Dear St. Paul Family,
Quick— what’s the first thing that you think of when you hear the word “confession?” I’d imagine that for many of you, the picture in your mind is of someone sitting or kneeling in a confessional enumerating a laundry list of sins, with an unseen priest behind a screen listening and prescribing appropriate penance. That’s certainly the picture I had for much of my life, though it was influenced by Hollywood more than actual experience.
In Luke 15, our Lord tells a story about confession that looks much different. It’s a story with which we’re all very familiar, and He begins with the words “[a] man had two sons.” It’s a story that’s long been a favorite of mine, though for many years I didn’t realize how extreme the prodigal son’s sins were.
Clearly what he did was disrespectful. Can you imagine asking your father to give you your share of the estate before his death? I can’t. Even worse, though, is what the son does with his portion of the estate. The English text states that he “gathered everything together,” though the meaning of the original Greek (“synagagōn panta”) is a bit stronger; it means he liquidated his portion of the estate and took off with the cash. Jewish Talmudic law, recorded about two hundred years later, reflects what was almost certainly generally accepted in Jesus’ time:
If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control.
— Baba Bathra viii.7
To add insult to injury, this was certainly a public matter. To whom would the son have sold his share of the estate if not people who lived nearby? Even if he managed to sell his portion to some out-of-town stranger, everyone in the area would be very aware that the property had changed hands. Everyone would be aware of how audacious and disrespectful this son had been. Can you imagine how the father felt when he went into town and saw people whispering about this scandalous development?
As we all know, the son then proceeds to squander his wealth, and soon he finds himself eating from the same trough as pigs to survive. It’s at this point that he determines to go back to his father and confess to him.
The way this confession takes shape in the text is very interesting. The son is not compelled by any external forces to return to his father and confess his sins, though he is perhaps motivated by the desire for self-preservation in addition to contrition. Regardless of his motive, though, he almost certainly approached his father’s house with fear and trepidation. After all he had done, how would be be received? Would his father turn him away? I think it’s fair to say that his conscience was distressed.
Imagine his surprise when he sees his father running to meet him! As they meet for the first time in some time, he falls to his knees and begins his confession. He does not go into great detail about his sins; he simply confesses that he has sinned against both heaven and his father. However, he’s not able to get to the third part of his planned speech— the request to be treated as one of the hired servants— before the father interrupts him and responds in a very surprising manner. He doesn’t prescribe any sort of penance (even the penance that the son intended to suggest), but rather welcomes him back as family, and orders a lavish celebration of the return of the son for whom he had been waiting for some time.
This confession and the subsequent implied absolution by the father differs from the picture of confession described above. Although the form of confession used by the Roman Catholics of Luther’s time differed somewhat from the form practiced now, there are still some similarities that Luther took issue with— specifically the painstaking enumeration of sins, the prescription of penance, and the canon law requirement of confessing at least once a year. Yet despite these issues that he identified, Luther recognized its value:
Of private confession, which is now observed, I am hearty in favor, even though, it cannot be proved from the Scriptures; it is useful and necessary, nor would I have it abolished – no, I rejoice that it exists in the Church of Christ, for it is a cure without an equal for distressed consciences.
— Babylonian Captivity of the Church 4.13
In 1530 when the followers of Luther presented the Augsburg Confession to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, private confession and absolution was seen as important enough that it was addressed in the eleventh article:
Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession.
Today private confession and absolution has fallen into disuse in many Lutheran churches. While Luther detested law-driven requirements placed on confession by the Roman Catholic church, he also did not want to see anyone overcorrect and find themselves in the ditch on the opposite side of the road by neglecting confession because of their Christian liberty. He writes about this in his Brief Exhortation to Confession (see https://www.stpaulaustin.org/luther/confession):
So we teach what a splendid, precious, and comforting thing Confession is. Furthermore, we strongly urge people not to despise a blessing that in view of our great need is so priceless.
If your conscience is troubled and you would like to take advantage of this splendid, precious, and comforting blessing, we encourage you to contact Pastor Nuckols and arrange a time when you, like the son in the parable, can confess your sinfulness, and hear the absolution pronounced when he, in the stead and by the command of our Lord, forgives you all of your sins in the name of the Triune God, who looks for you and welcomes you with open arms as did the father of the prodigal son.
In nomine Jesu,