March 17, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for March 19, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
The text this week is Luke 15.
Resources I used for this sermon include:
Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 142-47.
Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 184-90.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 568-86.
Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 306-17.
Bernard Brandon Scott. Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 99-125.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen:
Dinner table drama
Today’s readings begin with a scene that’s become increasingly common as we read through Luke’s Gospel: Jesus does something the Pharisees and scribes don’t like, and they grumble about it.
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Now, here’s something interesting. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this very controversy in Luke. Right after Jesus called Levi from his tax collector booth to come follow him as a disciple, Luke said the exact same thing went down. Here’s Luke 5.29-30:
Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus in his home. A large number of tax collectors and others sat down to eat with them. The Pharisees and their legal experts grumbled against his disciples. They said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus spoke up and told the Pharisees and their scribes why he and his followers ate with tax collectors and sinners: Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives (Luke 5.31-32).
Jesus made some pretty radical moves by saying that. First—and this is so important—he moved the discussion of sin from a crime that needs to be punished to an illness that needs to be healed. And we all know Jesus is a healer. Deut. 30.2-3 says when God’s people repent—when they return to the Lord—God will restore you as you were—that’s healing—and have compassion on you, gathering you up from all the peoples where the Lord your God scattered you. The tax collectors and sinners who are turning to Jesus are returning to God. And so Jesus is restoring them—healing them of their shame, bringing them back into fellowship and life in healthy community. The tax collectors and sinners gathered around a dinner table with Jesus are a fulfillment of God’s promise to gather up the scattered sons and daughters of Israel.
But by reframing sin as sickness, and forgiveness as healing and restoration—by saying, Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do—Jesus has issued a warning to the Pharisees and their scribes who are so outraged over him eating with tax collectors and sinners. Their outrage is a sign that they also are very sick and need to be healed. One of the books written between the Old and New Testaments puts it like this: Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28.3-4) The tax collectors and sinners have come to Jesus for healing and been restored to God. But by their anger over this development, the scribes and Pharisees are resisting their own healing.
I guess the Pharisees and their scribes didn’t “get it,” because we find them in our lesson today, ten chapters later, still fuming over Jesus’ dinner companions.
Lost and found
I imagine that when Jesus overheard the Pharisees and legal experts grumbling about him eating with tax collectors and sinners, he sighed and thought to himself: Really?! Not this again! But Jesus is a patient teacher.
Here’s what Jesus did. There’s a particular kind of sympathy that’s aroused when you meet a dog that’s gotten separated from its family; or you find some child’s lost teddy bear dropped in a random aisle of the supermarket. And every fiber of your being longs to see that dog make it home, or that teddy bear snuggled in the arms of the child you know is desperately missing it. Lost things tug at our hearts until they are found again. It’s always a compelling story. And that’s the way Jesus now frames the situation of these social and religious outcasts he’s eating with. They were lost, but now they’ve been found.
And so he asks:
Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders.
Maybe some of those Pharisees and scribes would say: Of course I wouldn’t leave the other ninety-nine by themselves to go look for the one! When I got back, the rest might be gone, too! But that’s where they go wrong. Because if God is willing to give up on one of his sheep for the sake of the many, then none of the sheep is really safe or secure. Because if that were the case, if one of us wanders off and is lost, God would just leave us to die in the wilderness. But Jesus wanted the Pharisees and scribes to know—and he wants us to know it, too—God is willing to risk great sacrifice for any of us. The entire flock can be secure knowing that if we get lost, God will look for us. And when he finds us, he will triumphantly place us over his strong shoulders and gently carry us home.
And then Jesus asks: Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? The implication is, this woman is poor, and ten coins represent her family’s entire savings. One coin might not mean much to a Pharisee, who tended to be wealthy. But it could mean everything for this woman’s family. A Pharisee might even chuckle at this poor woman, frantically sweeping every nook and cranny of her home looking for the lost coin. It’ll turn up eventually, they might say. Or, If she’s so poor, she should take better care of her money! But Jesus wanted the Pharisees and scribes to know—and he wants us to know—that God is as devastated by the loss of any one of us as a poor woman would be by the loss of one coin.
Jesus ends both of his stories the same way. The shepherd and the woman both invite their friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me!” They want all their friends and neighbors to share in that special joy that comes from finding something you lost. Jesus says that same joy breaks out in heaven—Father God celebrates with his angels—every time a sinner repents and comes home.
Jesus is the shepherd looking for the lost sheep. He’s that woman combing her house for the lost coin. And when the lost one is found, he celebrates with his friends and neighbors—just like Father God in heaven is celebrating with the angels.
The Pharisees and scribes are also friends and neighbors of God—at least they say they are. So why won’t they come and celebrate with Jesus over the lost sheep of Israel coming home? There’s room at the table for them, too.
And that’s what the next story Jesus tells is all about.
A lost son
Jesus begins his third lost-and-found story: A certain man had two sons. Have you noticed he’s been raising the stakes? First, a shepherd wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep loses one. Then, a poor woman loses one coin out of ten. Now, this man has only two sons. The loss of either will absolutely devastate him.
The man with two sons in this story is obviously wealthy and important. He has servants and animals and enough money to leave a sizable inheritance to his sons. The younger of the two sons asks the father to divide the family estate so he can have his share of the inheritance before his father dies. Again, there was a writing from the time between the Old and New Testaments that warns against doing this. Sir. 33.20-24 says:
Don’t give [a] son … authority over you in your lifetime and don’t give your property to someone else … don’t bring a stain on your reputation. On the last day of your life, at the moment of death, distribute your inheritance.
But Jesus says the man acquiesced: the father divided his estate between them. Of course, the man with two sons represents Father God. And even though his younger son threatened to bring a stain on his father’s reputation, the father allows him what he asks for. An anonymous preacher of the Reformation put it like this:
God does not draw anyone against his will to salvation, but allows the wicked to take their own course … The portion of goods which God gives to everyone is, to some, eloquence, to others, wisdom, or riches, or strength, or knowledge, or place of honor—all of which we are likely to abuse.
Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. The Old Testament has trained us to identify with the younger son. Righteous Abel. Faithful Isaac. Crafty Jacob. But this young man frustrates our expectations. He acts in some ways more like Jacob’s older brother Esau, selling his birthright. And then he goes to a land far away.
Then again, the younger son Jacob ran away from home as a young man under some dodgy circumstances, and became quite wealthy and important himself while in a land far away. Jacob’s younger son Joseph had been sort of a brat to his older brothers. He went to a land far away, and his father thought him dead and lost. But he not only became quite powerful—he saved the lives of his family!
But that’s not how it went with the younger son in our story. Jesus says he wasted his wealth through extravagant living in the land far away. Later on, his older brother will accuse him of gobbling up [their father’s] estate on prostitutes. Jesus doesn’t say anything about that. Jesus only says that the younger son was unwise and wasteful with his inheritance. There are very many things a young man can blow an inheritance on that don’t involve prostitutes.
To make matters worse, no sooner than he’d burned through all daddy’s money, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.
Did the younger son make unwise decisions? Yes, but so do many young people—and some not so young. But now, he’s lost and he’s stuck and he’s starving to death. He’s sold his birthright, burned his bridges, and he’s far away from home and no one cares if he lives or dies.
Jesus tells us the young man was feeding the pigs. Pigs are the ultimate unclean animals in the Jewish purity code, so he’s not just degraded—he’s a sell-out. Now we see what Jesus is doing. Some of Jesus’ Jewish neighbors referred to unclean Gentile nations—like Rome—as pigs. The younger son is feeding the pigs. Just like the tax collectors Jesus had befriended; the Pharisees and the scribes would have seen them as sell-outs feeding the Roman pigs.
Jesus wants the scribes and Pharisees to show a little empathy to the tax collectors and sinners.
A son is found
Jesus says the younger son came to his senses. Came to his senses doesn’t mean he repented. It means he sees his condition for what it is, and admits to himself that he’s hit rock bottom and he’s in trouble. No one cares about a Jewish kid who’s sold out his birthright, cut himself off from his family, and has to feed pigs. Can’t you imagine the tax collectors and sinners who came to Jesus feeling this way? Their neighbors hated them, and it’s not like the Romans were their friends, either.
The younger son doesn’t imagine that he can ever be called a son again. But he knows he can’t stay where he’s at, either. So he thinks to himself …
How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.”
Now we are getting in the vicinity of repentance; when the younger son decides: I will get up and go to my father. Biblical repentance isn’t an event—it’s a process. It’s a journey. It means turning around from whatever you’re doing, no matter how far you’ve gone, and going back to Father God. You don’t even have to have a fully-developed idea of what it means to return to Father God. After all, this younger son didn’t think he was going home to be a son again. He imagined if he sounded humble enough, maybe his father would let him come be a day laborer.
So, Jesus says, he got up and went to his father. Later on in the New Testament, James 4.8 says: Come near to God, and he will come near to you. And that is just what happened: While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.
Right out there where everybody in the whole village could see him! Notice, too—the man embraces his young son out of compassion. Not because the son confesses his sin or grovels in front of his father. Now listen—it isn’t the father who speaks of sin and shame. It’s the younger son—and the father doesn’t even let him finish. The father is moved by compassion as soon as he sees his son coming back toward home. Jesus has taught: Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate (Luke 6.36). This father’s compassion gives us a stunning glimpse into the compassion of Father God. The Father who rushes to embrace the child who wandered, but is coming home. The child doesn’t even have to have noble reasons for coming home. After all, the younger son only came home because he was hungry.
The father refuses to let his son come live with him as a slave. He will only have him back as a son. To show this, he commands his servants first to bring out the best robe and put it on him! Sort of like the special robe Jacob made for his favored son, Joseph. Then to put a ring on his finger. Like in Gen. 41.42, when Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand. This reestablishes the son’s place in the household as a son, not a servant. The same is true for the father telling them to put sandals on his feet—showing that he’s free to walk around the home. He has been fully reinstated as a son.
And then the father orders a big steak dinner, saying: We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found! The father is celebrating just like the shepherd who found his sheep, and the woman who found her coin. Jesus continues to frame the discussion in terms of healing—the dead son is alive again—and what was lost being found.
He wants the scribes and Pharisees to see that the tax collectors and sinners they’re grumbling about have already repented. They’ve already come home. They were some of the first to respond to John the Baptist’s preaching. And now they’ve flocked to Jesus. Their presence at Jesus’ table, and Jesus’ presence at theirs is a sign that their homecoming is being celebrated.
Finding the other son
Jesus could have ended the story there, but he didn’t. Remember, the man had another son. There was the older brother. In the other stories Jesus told, the one lost sheep was reunited with other ninety-nine, so the flock was whole again. The one lost coin was restored to the others, making ten.
The question now is: The lost brother has been found. Will the brothers be united, and the household restored?
While the father responded with compassion and celebration when his younger son came home; the older brother responds with anger and bitterness. He wouldn’t even come inside to join the feast in honor of his brother. Instead, he stayed outside, seething and sulking.
The younger brother had brought a stain on his father’s reputation by running away from home and blowing his inheritance. Now it’s the older brother’s turn to shame his father: by refusing to join the celebration. Refusing to share his father’s joy. But the gentle, compassionate father who ran out of the house to meet his younger son; now leaves the house to find his older son. The man begged him to come in and join the feast.
But the younger son will not join the father and their friends and neighbors in celebrating the lost son’s homecoming. That’s different—in the other two stories Jesus told, no one refused to join the shepherd’s celebration over finding the lost sheep; or the woman’s over the lost and found coin. But the older brother refuses to celebrate his father’s son, his lost brother, being found. He tells his father:
Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes—how would he know? he wasn’t there!—you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.
That’s the older son’s problem. He doesn’t see himself as the beloved son of a compassionate father, but as the slave of a stingy master. The father in this story is a stand-in for God. We become like whatever God we worship, you know. If you think of God as a merciless slave-driver, that’s how you’ll be. That’s what’s happened to the older brother. He has no compassion on his brother. He won’t even claim him as a brother. He calls him this son of yours.
Some people just can’t stand to see anyone receive anything they think the other person hans’t earned. The older brother thinks his brother hasn’t gotten what he deserves—to be punished and shamed and cut off from the family. He also thinks he hasn’t been given what he deserves—a big steak dinner for him and his friends. Then again, he never thought to ask.
But his father keeps pleading: Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We all can see that the older brother stands for the Pharisees and scribes, who didn’t appreciate Jesus celebrating with tax collectors and sinners. By telling this story, Jesus is telling them they are still God’s beloved children. They don’t lose their place at the table just because the tax collectors and sinners have come home. God will just build a bigger table!
The story ends with the father saying: But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found. The father insists to the older son that not only is his place in the family secure; he is his brother’s brother, whether he wants to be or not!
And that’s what Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to see. All of that. There’s room for all of them at Jesus’ table! Father God wants them all to celebrate with him!
That’s where Jesus leaves the story—with the father’s invitation to come join the feast. And that’s where the story is left with us now, too. There’s room at God’s table for us all. Those who stayed and served. And those who were lost, but now are found.