October 7, 2012 by jmar198013
Once there was a throng of sharks and other ne’er-do-wells gathered in around Jesus to hear what he was saying. And this set the Pharisees and the Bible professors to carping among themselves. “Can you believe this guy?” they said. “Who does he think he is? Rolling out the red carpet for miscreants! He even eats with them!” Jesus answered them by spinning the following yarn:
“There was once a fellow who had two sons. One day the younger boy told his father, ‘Old man, go ahead and cut me my share of the estate.’ So the man split his property between the two sons. A few days later, the younger son cashed in his share and left home for a faraway land. He got there and blew the whole wad in one spree. Just as his money was running out, a terrible famine gripped the land. And there he was, flat broke! Well, he ended up squatting with a local homesteader, who sent the young man to his farmland to feed the pigs. He was so hungry that he often considered eating the nasty berries he fed the pigs–but no one fed him anything. That’s when he came to his senses. He reasoned: ‘Those day laborers my dad hires out have a full belly every night, and I’m here starving to death!’ So he decided to return to his father and tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and toward you. I am no longer fit to be called your son. Treat me like one of your day laborers.’
“So he headed back to his father’s house. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. And you’ll never guess what he did: the old man ran out to meet him, flung his arms around the boy’s neck, and started showering him in kisses! The young man said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and toward you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ His father told the servants, ‘Quick! Go and grab my finest robe and put it on him. Put my signet ring, the one I notarize documents with, on his finger. Put a pair of sandals on his feet, so that he may walk freely in my house. Bring the calf we’ve been fattening and kill it. Let’s call a feast to celebrate this day! For this son of mine, who was dead, is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’ So the whole neighborhood was invited, and the party began.
“Now, the older son was out on the lower forty while all this was going on. As he made his way back to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called out to one of the servants, ‘Hey, what’s this all about?’ The servant replied, ‘It’s your brother! He’s come home, so you’re dad killed the fattened calf to celebrate his safe return.’ This so enraged the older brother that he refused to have any part in the celebration. His father came out and begged him repeatedly to join the party. But the older brother shot back, ‘Listen here, all these years I’ve worked like a slave for you, and never disobeyed you. And not once have you given me so much as a baby goat to grill out with my friends! Now this son of yours shows up after wasting all your money on loose women, and you kill the fattened calf for him!’ The father answered, ‘My son, you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But how could we do anything other than feast and celebrate? Your brother is dead, and now he is alive. He was lost, and now he is found.'” (Luke 15.1-3, 11-32).
The Word of God for the people of God.
Sometimes we need a strange person, whose perspective is very different from our own, to show up and challenge our assumptions about what we know. We need to learn that our wisdom is not the only wisdom there is. This is one of the things Jesus does for us. We are who we are because Jesus has come into our world a stranger, and has invited us to come sit at his table. Sitting at that table–at this table–ought to challenge our assumptions about what we know.
For instance, we think we know what the story of the Prodigal Son means. Obviously it’s a story about repentance. We tend to believe the elder brother’s charge that the Prodigal had wasted their father’s money on prostitutes. So we think that the story turns on the Prodigal’s repentance in the pig pen. Repentance is profound, but let us not sentimentalize it. The Prodigal came home when he was hungry. Same thing happened to seven-year-old me when I decided to run away from home.
If we were to ask African Christians what this story means, their perspective might challenge our assumptions. Sure, the boy left home and wasted his money. Hot-headed kids do dumb things. Then a famine came. Surely our African brothers and sisters understand famine better than we ever could. But you know what would really grab their attention? When Jesus says, “and no one fed him anything.” They would not be able to get over the inhospitality of the people in the far country, to let a guest in their land go hungry. We might scratch our heads and ask, “Is that detail so important?” And they would respond, “Of course it is! Remember, Jesus was in trouble with the Pharisees for opening his table to sinners. He is contrasting God’s kingdom, where those like the Prodigal are welcomed and fed, with the attitude of the Pharisees, who would allow those like the Prodigal to starve.”
Sometimes we need to be shown that our wisdom is not the only wisdom. If we can learn to hear this story from the African’s perspective, it just might stop us from acting like the older brother. Jesus was playing the role of the father in the story for the sinners he was eating with. His welcome of them, the sharing of a meal, was meant to signify God’s acceptance of them. Jesus wanted to shield them from shame. The Pharisees, by grumbling about all this, were playing the role of the older brother. The Pharisees needed their assumptions challenged. Often, so do we.
Sure, there is repentance in the story. But the story is first one of restoration. What had been lost has been found. What that means for those of us gathered at Jesus’ table this morning is that we, like the Prodigal, share in the experience of being lost and found. We have been off to some far countries, found ourselves starving, and come home. This table reminds us that we can always come home.
More importantly, the story of the Prodigal Son is about reconciliation. We have been estranged from God, like the Prodigal was estranged from his father. The father’s welcome of his son back to his table is a sign of God’s welcome of us. He reconciles us to himself, not the other way round. Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners was his way of practicing God’s reconciliation. The parable of the Prodigal Son was Jesus preaching what he practiced. And every time we gather around this table, the story is retold.
Bread: In an inhospitable world that does not feed prodigals, we thank you Father for Jesus, who shares his bread with us.
Cup: Father, as we drink this cup may it be for us a time of celebration as well as contemplation. We celebrate being safe at home with you, reconciled, our shame undone by your welcome. Thank you for Jesus, who has set this table of welcome for us.