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Part of my work is to hear stories, to listen with students as they work to find passage through their lives.

It is a great privilege, but also a role I feel unworthy to play. I feel especially unworthy when they offer confessions. They do this without any prompting. Sometimes, a simple question from me regarding how they came to study where I work brings forth an intricate tale. They will detail what they have left behind because they encountered God in Christ.

Lately, the tone of some of their stories strikes me. I have noticed that some become downright giddy, laughing at themselves as they talk about failed relationships and unfulfilling adventures with substances or other struggles. They smile, shake their heads at themselves, and say things like, “But that was before I met Jesus.”

It can be hard for me to catch up when they engage in confession. Often, I carry some suspicion. Part of me recites Psalm 90: there are “secret sins” that these confessions are meant to cover. In the words of Nietzsche, “To talk much about oneself may also be a means of concealing oneself.” What’s the real problem, I think? Too often I have seen piety used as a narcissistic tool. Too many times I saw confession practiced as an exercise of self-fortification. I’ve had to adapt to “confession” as a means of manipulation. I have needed that suspicion. So, when students offer themselves in this way, sometimes I’m wondering something like, “Is this a way for them to get me to soften their grade?”

The Parable of the Prodigal

New settings, however, call for new adaptations. Lent is just such a setting, and this week’s reading – the parable well-known as the Prodigal Son – draws me into new adaptations.

The parable is the last of three parables meant to counter the Pharisees and scribes who resisted Jesus because he welcomed “sinners and eats with them.” The first two parables – the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin – conclude that there is “joy in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels” when “one sinner” repents.

By the third parable, we are looking for the sinner. The story seems to supply the answer: the younger son who squandered his inheritance and who was willing in his need to become chronically unclean by handling pigs. But, the younger son “comes to himself,” and the Father runs out to meet him and won’t allow his son to describe himself as a day laborer. Just as there is joy in heaven, there is now going to be a celebration.

It is important to recognize that Jesus, with these three stories, counters moral skepticism with God’s joy. In the context of the first two parables, the younger son comes to himself because the joy of heaven is being trained on the son. The father, channeling that joy, was already generous, giving the younger son from his very “life.” (The initial request for inheritance may not be a problem in itself. See, for example, Genesis 25.5-6.) And, when the son is most desperate, he awakens to that joy. Then, the joy multiplies. That’s what joy does.

Augstine under the pear tree

Augustine writes to God in his Confessions that “you . . . give me joy, you offer yourself, lovable and longed for, that I may thrust myself away in disgust and choose you, and be pleasing no more either to you or to myself except in what I have from you.” Confession is not simply truth-telling about one’s self, it is truth-telling in the mirror of God’s joy.

It took me many years to learn from this story that confession is actually a way of entering into God’s enjoyment of one’s life. When God is moved by the good God sees in our lives and shares that joy, we begin to enjoy ourselves along with God. We begin to learn that we have something to give, something to offer to God and God’s other creatures. But, when we do that, we recognize that not everything in us responds to joy, and those habits and tensions need to be released, unwound, and removed.

Confession is acknowledging before God and others that we are worth enjoying, even when it seems otherwise. Confession is an act of joy, despite our resistances.

The Older Brother

But, this is also a story about moral rivalry between two sons in relation to a father. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Now, these two.

After learning that his father has thrown a massive party for his reinstated brother, the elder son reminds the father he has been “working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your commands.” He doesn’t feel like much of a son. He feels like a slave.

He uses the word, “Look!” That’s an imperative case. It might be what one scholar calls a “polite command” used when speaking with someone of higher status. It might be an interjection, to get the father to think about what he’s doing. It might be a warning. Jesus uses the same word when responding to Pharisees informing him about Herod’s desire to kill him: “Look, your house is left desolate” (Luke 13.35).

The elder son wants the father to see something. What does he want him to see? “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” But, this “son of yours,” he gets the fatted calf.

The father’s response is deeply illuminating. The father calls him “son.” He is not a slave, he is a son. The father also never defends himself against this charge. The father channels God’s joy, but that does not mean that he does not have weaknesses, even sins. Maybe the father has treated the younger son as a favorite, like other parents in the Bible before him. Maybe the father did take his elder son and his obedience for granted. Maybe the younger son had been spoiled and the elder son overly disciplined. While the father never confesses explicitly, I cannot help but think that there is something amiss between them and it is not simply about the elder son’s self-righteousness. There’s something to the elder son’s suspicion.

Even so, the elder son is having a hard time catching up. The father’s joy won’t allow him to defend himself against his son. Instead, the father responds to the elder son: yes, they share in what’s left of the property. All that the father has belongs to the elder son.

The father is acknowledging that, yes, he has taken from the elder son’s property. This costs the elder Son. Still, the father concludes, “but we had to celebrate and rejoice.” We had to. This “brother of yours” has “come to life.”

Something bigger than the father’s weaknesses, maybe even bigger than the father’s sins, is happening. Something even better than what all three of them have ever had is among them. A wave of God’s joy brought the son to the father and the father to the son. And, the father has now gone out to meet his other son as well.

It is just that it will take some time for the elder son to catch up. It will take some time for the elder son to adapt. As it does for us all.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Nice. I should now probably change my sermon. But we all have always to catch up.

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Sometimes, it seems, we have to temporarily let go of self to enter into the joy of others.

    This story reminds me of the laborers who worked all day resenting the laborers who arrived later getting paid the same as they. Our inheritance of grace is so abundant that it wipes our timesheets clean.

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