Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54675 [retrieved October 15, 2018].
Scripture Reading • Luke 15.1-7 (NIV)
15.1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Have you all ever played “Would you rather?”
With the people siting beside you tell them with of these either/or alternatives you would prefer:
– Would you rather eat tacos or fried chicken?
– Would you rather have the super power of flying or invisibility?
– Would you rather be a stand-up comedian or a famous musician?
Would you rather was the most fun for me when Liam was little because he didn’t think in an “either/or” way … he thought more along the lines of “both/and.”
Would you rather eat cheeseburgers or ribs? Yes.
Would you rather go on a trip to mountains or the ocean? Yes. Absolutely.
Somewhere along the way of growing up we get more and more embedded in either/or, them/us, there-isn’t-enough ways of thinking. In the gospels we see Jesus invite us to move away from either/or thinking and toward a both/and way of thinking that is shaped by God’s abundant grace. I think the string of parables we encounter in Luke 15 is an invitation for the Pharisees to see that when it comes to people and to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, it isn’t an either/or … us/them invitation … one person’s welcome into Jesus’ arms doesn’t mean someone else is not welcome.
I would bet that is why the Pharisees grumbled when they noticed all those tax collectors and sinners gathering around Jesus. “They muttered, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Grumble. Mutter. They don’t sound enthusiastic about Jesus’ company …
They could have made a good point about it.
Often, I think, we picture these “sinners” as… lovable-looser-ish … pretty-much-harmless and you-would-like-them-if-you-only-would-get-to-know-them outcast, type people. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if they weren’t all that lovable and were actually difficult, maybe selfish, hard to be around, and even threatening people?
Tax-collectors were pretty much traitors to the nation of Israel … many people saw them as opportunistic and unpatriotic … they profited from cooperating with Rome, the empire that had taken over their country, and used fear and oppression to squash Israel.
What if sinner wasn’t just a label for people the Pharisees didn’t like. What if it had to do with something more concrete?
In her book, “Short Stories by Jesus,” Amy Jill-Levine writes,
“Sinners are not ‘outcasts;’ they are not cast out of the Jerusalem Temple … to the contrary, they are welcome in such places, since such places encourage repentance. The Gospels generally present sinners as wealthy people who have not attended to the poor … Thus in a first-century context, sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community … [these are people who break the law in the sense of “not loving neighbors as themselves” … or “not leaving the corners of your fields for the poor]” (335-336).
The Pharisees were trying to interpret and live God’s instructions as accurately as possible … of course they would have a problem with tax collectors and sinners … of course they would grumble and mutter when Jesus, this guy who said he was the one who best revealed God’s heart and God’s intentions for his people, didn’t seem to have any qualms hanging out with them.
Grumble … Mutter …
Jesus must have heard them. He tells these Pharisees a parable about a shepherd who has one hundred sheep, somehow lost one. He left the 99 behind in the open-country to find the missing sheep, when he finds it, brings it home and invites friends and neighbors to celebrate, because what was lost has been found.
Then Jesus shared another parable (Luke 15.8-10), this time about a woman who loses and then finds something:
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
There is a pattern to these stories – something is lost … someone searches … they find it, they are overjoyed … and they invite their community to share their joy.)
Jesus didn’t skip a beat, he went right into another parable (Luke 15.11-32):
Jesus: 11 …“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father,
Youngest Son: ’Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Jesus: 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said,
Youngest Son: ’How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’
Jesus: 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Youngest Son: 21 … ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Jesus: 22 “But the father said to his servants,
Father: ’Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
Jesus: So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
Oldest Son: 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Father: 31 “‘My son … you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The pattern, more or less, shows up again … this time with a twist.
I think the little brother is a difficult character to relate to … he is unorthodox and seems pretty selfish, he is kind of a jerk to his dad, he asks for his inheritance while his dad is still alive (way too forward and entitled sounding). His dad is incredibly generous and divides his resources into halves (usually the youngest son would inherit less than the oldest son) … he squanders his father’s generosity … he hits an unbearable low point … he comes back … and his dad runs to him (some commentators suggest that no self-respecting-grown-up-man in those days would have anything to do with running).
I think I have an easier time relating with the big brother. He finds this whole deal hard to stomach. Ugh! What is happening here? Has everyone in this family lost their minds? The father is insistent … and, maybe most importantly, his welcoming embrace of the youngest son doesn’t come at the exclusion of the older son. They are both invited to share his joy. The father doesn’t play by either/or, us/them, rules.
In his reflections on this passage, Fred Craddock, writes,
“Perhaps it is because of the competitive rather than cooperative spirit of our society, but the common thought is that there must be losers if there are winners. Hence, even in religion, it is very difficult not to think Jews or Gentiles, poor or rich … older son or younger son. But God’s love is both/and, not either/or. The embrace of the younger son did not mean the rejection of the older; the love of tax collectors does not at all negate love of Pharisees and scribes. Such is God’s love, but we find it difficult not to be offended by God’s grace toward another, especially if we have serious questions about that person’s conduct and character” (Interpretation, 188).
There is more than enough for both sons to be embraced by the father.
As much as the Pharisees are on Jesus’ case … as quick as they are to jump on him … Jesus continues to invite them to receive his grace and love … he continues to invite them to trust him and to follow him as disciples. It isn’t tax collectors or sinners at the expense of Pharisees. It isn’t Pharisees at the expense of someone else. Jesus’ invitation is overwhelming, it is big, there is space for us where ever we fit in that spectrum.
Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to experience God’s love and goodness through him, and to learn his way of discipleship isn’t either/or, it is both/and … there is space for you and me to turn toward him to be embraced by him and to embrace him in response.