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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.’”
It’s not that they thought that they weren’t sinners. The Pharisees and Scribes would have been perfectly comfortable joining right in with our ‘Confession of Sins’ at the beginning of the service. They knew that they were ‘sinners’ because that’s what God’s Word says they are. They were sinners….generally speaking.
They would however, have had a difficult time identifying any ‘actual sin.’ They would not quite know just what to do with that time before the Confession for self-examination. They would have drawn a blank any specifics to confess.
The difference between themselves and those “tax collectors and sinners” was that you could identify their ‘actual sins.’ That was easy. The Kingdom of God with all of its divine blessings did not belong to ‘actual sinners.’ But Jesus was offering it to them. In fact, He was treating them as if it actually belonged to them. And this is why they “grumbled.”
And Jesus responds to their “grumbling” with three, wonderful stories. One is about a shepherd who searches for one, lost sheep BECAUSE IT BELONGS TO HIM; another is about a woman who searches for a lost coin BECAUSE IT BELONGS TO HER; and then, the one before us this morning, about a father who longs for the return of his TWO lost sons BECAUSE THEY BELONG TO HIM.
We sometimes call this parable “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But that only covers half of the parable – the half addressed to the ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ But there is that part of this parable that is addressed to the “Pharisees and Scribes.” They are all ‘LOST.’ And Jesus wants them all to come home. Why? BECAUSE THEY BELONG TO HIM.
A much better title for this parable would be, “The Loving Father.” That directs our attention to the real subject of this story. Jesus gives us a picture of a man who has what we will call, ‘a foolish love’ for his two sons. ‘Foolish,’ because the Father must swallow all of His pride and play the ‘fool’ in front of the whole community. But He does it. Why? Because, what kind of Father would He be if He didn’t?
I. The Younger Son
The story begins with an introduction of the main characters. “There is a man who had two sons.”
And immediately there is tension. “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ This is not a request, it is a demand.
One son 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.”
Some of you may find yourself thinking, “Oh yea, I’ve been there and done that.” And others of you may find yourself thinking, “What a jerk. I would never do anything like that.”
In either case, in a small, middle-eastern village where houses are close together, everyone sees the kid strutting 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. And you can bet that every other father is at least a bit peeved with this father for letting his son get away with this. This will make it hard for them to keep their own sons in line.
But if that kid ever decides to return, they’ll be sure to give him the discipline he deserves.
The boy goes to an unnamed “far country” which could be anywhere as long as it’s away from his father. He just wants to be free of the Father’s rules and regulations, all of which he feels stifle his freedom and independent spirit.
But 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.”
It doesn’t take long at all before he’s broke. But he hasn’t lost his pride. Rather than go back home, 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 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 let’s 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 that everyone back home despises. And maybe we do to.
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 finds himself under the thumb of a foreigner, who doesn’t even feed him.
His pride is crumbling but it goes deep and it’s not easily broken. He has 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 can 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 rebellious son? Or, will the Father slam the door in the Son’s face and disown Him because “he sinned against heaven and [Him]?” Would he refuse to receive him and eat with him?
And the terrible answer is, “YES.” The Father punished His Son with the full measure of His 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 cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” the Father turned His back.
And the Father saw all of this while His prodigal 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 him and embraces the sinner in His ‘FOOLISH LOVE.’
And before the son can offer his plan for what he will do to earn his way back into the father’s good graces, the Father cuts him off and dresses him in the best robe, puts the ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, so that all the whole community will know that he has been fully accepted by the Father and completely restored to sonship.
And there is laughter and crying and hugging and kissing and the angels in heaven are singing and dancing. And all because “This, MY SON was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
“And they began to celebrate.” The celebration being in honor of the FATHER, for His “FOOLISH LOVE” proved to be right. He has WHAT BELONGS TO HIM.
II. The Older Son
And then, there’s the older son, who represents the Pharisees and Scribes. As Jesus paints the picture of the older son, he also lives in a “far country.” While all of this is going on, the older son, Jesus says, was “out in the field.”
Even though the older son lives in the father’s house and has never left it, he is so distant from the father, 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 is told by the servant what all the commotion is about, he stages a public protest and refuses to go inside and share in his father’s joy.
The younger son staged his public protest by leaving the father’s house. The older son stages his public protest by refusing to enter it.
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. Oh, what “foolish love” the Father has for His older son.
And inside the house, the music has stopped, and everyone is watching out the windows.
Now since Jesus is the one telling this story, He can tell it however he chooses. How will the tension be resolved? And Jesus said, “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.” 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.
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. To him, it was all tedious work with no reward “And you never gave me even a young goat that I might celebrate with MY friends,” who are clearly NOT the kind of friends that “you receive and eat with.”
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 if they will only hear it 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. It will be, “crucify him, crucify him.” And only then, will Jesus bring this story to its end. “It is finished.”
“It is finished for the tax collectors and sinners.” “It is finished for the Pharisees and the Scribes.” It is finished for you.
There banquet table is set. The celebration is about to begin. Come home, and make the Father’s joy complete.