Read Luke 15:1-32
We’re about a third of the way through our season of Lent, and as we draw closer to Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the opposition against him increasing.
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, the opponents of Jesus say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (7:34) And in our reading today, the Pharisees and scribes complain about Jesus saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (15:2)
So Jesus tells three stories to explain his reason for welcoming and befriending sinners.
The first has to do with a shepherd losing one of his sheep, and he goes in search of it until he finds it, whether it takes a day or a week, or a month, and, when he does, he throws a big party to which he invites all his friends.
The second has to do with a woman who loses a valuable coin, and she searches and searches, for days or weeks or months, we’re not told – and the point is that she doesn’t stop searching until she finds it, and when she does, she throws a big party to which she invites all her friends.
And the third story tells of a father who has lost a son, and when the son returns, throws a big party to which he invites all his friends and neighbors.
What is God like? God is really into parties, according to Jesus.
God searches for us, scans the horizon watching for us, longs for us to return to him, and longs for us to join him in his work of blessing this world and every person in it. And when this happens, when we return to God, Jesus tells us that God’s response is rejoicing and celebrating well into the night.
Jesus tells these parables to show us that God is gracious beyond our imagining.
You would think that the younger son would know this. I mean, hasn’t he lived with his father his whole life, been cared for, and blessed his whole life? Yet, he harbors doubts about his father’s love.
This younger son asks for his inheritance – before the father has even died! And yet the Father is gracious and gives it to him.
According to Jewish law, the younger son’s inheritance would have been one-third of everything that belonged to the father. The father gives the son a boat-load of cash and the son leaves. This is the kind of stuff that can get the neighbors talking, right?
And what does the younger son do with it? Our text says that he engages in “dissolute living.” We are simply to imagine the worse behavior we can. And now the neighborhood is really talking, right? ‘Small town boy embarrasses his family.’ Maybe some of us have been there, and done some things we’re not too proud of. I know I have. But the story doesn’t end there.
Finally, this younger son runs out of cash, and he thinks about coming back.
Understandably, his expectations are scaled down.
He knows how he’s made a fool of his father and disgraced his family’s name. ‘Maybe,’ he thinks, ‘my father will take me back on as a hired hand.’ That’s about the extent to which he imagines his father’s grace will extend.
But he was wrong.
The father watches and scans the horizon for the son to come home. And when he sees him, he runs to greet him. And then he hugs his son, this one who betrayed him, and the son begins his well-rehearsed speech, but his father cuts him off, doesn’t want to hear it: he’s too busy ordering up the party.
Once again, the neighbors are talking: ‘Is there is no discipline of this father’s rebellious son?’
Instead, there’s a party, and the younger son is being restored to his place in the family, he gets the robe and the ring, which means that he has his inheritance back!’ The father’s graciousness and love is much larger than the younger son can imagine, much larger than the neighbors can imagine, and, it turns out, much larger than the older son can imagine, too.
For, you see, in this story, there are two lost sons, not just one. It’s not just the younger son who can’t understand the extent of the father’s mercy – it’s the older son as well.
And the older son is angry because of his father’s underserved mercy toward the younger son, and the older son refuses to go inside the house for the party.
And what we read is that the father “began to plead.” It literally means that the father “begs” the older son over and over again.
In that ancient culture, no father would “beg” his children to do something. The father’s behavior would have been seen as disgraceful in the eyes of the neighbors.
But this is a father who is willing to surrender his dignity, and to disgrace himself in the eyes of others for the sake of his children. Even though he has been treated with disrespect by the first and with anger by the second, this father’s graciousness is so big that he seeks the return of both with all his heart.
And what the father seeks is that his children would return, to work together with him, in the family business.
We see this in the next chapter of Luke’s gospel, right after this. Jesus tells two parables that point to God’s mission for his children – to bless others, especially those in need. We will look at one of those parables, in Luke chapter 16, next Sunday.
According to Jesus, our heavenly Father is in the business of bringing blessing and life to this world.
I’d like to think that the younger one has learned something about grace from his father, and throws another party, a party for his older brother who was just as lost as he was.
Only, Jesus doesn’t finish the story. We aren’t told if the younger son stuck around and shared in the family business. We aren’t told if the older son ever joins the party. We aren’t told if they worked and toiled together in joy in their father’s business, which is to love and bless the world and every person in it. We aren’t told.
But, Jesus doesn’t finish the story because this is a story that we finish ourselves.
The one for whom the father is waiting, the one whom he is begging to come in and join the party, the one he is seeking to join the others and to work together in the father’s business – is us. Our Heavenly Father who, in our baptism, names us, claims us, and has plans for us, searches for us when we have strayed, and invites us to return and to join in the work he has for us to do.
And when we join each other at the table he has prepared for us – when we join in the community that bears his name and in the work he has given us to do, then we, the lost, have been found.
So come to God’s party. Find the joy in one another that God intends for us in this community, and join the work to which God has called us.
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