Once upon a dinner table (Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32; 2 Cor. 5.16-21) [Sermon 03/06/2016, Lent 4c]


March 1, 2016 by jmar198013

The manuscript for my sermon this coming Sunday, March 6, 2016. Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Texts are:

Joshua 5.9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5.16-21 (Harmony text)

Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32 (Melody text)

Below is an audio link for those who’d rather listen.


Dinner party drama

In the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel—so just one chapter before our Gospel lesson today—Jesus had gotten himself invited to a Pharisee dinner party.

Now, if you read Luke 14, you can only draw one conclusion about Jesus: Rudest. Dinner. Guest. Ever.

At some point during the meal, Jesus looked around and realized that he was surrounded by nothing but successful suburbanites. Little boxes on the hillside. White picket fences. A bunch of paper pushers. Small business owners. The kind of guys who’d get all amped up if the Chamber of Commerce asked them to be the after dinner speaker. Church goers, all. Jesus found their company diabolically bland, and suggested they invite some groovier people to dinner next time. Next time you host a lunch or dinner, he said, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind (Luke 14.13-14).

I have to give the Pharisees some credit. They rolled with it pretty well. Took the high ground. Turned the other cheek. I’d have tore Jesus a new one. I’d have said: Dude, you need to chill out! We invited you to this dinner party, and you’re pretty lame. You should be grateful.

I’d have said: We already feed the poor and the disabled, Jesus. Why do we have to invite them into our homes, to eat at our tables? They’re creepy-looking. They smell bad. We don’t know where they’ve been!

Well, a couple days or so later—and that’s where our Gospel lesson today picked up—the Pharisees Jesus insulted decided to get even. He ruined their dinner party. They were going to ruin his.

What they did is, they showed up to a dinner party he was hosting, and started talking trash about the folks on his guest-list. A bunch of reprobates. Trailer trash. Drunks and junkies. Welfare queens. And worst of all, those nasty race-traitor tax collectors. Gross. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, they grumbled.

In other words, How despicable! How dare he criticize us over who we invite to dinner? Just look at the scumbags he’s eating with! Disgusting!

In other words, We’re offended! How come he never invites us over for dinner! Look at all the fun these people are having and they don’t deserve it!

And Jesus had them right where he wanted. Those Pharisees didn’t realize it, but when they started calling Jesus out for eating with the wrong people, they’d just grabbed a carrot with a string attached. The trap had been sprung. Another teaching moment. Jesus was always itching to tell a good story. And he’d been working on a zinger for his Pharisee friends. A certain man had two sons. That’s how the story began.

And we know the rest, right?

A certain man had two sons

A certain man had two sons. Those words alone can flood a person’s heart with warm fuzzies of remembrance. Even folks who’ve never graced a sanctuary with their presence know this story, and cherish it. This tale told once upon a dinner table. Even if people can’t quite bring themselves to believe it, they sure want to.

They call it the parable of the Prodigal Son. We like that. We love our blessed assurance that, no matter how much of a mess we have made, Father God will rush to embrace us at the slightest hint of repentance. Even if we don’t do a very good job at repenting. In theory—in the abstract, at least—we love knowing that we are forgiven. Or at least, that we could be, if the need ever arose.

Of course, it’s not just theoretical for some of us. Some of us have wandered into the far off country. We have made every mistake you can make. We have gone forth and sinned boldly. We have amassed debts—in the words of Bruce Springsteen—“that no honest man can pay.” We’ve been down in the pig pen, hungry and hungover, for so long that we forgot how we got there in the first place. Some of us—like the younger son—only came home because we were starving and didn’t know what else to do.

Some of us have been the tax collectors and sinners Jesus invited to his supper table. We may even have been met with suspicion and disgust by the Pharisees of our time. That’s our story. And when Jesus stands up for these younger brothers, these prodigal children, it fills us with hope. Because we know God’s on our side. We are forgiven. We are welcomed. We are home. Jesus said so.

Then again, the story is certainly not just about the younger son. The one we call the prodigal. Remember, the story begins:  A certain man had two sons. There’s that other son, too. That pouting older brother. The one who refuses to come in and join the welcome home party. The one who can’t even bring himself to call the prodigal, brother. This son of yours. That’s what he says to their father.

In theory, we know the older brother is the stand-in for the Pharisees. They were lighting into Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. We have been trained to view the Pharisees as bad guys. But just to the extent that we treat the Pharisees as distant Others, we cannot see clearly when we are behaving like them. Oh, we can diagnose the Pharisaic tendencies in our neighbors, but we justify them in our own hearts.

Besides, the older brother—the Pharisee of the story—he appeals to justice and reason. Some of what he says makes good sense. The younger son has shamed their father. He has cost the family a fortune they will never be able to recover. Why should his father be so eager to welcome him home? Why this extravagant party? Maybe the father should be gracious enough to take him back. Eventually. And quietly. On a trial basis. And only after the younger son has proven that he is truly repentant. Maybe the younger son should be a slave for a while. Otherwise, what is to stop him from taking advantage of his father again? How many more times will his father have to bail him out, if he is so soft on him now? But this party. Inviting the neighbors. With music and dancing and a fatted calf, even? Isn’t he just rewarding his younger son’s bad behavior?

Even old prodigals—once they’ve gotten used to being at home again—can start thinking like the older brother. We can forget our time in the pigpen. We can forget what it was like to be lost and hungry and alone. We break in our new sandals. We fill out again, so that new robe actually fits us. We no longer notice the weight or the sparkle of that ring on our finger. The songs of homecoming fade from our hearing. We might even get to feeling entitled to our place at the table.

See how easy it is? We might even start thanking our Father God for welcoming us back home when we were prodigal sons and daughters, so we could take up our rightful places as elder brothers and sisters.

Like Henri Nouwen used to say, It’s hard to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother.

A certain man had two sons

A certain man had two sons. That’s how Jesus began his story. We know the story well enough to know that the certain man is Father God. The tax collectors and sinners Jesus has invited to dinner are the younger son who left home, but came back. The Pharisees—angry at Jesus for eating with tax collectors—are the older son. The point is clear: Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand that these tax collectors and sinners never stopped being God’s children. Not in Father God’s eyes. So they are still my sisters and brothers, Jesus is saying. And yours. Why won’t you join us for dinner? There’s an invitation hidden in the story Jesus told once upon a dinner table: We have to celebrate and be glad because these brothers and sisters of yours were dead and are alive. They were lost and are found. Jesus was inviting the Pharisees to hang up their hang ups and take a seat at the table.

A certain man had two sons. The younger son had deserted his father. He had wasted his inheritance. Completely abandoned his identity. He had sold out to the enemy just to survive out there. He would say to his father, I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands. In his heart, he had decided that he was no longer a son, but a slave. His father had other plans, though. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found! No matter how far away he went; or how badly he had compromised himself, he was always his father’s son.

The older son had stayed home and done all the right things with his life. But, sadly enough, he had never quite learned to think of himself as a son. He saw himself as a slave. In this way, he was not so different from the younger son. Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction, he says. Just like the younger son, the father has to remind him that he is a son, not a slave: Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours, says his father. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.

All the father wanted was for his two sons to be home with him. To know they were sons, and not slaves. And to recognize that they were brothers.

All Jesus wanted was for the tax collectors and the Pharisees to share a table with him. To know that they were all God’s children. And to eat together like a family.

So what does Father God want from us? Father God wants us know that we are his children. And so are our neighbors. Even the ones who have gone off into the far countries of rebellion or addiction or the sex trade or hatred or violence. Wherever it is they’ve gone. They, too, are our sisters and brothers. Father God wants us to watch with him for their return. To run with him to embrace them. To make room at the table for them—even if it means, as I’ve seen it written, we have to “build a bigger table.” [1]

Reconciled [2]

A father begging his older son to come in and celebrate the homecoming feast for his brother. That’s where Jesus left his story. That was his way of leaving the door open for the Pharisees to come join him at a table full of tax collectors and sinners.

If the older son decides to come on in and join the feast—to take his place at the table with his father and brother—what would we call that? What has happened for this man and his two sons?

If the Pharisees accept Jesus’ invitation to join the tax collectors and sinners for dinner with him, what would we call that? What do we call it when enemies and strangers can sit down and share a meal together?

We call it reconciliation. The two sons would have been reconciled to their father. The Pharisees and the tax collectors would be reconciled by Jesus.

Now, we heard that term in our reading from one of Paul’s letters today. Paul wrote that: God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them.

How did that work? How, according to Paul, was God reconciling the world—that means everybody and everything—to himself through Christ? Well, Paul says it worked like this: God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.

Thanks for clarifying, Paul.

I suspect our Gospel lesson today—this story Jesus told once upon a dinner table—can help us grasp what Paul was saying.

Like the younger son, Jesus Christ—God’s Son—took a trip to a land far away. The Gospel of John says it this way: The Word became flesh and made his home among us (John 1.14). The Son of God became fully human. The human experience is the far away land to which Jesus traveled. Unlike the younger son, Christ did not leave his Father’s house out of rebellion or pride or selfishness. Christ went out in obedience, humility, and love. He came to be with us in the pig pen. He got dirty with us. He got dirty for us. Jesus suffered homelessness, hunger, and loneliness right along with us.

The younger son in the story Jesus told wasted his wealth through extravagant living. But Jesus gave his up voluntarily. He shared himself everywhere he went. He freely gave compassion and healing and friendship and love to everyone he met. And when he had given everything, and only had his body left to give, he gave that, too. He died with us. He died for us.

And then he went home. And Father God welcomed him back. His lost Son is home again. His Son who had died is alive again.

And since Jesus—the Son of God—had lived and suffered and died as a human, when he went back home to God, he brought humanity with him. All of us. Pharisees and tax collectors. Prodigal sons and elder brothers. When Father God embraced Jesus the Son and welcomed him home, he embraced us all. The world has been reconciled to Father God. We are all welcome at the table.

Making room at the table

So then, says Paul, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. We don’t get to carve the world up into friends and enemies. God’s children and not God’s children. Insiders and outsiders. My people and not my people. My sisters and brothers, not my sisters and brothers. No, says Paul. Instead, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! That means that those of us who know we have been reconciled to Father God through Christ have a new world opened to us. Knowing that we are forgiven, that we are reconciled, means we live and move and have our being afresh here and now. For a new creation is already dawning.

Paul says that those of us who are in Christ have been trusted by God with this message of reconciliation. We have been welcomed by Christ and through Christ to the homecoming feast God has prepared for his sons and daughters who were lost. And now we tell the world—our neighbors, even our enemies, even the people who frustrate us and annoy us—that there is room for them at our table. And actually making room at our table for them. Even if it means building a bigger table.

We know this because Jesus told a story once upon a dinner table about two brothers who needed to be reconciled to their father, and to each other. And then Jesus invited some brothers who hated each other to be reconciled at that very table.

We know this because once upon a dinner table Jesus shared his bread and wine with twelve of his brothers. Most of them would turn on him and run into the night within a few hours, and he knew it. One of them—Peter—would openly deny that he even knew who Jesus was. Another—Judas—would lead his killers right to him. Jesus knew that, too. And still, to all of them—even Peter, even Judas—he said: This is my body, which is given for you . . . This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you (Luke 22.19-20). His body was broken and his blood poured out even for Peter and Judas.

And even for you and me. And even for all the Pharisees and sinners, the prodigal sons and daughters and elder brothers and sisters, who don’t yet know that they are reconciled.

That means we don’t get to write anyone off. It means we no longer look at people and only see labels. Because when the Word of God became flesh; when the Son of God entered the faraway land of earthbound flesh-and-blood and became fully human; he restored the image of God in humanity. Now we can look at our neighbors and see a family resemblance. They are all our sisters and our brothers now. Even if they don’t know it.


[1]Pavlovitz, John. “Breaking Bread With Heretics: The Table of God’s Hospitality.” John Pavlovitz. February 22, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/02/22/breaking-bread-with-heretics-the-table-of-gods-hospitality/.

[2] I shamelessly stole this movement of the sermon from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, pt. 2, c.15, § 64.


2 thoughts on “Once upon a dinner table (Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32; 2 Cor. 5.16-21) [Sermon 03/06/2016, Lent 4c]

  1. I am twice jealous. Once, for you being done with your sermon already. Twice, for it being so awesome!

    I was going to do something similar, except I’ll concentrate on the Luke 15 passage, and focus on the younger brother. (Our Sunday school is doing an extended skit on the Prodigal! So, my sermon needs to be shorter this coming Sunday.) I thought your progression through the text was excellent. (Of course, Barth.) God’s blessings as you and your congregation worship this weekend.

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