor then there is no Church, but it does mean that if there is no available minister, ordained and entrusted with the gospel, then there is no minister. Can there still be Christians?  Of course.  But to whom will they go to receive the apostolic blessing and the promise and sign that Jesus is indeed with them?  We ought not “spiritualize” this.  For then we are not really spiritualizing it, which would be to make it of the Spirit, but are divorcing it from the incarnation of our Lord and from His sacramental union with His people, which is the true spiritualization of it.

So wherever you are, pastor, you are the one whose vocation it is to reach out.  Yes, you (gulp) evangelize.  That is, you take the gospel to the people where you live. Not just the ones that call themselves your members, but to everyone because like it or not (believe it or not) you’re in the apostolic office.  You go to homes; both those who you know and those you don’t.  You pray for the sick and anoint them with the oil of the Lord (James 5:13ff), and forgive their sins.  And when others come to you for healing and exorcisms, you rebuke the sickness and the unclean spirits, telling the troubled that their faith has made them well.  You baptize and teach.  You rebuke the self-righteous and preach Christ and Him crucified.  In the pulpit on Sunday? Yes.  In homes on Monday? Yes.  You are a minister of reconciliation, entrusted with the gospel and placed where you are that the Lord would fulfill His promise that He calls His elect from the four corners of creation.  You’ve been given the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:28-31), let us strive to be good stewards of His varied gifts, to the glory of God the Father.

A Pentecost Sermon: Drunk Apostles

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ who gives us His Spirit of peace.

When Jesus was on the cross, those who had crucified Him mocked Him.  “Let God save Him if He wants Him, for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”  But as is the way of God, turning all things upside down and inside out, what they meant for mockery, God would prove true.  God did save His Son.  He raised Him from the dead.  They meant to discredit and destroy Him, and so they would mocked Him.  But God meant to glorify and establish Him, so He raised Him from the dead.

So it was at Pentecost.  Once again mockers would be the unwitting prophets of God because God will not be mocked.  Those who heard the preaching of the apostles on that first Pentecost thought to mock the apostles.  Hearing them preach in many tongues, the unbelievers mocked them saying, “They are filled with new wine.”  But as the mockers mocked the Christ upon the Tree of Life, and became unwilling prophets, so now those who would mock His apostles as being drunk on new wine, would be unwilling prophets.  For the apostles were new wineskins filled with new wine.  After all, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.  If he does, the wineskins will burst and the new wine will be lost.  But he puts new wine into new wineskins so that both are preserved.

The new wine, of course, is the Holy Spirit.  And though Peter heard the mockery and so set it straight that they were not drunk according to the ways of men, he would have been right to say that they were drunk on the Spirit of God.  For it is written, “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:8).  The wine on which the disciples drank deeply was the Holy Spirit as we are all made to drink of the same Spirit.  And like any drunk will tell you, it wasn’t them that moved their tongue or controlled their mind, ‘twas the strong drink that made them that way.  ‘Twas the Spirit of the Living God that made their tongues to leap and their minds to understand.  They were filled with the Spirit, which is the new wine, and being drunk on the Spirit, they spoke in the ways of the Spirit.

The Master of Ceremonies at the wedding feast in Cana, when our Lord made water into wine, said to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the best wine first, and when all have drunk freely, then the poor wine.  But you have kept the good wine till now!” (Jn. 2:10).  But it was the Lord who’d kept the good wine till now; till Pentecost.  The whole world had drank deeply and freely of the old wine of works righteousness, thinking that obedience to the Law or to morality or to justice or fairness would cause the Lord to turn His face toward them.  But on Pentecost the Lord gave the good wine of the righteousness of God by pouring out His Spirit on all flesh.

Therefore, Christian, learn from the apostles and be drunk on the Spirit of God, which is the good and new wine not from man, but from God.  The Spirit of God is the living water that flows from the Rock that is Christ and from which we drink deeply and freely so that out thirst is satisfied and we are made partakers of the same Spirit … But where, the woman at the well asked, where do I get this “living water”?  Just as any drunk man knows where to go to get his drink, so you also know where to go to get the elixir of God: to His holy mountain where His people are gathered and where He has made His home.  For Jesus answered the woman, “The hour is coming and is now here when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him.” (Jn. 4:23-24)

In the Old Testament everyone knew that the God of Israel dwelled with His people in the temple in Jerusalem.  So to go to God meant to go to the temple in Jerusalem.  That is why on that Pentecost Day so long ago there were devout Jews from among every tribe and nation of men flocking to Jerusalem.  They thought to go to the dwelling place of God.  And so they were.  But they thought there were going to the temple built with hands, a temple of wood and stone, but God was gathering them to the Temple not made with hands, the Temple that is His Body.

We confess and teach our children that the Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel and enlightens us with His gifts.  Where does He call us?  To Christ, of course.  Where is Christ?  Where the Body is, there the eagles will gather.  Christ is where He has said He will be, where two or three have been gathered in His name.  Here, O men and women of God, is where God dwells. Not in this brick and mortar meeting hall, but with His people, wherever His Spirit has called and gathered His people, there the Father and the Son make their home, for there the word of Jesus is kept.

Whether in a pastor’s basement, in the grand cathedrals of Europe, or in a hospital sickbed, whether in Jerusalem or in Hoisington, there the Spirit of God calls, gathers, and enlightens His people with His gifts, sanctifying and keeping us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  And the gifts of the Spirit are these: utterances of wisdom, utterances of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, the ability to distinguish between spirits, tongues and their interpretation, these all are empowered by the same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-11).  The Acts of the Apostles is one big Divine Service whereby the Spirit that proceeds from the Father by the authority of the Son, is poured out on all flesh, calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying according to His gifts.

So the apostles were drunk with the new wine, which is the Spirit of the living God.  And being drunk on such wine, they spoke the way the Spirit made them speak.  They said the things that issued from the Spirit.  They taught, chastised, rebuked, encouraged, prophesied, and built up all according to the workings of the Spirit of God.  Therefore, Christian, do not neglect to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing.  Because the Spirit of God gathers us and teaches us and enlightens us and sanctifies us.  Not by our will or by our genius or by what we think is the way and purpose of God, but according to the word of Christ.  For the Spirit loves the Son and keeps His Word, which is the Father’s Word, and because the Spirit loves the Son and keeps His word, the Father and the Son make their home with the Spirit who is poured out on all flesh, but dwells in the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Most High.  So He is building you up to be His Temple, His dwelling place.

May God grant that we be drunk with the new wine of Jesus, the living water that proceeds from the Father and is poured out by the Son, that the peace of God – which is His Spirit – that passes all understanding, keep us safe in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

In Nomine Iesu


Synergism & Prayer: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet

In his brevery, “Minister’s Prayer Book,” John W. Doberstein writes that “The difference that separates [Lutherans and Roman Catholics] is that all Roman Catholic meditation rests upon the dogmatic assumption of synergism. For the Catholic, meditation and spiritual exercises are self-preparation for the reception of spiritual graces.” (p. XII)  He goes on to say that, “By employing the whole mechanical and psychological apparatus of exercises he seeks to call down divine grace. This the Evangelical must reject.” (p. XII-XIII)

Now I love Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book. Despite CPH’s wonderful Treasury of Daily Prayer, which I find absolutely perfect for congregational Offices and Family Prayer, Doberstein is fast becoming my choice for my own prayers at the hours of prayer. So my comments here do not take away from Doberstein’s work; it is a great work.  But I can’t help but wonder if Doberstein hasn’t misapplied the distinctions of synergism, justification, and the life of the Christian (ie, prayer).

It is true and must be maintained that synergism in all it’s forms and types must wholly be rejected.  But synergism refers to the dogma that man is capable in some small way to prepare himself to receive salvation from God.  Synergism is to justification by grace alone, what salt water is to an iron ship.  It erodes it, eats it away, and ultimately only a shell of the iron ship remains, weak and useless.  The opposite of synergism is monergism, the doctrine that God alone affects faith and salvation in man through His Word and Spirit.  This is the orthodox faith. Yet our Lord said, “Seek and you will find; ask and it shall be given; knock and the door will be opened.”  Was Jesus teaching synergism?  Of course not.  He was teaching prayer.  Prayer is to synergism what tea time is to being born.  No one can will themselves to be born, but once born anyone can enjoy tea time.  No one can will their salvation (in part or in whole), but once saved anyone can pray.

Faith comes and goes, it fades and brightens.  If this were not so why does our Lord and His apostles constantly encourage us to strengthen one another and pray for one another.  Oops, there it is: we are to pray for the salvation for other people and that they remain in the faith.  Do our prayers cause the salvation of others?  Did Jesus’ High Priestly prayer cause my salvation as He prayed for me?  I’m not going to answer that, but our Lord said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk. 22:31), and St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your restoration is what we pray for” (2 Cor. 9:14), and St. John writes, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life” (1 Jn. 5:16).

What I am going to do is explore what I think is Doberstein’s (and most Lutheran’s) mistake when teaching on prayer.  His mistake is not about the evils of synergism or the propriety of monergism.  His mistake is in comparing Roman Catholic dogma of preparations for grace through prayer with grace alone.

If Rome teaches that man can position himself to be favorable to divine favor before faith, then Rome is anathema.  No one can please God except through faith.  And faith is a gift of God.  Synergism is out.  But this has nothing to do with prayer. Prayer is post salvation.  Prayer is post faith, done in faith; all prayer.  Even the weak prayer of the father whose boy was ill and dying, “Lord, heal my boy, if you can!” was a prayer of faith so that when rebuked by Jesus for the “if you can,” he prays, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9).  The man had faith, else he would not have prayed to begin with, yet still he prayed for faith.  If we could give a time-line of salvation (a dangerous proposition, to be sure, but and effective one), faith would precede prayer.  Prayer is not given to the unbeliever but to the believer.  This is most evident in that all prayer – table, liturgical, formal, or ex corde – is in Jesus’ name, a name given only to the elect and not given to the unbeliever.  Prayer is done by the communion of saints in the community of which Jesus is the Head, which is why the chief prayer of the community is the “Our Father”.  We never pray as unbelievers, but always as believers, those of faith.  Even if our faith is weak or unnoticeable, to call upon God in Jesus’ name is to have faith.

Consider our Lord’s parable of the persistent widow.  The widow bugged the judge until he gave in. This, our Lord says, is how we are to pray: without ever giving up, believing that our heavenly Father hears and answers our prayers.  So also, what of the faith of the friends of the parapalegic whom Christ healed?  Their prayer was in faith for their friend, and the Lord heard and answered and the friend was benefited by the faith of his friends.  It seems that the Gospels, indeed, the whole Bible, is filled with examples of the faithful calling upon God to give deliverance, mercy, faith, grace, hope, strength, and all good things to them.  None of this is synergistic.

Doberstein writes, “The theological foundation of evangelical meditation must be free of all synergistic and Pelaginaistic concepts. It rejects any mysticism that puts the initiative with the worshiper.  Man cannot by searching find out God. Prayer is turning to the Word of God.” (p. XIV)  Yes! Doberstein is right, if the prayer being prayed is not one of faith in Christ but one of man’s own desire to come into communion with some divine essence other than with the revealed God in Jesus. But we don’t go around to unbelievers saying, “Pray to God for faith and you will get it.”  Instead we pray for them and when (and if) they come to faith, they join in our prayers.

When our Lord says, “Seek and you will find, ask and it shall be given, knock and the door will be opened” He is not teaching synergism.  Those who have no faith will not seek. Those who do not believe will not ask (James says the same thing).  Those who do not believe will not knock.  Jesus’ words are for the community of saints (they come in the Sermon on the Mount – Matt. – and on the Plain – Luke).  But those who have faith will seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  Those who have faith will call upon the name of the Lord to be saved from their enemies. Those who have faith will pray that the Lord not take His Holy Spirit from them, but restore unto them the joy of salvation.

Doberstein is right to condemn synergism.  But perhaps finding synergism in prayer and meditation is a straw man.  It is true that many, many Christians (not just Romans, but even many Lutherans) think that God answers prayer because of their preparations and spirituality, and they need to be taught otherwise.  God answers prayer because of faith (ie, all the “your faith has made you well” statements by Jesus).  And all true prayers are offered in faith since the one who asks without faith receives nothing (James).  Our prayers do affect God since the prayers of a righteous man availeth much (yes, Christ is the righteous man, but that’s not the context of James).  Doberstein rightly says that “Evangelical meditation is founded upon obedience and faith” (p. XV – XVI). But we are never obedient without faith, and faith is never disobedient.  Our prayer, the prayers of the Church – which include individual petitions, since we are all one Body – have nothing to do with justification by grace alone but with the promise of God that He hears our prayers offered in the name of His Son, Jesus.

We need to teach the people of God that their faith begets prayer and that prayer is for faith.  My faith depends upon God’s mercy.  But since I believe, then I will pray for God’s mercy.