This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 where Jesus tells a parable of dysfunctional family and the love of God that overflows, even there. Read the full story here.
Guest preaching this week is our own Community Coordinator, Shannon Schaefer.
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
When our sacred story begins tonight, Jesus is teaching, and the tax collectors and sinners - the scoundrels, the up-to-no-goods, the scandalous, the shameful, the worthless on-the-margins spectacles with unseemly reputations - these are the ones who come to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes - the pious, the law-abiding, the privileged socially and religious elite, the ones who are the gate-keepers for who is 'in' and who is 'out' - they grumble against Jesus.
"He welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Some have suggested that the reason Jesus is so often the target of the religious elites' grumbling is that Jesus himself is a Pharisee. Jesus knows the law and prophets. He speaks in the synagogues and has access to the temple. As a religious elite himself, he's constantly in conversation with the Jewish tradition, and yet also constantly clarifying and redefining the heart of that tradition. In other words, the Pharisees are conservatives who want the time-honored traditions of Judaism to be upheld, and to stick very close to the status quo.
And Jesus is sort of a Pharisee gone rogue, gone progressive. He's reinterpreting the core tenets of the Jewish faith. We hear this in the gospels where Jesus says, "You have heard it said... but I say..." For instance, in Matthew 5, Jesus says, "You have heard it said 'you shall not commit murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement."
He's reinterpreting his tradition and clarifying what's most important. And he does it even in his practices, his actions in the world with others. Pharisees didn't associate with sinners, and definitely didn't eat with them.
But Jesus does.
His teaching is not simply to other elites, but Jesus goes to the masses, the everyday trying-to-make-it folks, and spends his energy there. The tax collectors and sinners come to listen. "He welcomes them and eats with them," the Pharisees grumble.
So Jesus turns to them with a story: "There was a man who had two sons."
For the Pharisees, who have spent the better part of their lives reading and studying the Hebrew scriptures, a number of old stories should come to mind as Jesus tells this tale. In Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, which includes Israel, the typical way of things is that the oldest son of a father would inherit the biggest portion of the father's property and receive the birthright blessing. In a patriarchal society, it's how things "should go."
But one very interesting detail is that the Hebrew scriptures continually upend this patriarchal paradigm. Abraham is a father with two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is the older brother, but Isaac, the younger one, is the one through whom God's promises are enacted. Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is the older brother, but Jacob tricks his father and steals the birthright. He's the one who gets the blessing, though he's the younger. Jacob has many sons, but it's his youngest two, Joseph and Benjamin, he loves most. When Joseph brings his own sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the bedside of his dying father, Jacob blesses the younger son more. Joseph corrects his father, putting Jacob's right hand on the older, but Jacob switches his hands back to bless the younger grandson with the better blessing, saying, "the younger brother shall be greater than the older." Jesse has many sons, but it is his youngest, David, who becomes 'the' David, King David, the one after God's heart. All of these stories are in the cultural memory of the pharisees as Jesus tells this story.
"A man had two sons and the younger one came asking for his inheritance."
I imagine those hearing might be poised and ready for the younger son to get what's coming to him. After all, he has some serious audacity: "Why don't you just go die already so I can have your stuff?" In effect, that's what he says to his father. So when the younger son returns, the hearers are ready for some justice. What a punk kid! Pardon, but what an ass! Maybe the father won't even let him return as a servant!
But it's the father who has the audacity.
That father, he's at the edge of his property. He's been watching, waiting, scanning the horizon, ready to run, to embrace. He has a calf ready for the celebrating, with robes and ring prepared, and the younger son doesn't get justice, but utter and unbelievable mercy.
"Un-freaking-real," the pharisees must be thinking. It's what the older brother thinks.
He's kept the law. He's played by the rules. He's played it safe, set aside his wants and desires to stay in the father's house, poised for that blessing. And when the younger son is celebrated, he's utterly resentful. He tried so hard to earn the love that was his all along. The Pharisees are the older brother in the story. As the religious elite, they've kept close to the law, earning their upstanding status and favor with God and society.
Who is Jesus then? If the Pharisees are the older brother...
Here we get into the intricacies of the Trinity, this idea that the One God is also a Three-ness. We can't explain it - it's a mystery. But Jesus, as the one who is both fully God and fully human being, is both the father and the prodigal son - the younger son - in the parable. Jesus as the father figure is the option that I think instinctively makes the most immediate sense to us. He welcomes and eats with tax collectors and sinners. It's this, his mercy and disregard for social convention, that gets the Pharisees grumbling. He celebrates the far-off ones who come to listen to him. Here the divinity, the God-ness, of Jesus is on full display.
But Jesus is also, I would argue, the younger son in this story.
From the Pharisees' perspective, his progressive reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition and welcoming of the non-elite as disciples and friends is akin to taking a rich inheritance, squandering it, and feeding the swine. They stayed close to God, they think, while Jesus in their view strays. But more than the Pharisees' view of Jesus's faith and practice, it is the incarnation that allows Jesus to be the prodigal younger son. The idea of the incarnation is that in Jesus, God takes on a human body, and in so doing makes it possible for human beings to return to fellowship and communion with God. Jesus, then, is God in our body, and on the cross, he walks the path of the prodigal son, taking his divine inheritance from the Father God and spending it lavishly on the tax collectors and sinners - on us.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that the work God does in Jesus is the work of reconciliation, the work of bringing human beings back home to God. He says in verse 21, "For our sake," - for yours and mine - "For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God." So this story of the prodigal son, it points to the cross. It points to the mercy and embrace we are being offered.
Did you hear what the father in the parable says to the older son? He says this:
"But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and was found."This brother of yours was dead. And he has come to life. He was lost and now is found. Dead and come to life. This is the cross, and this is resurrection. Lost and now is found. This is the journey of God in our human flesh, coming into our midst, into our bodies, the move from divinity toward humanity and then the return home to the love of God.
St. Athanasius, who lived in the 4th century, says that Jesus is God becoming human, so that human beings can become God. In other words, Jesus is the path of our restoration to the divine image. We are made to look like God, be like God, but we fall short because of sin. But Jesus makes it possible again. And in the story, the robes and the ring are perhaps our return to that divine image. This coming home to God is a journey, a path we travel. And the reality of our lives - of my life - is that we are often going out from God and coming back to God.
The good news is that God is always waiting, fatted calf, rings, robe, embrace, ready for me - for you - to come home, and to know mercy. Our return to the table of communion each week is a metaphor for the road back to God. Every week, we leave this place and go back out in to the wild of the world, like prodigals, taking the riches of the table with us. And every week, we come back to this place where we can be a kind of home for one another - looked for, known, embraced, and the table is set for celebration. We enact the welcome of God together. We have been dead and are moving toward life. We have been lost and are being found. And we find one another. Paul says that Jesus is God reconciling with us. But then he goes on to say that that work of reconciling others to God is also our work, our ministry.
I wonder, who in your life do you to need to return to?
Who have you judged like the older brother and where are you trying to earn love?
And who can you be home for? In other words, how can you embody the mercy and embrace of God for someone else?
For more reading on this story and how it subverts and shapes our understanding of God, check out:
”The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” - by Henri Nouwen