|Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (1773)|
And one of the first things we have to keep in mind is that all three stories: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, are preceded by this very important line, said by the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining:
"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
In the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word used for “welcome” is a very positive word: prosdechomai (pros DECH om aye), and it means welcome in this sense: to wait for anxiously, to cherish.
This man welcomes sinners - he actually cherishes them - and he even eats with them!
Jesus cherishes and waits anxiously for the sinners who come to Him – both then and now! (Imagine that!) These sinners, these unclean ones, were becoming a part of Jesus’ following. How that must have put off the Pharisees and scribes!
The three “Parables of Lost and Found” that Jesus tells are His response to the grumbling Pharisees. And to understand just how these sounded to the Jews of Jesus' day, we have to understand a bit about the cultural context.
The shepherd that we hear about is so concerned about one lost sheep that he leaves ninety-nine sheep in the desert – unprotected! The woman who loses one coin – then finds it and throws a party that probably costs ten times the worth of the coin!
Jesus actually puts these as hypothetical questions. He isn't really looking for a response: "What man among you?.... or What woman?.... These questions are metaphorical, to help us consider the abundant love of God.
What we do need to note is the joy of the shepherd and the woman. "Rejoice with me," they say.
And then there is the prodigal son – Jesus changes his tone here to tell us a story. We all know this as a story of wandering away and being welcomed back.
But this story is really much, much more to the people who heard it from Jesus– it was even perhaps outrageous to the people who heard it from Jesus!
It is about possessions and power; anger, shame, and repentance; death, and new life. This is about radical behavior.
Listen carefully to what the son asks of the father:
“give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”
When are estates divided up? At the death of the father!
The son isn’t saying, “Hey, Dad: I’m headed out for an adventure.”
He is saying, in essence, “Father, I am disowning you, you are as good as dead to me. Give me what is mine under the Law, and I’m out of here.”
Those are tough words! In the culture of the time, no child would dare to say such things to his father. They are words that could literally cost him his neck! He could have been taken to the gate and stoned for such disrespect. That is by Mosaic Law: we read it in Deuteronomy.
But there is no punishment. Instead, there is probably just the father’s heartbreak – and he goes ahead and distributes the wealth. He must distribute it according to the Law, so the matter becomes public knowledge. The whole village knows that the son has challenged the father; they know about this fracture in the family’s life.
Imagine what that father must have overheard – the buzz of the neighbors, the whispered conversations at the gate.
And yet, it is not the father who is the dead man, but rather the prodigal son. He goes off on the wide road to dissipation – to the excesses of a different life that are literally going to scatter him.
And we see where the son ends up – in a distant country, and in dire need. He is so badly in need that he ends up hired out to feed pigs!
Here is the Prodigal: he has squandered all his assets, he no longer has any heritage on the land, he is in a foreign land, among the unclean; and while he feeds the swine, he isn’t even permitted to eat what he feeds them!
And yet, he “comes to himself” –he recovers his senses. He begins a process of healing, because he can never be happy unless he comes to really understand who he is and just where he stands.
He decides to go back to his father –he knows that he doesn’t deserve to be called his father’s son; that in these outrageous circumstances there is no way he could even hope to reclaim his sonship.
But he still wants something: to be treated as one of his father’s slaves – that, at least, will give him some kind of security.
He also knows that going back will be a painfully public act. The community will see him and mock him, and maybe even beat him up or kill him!
And the father – his love for his son has never ended, despite being so thoroughly dishonored by his son. He waits, he hopes with anxious anticipation. He cherishes his son, even through all this!
And when the son comes into view, the father runs to him!
This broken-hearted father is filled with joy, he welcomes the son.
And what is scandalous about that?
He does this without any kind of an intermediary: back then, a “reconciler” would have acted as an agent so that the injured party doesn’t lose face.
And if the father had seen the son from a distance, you can bet that others in the village had seen him, too.
But before there can be any kind of confrontation, the father races past the villagers and offers his son protection, compassion, understanding, and affection beyond what the son might ever have imagined.
And the father's love takes all of the son’s bartering power away from the son by loving him well.
The father interrupts his son before the son can even ask, to be a slave. The father reclaims him as his son - he transforms the son! That is a self-empting love at work here!
Open arms! Robe on his shoulders, ring on his finger, sandals on his feet! Slaughter the fattened calf – have a feast!
And the father says: “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again.” He has come to new life as a son!
A feast commences. Certainly it is not a feast to honor the son’s return. It is a feast of the father’s joy!
"Let us celebrate," says the father.
But then there is the older brother out in the field, who learns about all this from a servant. And anger flares. Probably this anger has been simmering since the day that the prodigal son rebelled.
Now his anger boils over: the older son refuses to enter the house, and the father is thrown into another situation of public humiliation.
Now it is the older son who is publically disrespectful of the father. And in his anger, this older brother has disowned his brother: it is no longer his brother, it is “this son of yours…”
Can you imagine what the older brother might have said about his father next? Maybe he turned to the people and said something like,
“This man, my father, welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!”
And the father’s answer? Put away your anger: "You are with me always. Everything that I have is yours!"
How that must have rung inside the minds and hearts of the people gathered around Jesus for this story! How the Pharisees probably craned their necks and said:
“What? No Law? No punishment?”
No: mercy instead – radical, life-giving, and all-embracing love!
Imagine a father whose love is greater than death. Imagine a love that actually brings back to life! Imagine a love that loves first, loves always, loves best!
And yet, there is the thought that the parable hasn’t resolved. It has just stopped.
We don’t know what the older son did. Did he swallow his anger? Did he allow himself to accept his father’s love? Did he go in to the feast?
Or maybe he is still outside, where the darkness now gathers? Is he still out of touch and still very much a slave of his own pride, his own anger, his own sense of injustice?
Has it dawned on him that his father’s love transcends all brokenness, all emptiness, all anger?
If there is one thing that we might well think about and pray about, it is this: If you were the older brother, would you go in?
These three parables: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son have one thing in common. It is in one phrase for the shepherd, the woman, and the father:
Rejoice with me! I have found what is lost! What was dead has come to life again!
And what does Jesus say at the end of each but just this:
“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."
This Jesus – God’s Son – he welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!
So, will we go in to the feast with God our Father? Everything he has, he has offered to us!