March 31, 2019
What’s your favorite story? Is it one you read when you were young, or maybe heard your parents tell you over and over? When our sons were young enough we could still tell them what to do, we made them sit through all of Lawrence of Arabia. We kept telling them we wanted them to be culturally literate, so they could get half of the jokes that flew past them when they watched the Simpsons.
Stories shape our worldview. They help us make sense of things we don’t understand. Stories teach us how to get along in the world, how to deal with hardships and challenges, how to behave toward others. It’s how the Inuit raise their children to be gentle and never explode in anger – they use storytelling to help young children understand the consequences of their actions.
Jesus fully understood the power of storytelling. That’s why he used parables so often in his teaching. Stories helped the people who were listening to Jesus get a better grasp of who God is, and just how much God loves us.
So here we are, in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, and once again, it’s story time. Here we are, following Jesus toward Jerusalem for the last time, and once again, we find Jesus at a table.
Two Sundays ago, he ate with Pharisees and experts in the law. We heard him confront the deadly hypocrisy that was corrupting the religious system. Last week, the after-dinner conversation turned to how we respond to tragedy, and our need for repentance.
Today we find him at a table with tax collectors and people identified as sinners. And we need to be aware that, when Luke calls them ‘sinners,’ he means people who are so despicable, everyone in town knows what evil they have done. Jesus has gone from eating with the most respectable leaders in the community, to a meal with the most despised.
But instead of calling down woe on these dinner companions, as he did on the Pharisees and religious lawyers, Jesus tells three parables that are among the best known and most loved of all his stories. Just as Jesus issued warnings to put the Pharisees in their place, he uses these stories to put the sinners in their place within the kingdom of God.
These parables show us the nature of this kingdom, and the character of the King we are following to the cross during this season. So, we lean in and we listen to him. Even though we are in a season of fasting, these stories cast a vision of the celebration feast that awaits all those who were lost, but have been found.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 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.
“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? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Before we go on, let’s think about these two short parables for a minute. The story of the lost sheep has been romanticized in songs and paintings. It’s been used to criticize pastors unable to reach backsliders who’ve stopped coming to church.
But Jesus isn’t telling a warm fuzzy story of a cute, cuddly lamb he can carry on his shoulders. This sheep has been lost, and in all likelihood is dirty and frightened. It’s about the last thing you’d want to sling across your shoulders.
And we also aren’t talking about someone who has intentionally stopped participating in the life of the church. This sheep is lost, not intentionally absent. And yet the shepherd keeps seeking until it is found and brought into the fold. The story isn’t about the sheep; it’s about the shepherd’s persistence.
And that woman, who sweeps her house looking for a lost coin? She’s just like that shepherd. She searches carefully, until she can put the coin with all the other coins, where it belongs. Both stories are about the diligent way God looks for the lost, and the way repentance brings sinners into God’s grace.
Jesus often pairs stories about men with stories about women, and that is what he has done here. He wants to make it easier for us all to listen to him, to find a way to see ourselves in the story. These two parables hook us in. They are really just a set-up for what Jesus is teaching us.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So, he divided his property between them.
“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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 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.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So, his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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 story begins with a shocking exchange between a father and his youngest son. The depth of disrespect shown here would have offended everyone who heard this parable. The religious leaders would have been outraged by the son’s actions. Demanding your inheritance while your father was still alive simply wasn’t done. It was shameful.
In essence, the son was telling his father, “I wish you were dead.” And by giving the son what he demanded, the father was telling his son, in essence, “I disown you. You are no longer part of this family.”
The sinners and tax collectors got it. They knew all too well what it was like to bring crushing shame on their families. As the sinners and the religious leaders listen to him, Jesus identifies for each group their clearly defined places in the story.
The younger son sets off and lives an extravagant life in a far-off land, blowing through his inheritance and wealth in wild living. What has been earned, cherished, and preserved for generations is wasted quickly and recklessly. The younger son can only see the present moment. He has no memory of the past and no vision of the future. He does not see who came before him and made this inheritance possible. He does not see who might come after him, depending on the inheritance he should pass on to them.
This is how sin works. It situates the self at the center of the cosmos. It isolates a given moment and makes it all that exists. Sin wants to disconnect you from the consequences, the collateral damage, the cost that will be demanded of you in years to come.
The listeners around the table found their place in the story. What about you? Are you listening to him? Is this part of the story speaking to you? Warning you about the way sin has worked in your life?
For the lost son, this self-centered, isolated way to see the world doesn’t last long. As his wealth runs out, his world caves in. A famine in the land compounds the tragedy of his sin. Forced to hire himself out and feed pigs, he is so desperate he even considers eating their slop.
As disgusting as this is for us, it’s even worse for those who heard the story from Jesus. Jewish purity laws saw swine as untouchable. This young man has not only squandered what someone else worked hard to provide, he has defiled himself beyond any acceptable level.
Everyone is really listening to Jesus now, locked into this story that makes perfect sense in first century culture. It is an extreme morality play warning against a life of sin. The tax collectors and sinners were no doubt feeling the sting of conviction as the Pharisees prepared to give a standing ovation to this work of art. Close the curtain. The sinner has hit rock bottom. He has gotten exactly what sinners deserve.
But when Jesus is the one telling the story, rock bottom is just another starting point. The end is an opportunity to begin again. Coming undone is a chance for getting remade. This is Luke’s gospel, remember, where the theme of reversal runs through every chapter. Hitting rock bottom can jar you awake.
And that’s exactly what happens. Rock bottom shakes the son awake and he comes to his senses. He remembers the character of his father and decides to risk everything on his father’s grace. Perhaps he can become like a servant, working his way back into his father’s affection. The humility of serving in his father’s house is better than the humiliation of starving on his own. So, he turns toward home and rehearses his apology along the way.
Hunger for something more drove him away, and now hunger for quite a bit less draws him home. More than any thought of healing the relationship with his father, the young man isn’t thinking about his father’s broken heart as much as he’s thinking about his own empty stomach.
What will happen next? The Pharisees are pleased with the son’s misfortune. They anticipate a “happy ending” where the father will surely scold the son for his recklessness and either kick him back out on his ear as he deserves, or perhaps graciously agree to let the son stay on as a hired hand.
All the sinners gathered around this table steel themselves for what they expect the father to say, too. They remember how many times they have disappointed their own parents. They are pretty sure they know what’s coming next: rejection, humiliation.
Scripture is filled with powerful expressions of the depth of God’s love. But apart from the cross, no other image quite compares to this: the picture of a father who sees his children from far off and runs out to meet them.
Jesus says,“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. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
And this is where the story flips on everyone hearing it. Neither the Pharisees nor the sinners are expecting what comes next.
‘But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.”
Has this happened to you? Have you gone to God with your apology speech and your promise to do better, only to have it interrupted by a welcoming embrace that knocked you back? Do you know what it is like to walk someone else into those open arms? Let the story hit you again. Pause for a moment and remember what it was like to know God’s love for the first time.
And if you have not experienced that yet, then why not today? His arms are still open. He is still running toward his wayward daughters and sons. You are welcomed and embraced. You are deeply loved and forgiven.
We could end the story there. We could close with the celebration feast and marvel at the grace of this God who rescues us. But the story isn’t over yet. This is not a story about only one son, but about two. The older son is still outside, refusing to come in to the party. He is offended by this waste of mercy on a brother who has squandered their father’s riches and brought shame on the family.
You see, both brothers share the same sin: pride. One says I don’t need you, dad. The other says you owe me, dad. One wants his freedom. The other wants his due. One says I deserve the chance to leave. The other says I deserve credit for staying put. They share the same sin. The difference is that one returns home, and the other refuses to come inside. Yet, the father reaches out to both.
Remember the complaint from the Pharisees that started this series of stories? “He welcomes sinners and eats with them like old friends.” And Jesus answers, “Yes. Now, are you going to stay outside or will come in and join the party? These sisters and brothers of yours were dead but now they are alive.”
We don’t know how the story ends. Jesus leaves us hanging with no resolution. But he’s not leaving the ending up to our imagination. He’s leaving it up to our action. To the younger brother he says, come on home to a feast. To the older brother he says, come inside and celebrate with me.
The Pharisees and the sinners all found their place in the story. And both were surprised by the plot twist. What about you? Where are you in the story? How will you become the unfinished ending? Will you let yourself be found, like a lost sheep or coin? Will you lose yourself in the One who is pursuing you diligently, to welcome you home?
This brings us back to the prayer that has been guiding our journey through this season. And these words of Jesus fill us with new courage and conviction to pray them. Earlier, we saw ourselves in the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and prayed, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Today we echo the next layer of that prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a daughter, a son.’
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.
 Steve Garnaas-Holmes, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/2x2jc4bbd332kfb95rpdhhbbrc6rzw