First Reading Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm Psalm 32
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Gospel Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,* and whose sin is put away!”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s gospel begins with a situation of scandalous dinner reservations. Most of us have that one friend or family member, perhaps more than one, who cannot decide where to eat. They say, “Oh, I’m easy to please ... anything will be fine with me.” Great, let’s go to the Mexican restaurant. Then comes the predictable reply, “Well, I had Mexican food yesterday, and my tummy can’t take it two days in a row. But anything else will be fine.” And so it goes, through every restaurant and genre of food in town, until fatigued you are ready to settle for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home, or maybe you just lose your appetite all together. Note that if you do not know who this person is in your life, it might be you.
But the choice of food is not the scandal in the gospel today. The apparent problem is the guest list. Tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus, hungry to be fed in body, mind, and spirit. Jesus welcomes them. Renowned preacher Fred Craddock stated, “the mark of a Christian is not who we feed, but who we eat with.” Jesus welcomed all, including the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about the company he keeps. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They believe one cannot be saved except by observance of the law, which includes only hanging around with the self-proclaimed righteous, and avoiding all others. To them, Jesus’ actions are in clear violation, thus a scandal.
Tax collectors and sinners and all sorts of misfits, marginalized, and outcast have been pushed outside of God’s chosen, not by God, but by those who have set themselves in positions of power and influence and judgement over God’s people. Jesus is clearly revisiting the Law and the Prophets, reclaiming and re-establishing God’s invitation “All are welcome.” Jesus welcomes all, even the Pharisees and scribes, and he begins to feed them with three parables about the lost and found. In the first two parables concerning lost sheep and a lost coin, God seeks, God finds, God rejoices, and God calls others to rejoice. But Sheep and coins cannot respond to being found. In the popular parable of the Prodigal Son, found only in Luke, we hear the response of the one found, and the push back of God’s call to celebrate.
A younger son, who will not receive the larger portion of inheritance anyway, asks for his share from his father, who is still very much alive. In asking for his inheritance early, the younger son considers his father as a provider only, with no other redeeming relationship. To the younger son, his father is already dead to him.
With no regard to father or family, the younger son packs up everything and leaves, and quickly squanders everything on dissolute living. We do not know exactly what this means, but the older brother will assume the sordid details later. The parable suggests a famine may be part of his misfortune, but his condition is clearly the result of many poor choices in the way he lived. In order to survive, the younger son is reduced to tending pigs, even coveting their food ... particularly unclean and shameful for a Jew.
The younger son ‘came to himself’ as many of us do in our darkest times. His sober speech begins his repentance, turning and returning to who he is called to be and to whom he belongs. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” ... against righteousness and natural order. He confesses he does not deserve to be called son, and imagines a proposal to become his father’s hired hand. While this would be better than his current condition, being an employee suggests paid wages with no permanence or personal relationship, yet he still addresses him ‘Father.’
Defeated yet determined, the younger son heads home. Until now, the father’s role is passive, sitting home and patiently waiting, hoping. The father sees the prodigal son, still far in the distance. Contrary to social expectations, he throws dignity to the wind and runs to his son. Filled with compassion, he puts his arms around him and kisses him. The son begins his rehearsed speech, proposing to work as a servant, but the father interrupts, not even interested. The father orders an extravagant celebration including robe, ring, and feast, the symbols of belonging, protection, and provision. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” So far, this parable is similar to the other two of sheep and coin, until we hear from the older son.
The elder son is dutifully working in the field when he finds out about all this, and refuses to join the celebration. Before we admonish the elder son as a brat pitching a tantrum, we should notice what is going on. Meat was not part of the regular diet. The fatted calf is literally grain fed rather than those left to graze on grass. Ring and robe are symbols usually reserved for the eldest son. The whole household, even servants, seem to be celebrating. This party is a big deal.
The father is no longer passive, and does not leave his elder son to his stewing. He goes out to him, meets him where he is, and pleads with him to join the celebration. The father’s love is wide enough for all his children. In bitterness, the elder son proclaims his obedience, service, and righteousness, and he is not wrong. He voices our sense of fairness and justice. He exclaims, ‘all these years I have been slaving for you, and still am.’ He separates himself from his father and brother with the words, ‘this son of yours.’ He fills in the details of little brother’s dissolute living, embellishing the wasting of his life and cavorting with prostitutes, perhaps as Jesus is doing keeping company with sinners. ‘This son of yours’ gets the fatted calf, and I haven’t even gotten a goat to share with my friends. The portrayal of the elder son and his resentment is a subtle criticism of Pharisee’s and scribes’ grumbling. Like the Pharisees and scribes, he suggests that he is keeping the law, is righteous, and does not need repentance.
Like most parables, Jesus lays the kingdom of God beside the expectations of humanity to compare and contrast. The father does not berate the elder son. There is no belittling speech. No ‘I’m disappointed in you.’ The father responds with inviting, inclusive, abundant love. “You are always with me and what is mine is yours.” The elder son’s inheritance is intact, he has lost nothing, both in material possessions and in the father’s love. “We had to celebrate.” It is the obligation and necessity of mercy. The father brings the elder brother back into the family community, ‘this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found.”
In Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, we are encouraged to examine the roles of each character, and recognize that at varying times and situations, we may find ourselves the younger son, older son, and even the father. At all times, we are to recognize the active, seeking, reliable love of God. Can we rise to such love? At times, perhaps. Most times probably not. But whether we succeed or fail, our appetite has been whet for the lasting love of God.
God’s abundant love is constantly seeking to reconcile humanity to God’s self and to one another. We typically assume reconciliation is the responsibility of the offending party, to approach the offended, seek forgiveness, and mend. Paul presents God as the reconciling agent, reaching out despite the offenses of humanity, and creating a path for healing and wholeness. Our efforts are often thwarted by human justice, and the need for harsh judgement, hefty reparations or restitution, and severe punishment. Paul depicts God as magnanimously offering blanket amnesty to humanity. There is no shortage of rings and robes and fatted calves. We are invited into the celebration of the lost and found, and in so doing we lack nothing.
From the hymns of Frederick Faber, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. ... But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. Was there ever a kinder shepherd half so gentle, half so sweet, as the Savior who would have us come and gather at His feet?”
A collection of tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes, and all other sorts of people have gathered here today. We are the lost and found. We gather to seek, and in so doing realize that we are simultaneously being sought. We gather to celebrate and be celebrated. We gather to be fed in body mind and spirit. We gather at the altar rail to be fed by Christ himself, and be one. After all, the mark of Christianity is who we eat with, and at God’s table, all are welcome. Amen.