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"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'"
The Pharisees and scribes just don't understand Jesus and His attitude towards 'sinners.' He "receives" them. That is, He welcomes them. He doesn't keep His distance from them. He doesn't put up those barriers that keep them from getting too close to Him. You know what I mean, the body language, the tone of voice that makes it very clear that I'm not going to let you get too close.
And He "eats" with them. To "eat" with them is a shorthand way of saying that he eats and drinks with them. He actually enjoys Himself with them and they with Him.
But it's not just the fact that Jesus keeps bad company or the improper recognition of class distinctions and the social boundary busting that makes them so upset with Jesus. If He enjoys Himself with that class of people, so be it. Maybe He lacks self-esteem or maybe He's strange, who knows. That's not the real issue.
What caused them to "grumble" was the fact that Jesus was giving these sinners religion. He was offering them a relationship with almighty God. He was offering sinners the grace of God, the forgiveness of their sins, the assurance of God's love and acceptance, the promise of eternal life. He was telling them that they were included in the covenant of Abraham.
That is what caused them to grumble. That was wrong. They didn't deserve to have these things given to them. They were tax collectors and sinners. They lived "far away" from the Father. If they wanted to have a relationship with God and participate in the blessings of the covenant, there were steps to follow and rules to be kept. Let them turn from their sinful ways and get their act together. Then we'll talk about restoration and reconciliation with God. Then we'll talk about receiving them and eating with them. Jesus was being much to free with God's gifts giving them away to wretches like these.
And their resentment went even deeper. Not only did they think that Jesus was too gracious with sinners, but He didn't adequately appreciate their piety and holiness. Didn't he realize that by giving sinners the same gifts of God that they were used to getting He was making sinners equal with them? How unfair was that? What gave Him the right to treat them so poorly? What did all of their piety and religion do for them if sinners get the same rewards? Where was their recognition for living a holy life, regular in worship attendance and tithing on the gross, if sinners, who don't do any of these things, receive all the same benefits?
And so in response to their grumbling about his receiving sinners and eating with them, Jesus tells this remarkable story about a father who has two sons. One son openly rejects his father and publicly breaks the relationship between the two by leaving the house. We can almost hear the younger son shouting over his shoulder for his father to hear, "I'm never coming back to this place. I can't wait to be free of you and live on my own and do as I please." In a small, middle-eastern village where houses are close together, everyone sees the kid walking down the road leading out of town. And everyone is embarrassed for the father and mad at the boy for treating his father so shamefully.
Jesus embellishes the life of the younger son. He goes to an unnamed "far country" which could be anywhere as long as it's away from his father. There, he quickly discovers that a buck doesn't go as far as he thought it would. And he learns the meaning of that constant tune his father's used to sing while he lived at home – "don't you know that money doesn't grow on trees."
He's broke. But rather than go back home, his pride demands that he do whatever he has to in order to survive on his own, away from his father. So, what's this good Jewish boy do? He goes to work for a "citizen of that country." Which sounds innocent enough until Jesus embellishes the story even more with that gory little detail that the "citizen" was a pig farmer.
Just try to picture the Pharisees and scribes as they listen to Jesus spin this tale. "Pig farmer." "Oi vey." Suddenly the tax collectors and sinners don't look nearly so bad. But lets be sure to notice that as Jesus paints a picture of "a sinner," He doesn't create a "respectable sinner." He's not minimizing the offense of the younger son as if to say, "you know, these sinners aren't really so bad once you get to know them." No, Jesus paints a picture of a truly pathetic person.
Eventually, the young man hits rock bottom. "He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything." He had longed to be out from under his father's thumb and now he finds himself under the thumb of a foreigner. He had longed to free of the confines of his father's house, and now he finds himself confined to a pigsty. He was sick of his father's food and longed to eat more exotic fare from other tables, and now he longs to be fed with pig food.
His pride is crumbling but it goes deep and it's not easily broken. He has yet another plan for how he might save his life and his face at the same time. "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'"
He figures he'd fill out an application for whatever work might be available around the father's house and in that place where it asked for "references," he'd put his father's name. If the plan worked, he'd at least have something to eat and a roof over his head. He'd save up his wages and before you could say, 'compound interest,' he'd be able to strike out on his own again.
And with that, we come to the crucial moment. Will the Father receive His prodigal son? Will the Father eat with His son? Or, will the Father slam the door in the Son's face and disown Him because "he sinned against heaven and [Him]?" And is therefore "no longer worthy to be called his son?"
And the terrible answer is, the Father punished His Son with the full measure of His wrath and anger. He handed His Son over to the executioner and had Him flogged unmercifully until His body was a mangled mass of flesh and blood. And then He had His son nailed to a cross and left to die. And when, from the cross, the Son pleaded with the Father for mercy, the Father turned His back Him, even as He cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
And the Father saw all of this while His sinful children were still a long way off. He saw this from all eternity. And because He sees this, His Son, His only Son, whom He loves, crucified for sinners, for His sake, He is "filled with compassion" for this sinner and for every sinner, and He runs to the sinner and embraces the sinner in His arms. And there is laughter and crying and hugging and kissing and the angels in heaven are singing and dancing. They're sharing in the Father's joy over this "My son who was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found."
And then, there's the older son. As Jesus paints the picture of the older son, he also lives in a "far country." He still lives at home, probably still eats a meal or two with the old man, but there's hardly any conversation, the son eats quickly and asks to be dismissed. He never inquirers as to how his father is doing or asks for his opinion or advice. Anytime his father tries to start a conversation with him, he gives short, one or two word answers making it clear he has no intention of letting his father into his life. He has his life and his friends, and his father is not a part of it.
The older son is so distant he doesn't even know that his brother has come home. Coming in from the far away fields where he was working, he hears the celebration going on in his father's house and has to ask the servants what it's all about. Then, once he learns what the commotion's all about, he stages a public protest and refuses to go inside and share in his father's joy. The fact that his father is so happy makes him so angry.
So, once again, everyone is embarrassed for the Father who has to bear this public humiliation of another rebellious son. And once again, Jesus brings the story to a point of crisis. How will the Father respond to his older son? Will He command his servants to bind the boy and give him a good beating for his insolent behavior? Which is just what all the other fathers at the party expect him to do so their older sons don't get any crazy ideas.
But no, once again, the father humbles Himself. He gets up from his seat at the head table, in front of everyone, "and His father came out and ENTREATED him." Picture it. This respectable middle-eastern father begging his son to come inside and join in the celebration and share in his joy.
Now since Jesus is the one telling this story, He can tell it however he chooses. Wouldn't it be wonderful if He were to put a happy ending to it? "And the older brother kissed his father's cheek, took his father's arm and entered the banquet hall, and for the sake of his father, he embraced his younger brother and said, 'Welcome home bro. You've made Pop so happy for which I am so thankful." And turning to everyone in the house says, 'This round's on me.'
But Jesus doesn't tell it that way does He? The older son is so angry that he can't even bring himself to address his father as "Abba," but disrespectfully says, "Look!" Refusing even to recognize his relationship with his own brother he refers to him as "your son." And then, just loud enough for every mother with a single daughter to hear, he uses the boy's name and the words, "with prostitutes" in the same sentence. He neither loves his father or his brother. He neither loves his father nor his brother.
And why is the older son so angry with his father for receiving this sinner and eating with him? Because it's not fair. "Look, all these years I've served you." All this time he's thought of himself as a servant and never as a son. It was all tedious work to him. Chores that had to be done. Obligations that had to be kept. "And you never gave me even a young goat that I might celebrate with MY friends."
And the father is patient and pleads with his older son, whom he loves just as much as He does his younger son. "SON, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found."
And at that, the story stops. It doesn't end. It just stops. The curtain remains open. The father is standing there with arms wide open towards his older son. Guests are all leaning forward, frozen in place. Everyone is waiting to see how the older son will respond?
And the unspoken lesson to the Pharisees and scribes is this. "Do you want to know why I receive sinners and eat with them? Because if I don't, then I can't receive and eat with you."
The older son's response will come on Good Friday. His response will be, "crucify him, crucify him." And only then, will Jesus bring this story to its end saying, "It is finished."
"And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So, you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God." (Galatians 4:6-7)