© 2022 Evan D. Garner
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” grumbled the Pharisees and scribes—the most faithful Jews of Jesus’ day. So Jesus told them a story. Actually, Jesus told them three stories. Although we don’t have time to hear all of them in church this morning, I bet you’re familiar with all three, though you may not have remembered that Jesus told them one after another to make his point.
First was the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd who left the ninety-nine behind in order to go and search for the one that was lost. When he found it, he called together his neighbors and friends in order to celebrate that the one which had been lost was now found. The second parable Jesus told was that of the lost coin and the woman who swept her house in search of it. When she found the coin that had been lost, she, too, called together her neighbors and friends to celebrate.
I can imagine the religious leaders hearing those first two stories and getting a sense of what Jesus was trying to teach them—that his ministry among tax collectors and notorious sinners was good and holy work. They might prefer to hob nob with the goody-goodies of their day, but the scum of the earth needed a rabbi, too. Jesus seemed to be teaching them that it was ok for him to throw a party because those who had been cut off from the family of God had found in his ministry a way to come back. That’s a nice sentiment. But then Jesus told them the third story and forced the Pharisees and scribes to confront their own lostness.
I have a hard time coming up with a contemporary parallel that conveys the level of disrespect and betrayal displayed by the prodigal son in Jesus’ story. Disputes over inheritance issues arose all the time, and a son might ask his father to go ahead and set aside what he was to inherit in order to make sure it didn’t get lost in the shuffle, but after that neither father nor son would be allowed to sell the designated property and spend the money until the parent’s death. For the son in Jesus’ parable to spend it on anything was itself a rejection of the parent-child relationship, which was sacrosanct, and to spend it recklessly in dissolute living was simply unthinkable.
Imagine Jesus telling a story about a child who stuck their parent in a substandard nursing home and pocketed their Social Security checks in order to use that money to fuel a gambling habit. But that’s not all. In the parable Jesus tells, the prodigal son, once things go south, hires himself out to a pig farmer in order that he might eat the carob pods that were fed to the swine. There are plenty of ancient Jewish texts in which the poor are said to have survived by eating those pods, but keeping pigs was a violation worse than death.
The Talmud states, “Cursed be the man who would breed swine, and cursed be the man who would teach his son Grecian Wisdom” (b. Baba Qamma 82b). More than a violation of kosher dietary rules, the prodigal’s decision to work as a swineherd was a renunciation of his religious, cultural, and national identity. In a world in which the peoples of the earth were clearly divided between those who belonged to God and those who represented a threat to God’s people, the prodigal son had not only betrayed his family but had also betrayed his heritage by switching sides and working for the enemy. He might as well have become a tax collector and abused his people on behalf of the Romans.
And this is the one about whom Jesus tells his story—not just a notorious sinner but the kind of sinner whose entire life embodied the rejection of everything God and God’s people cared about. What is someone supposed to do when they are that lost? Where is someone supposed to go—to whom is someone supposed to turn—when they have burned every bridge behind them—when they have already thumbed their nose at God and their family, the only ones who would ever take them back?
“I know what I will do,” the lost son said to himself when he came to his senses. “I will return home to my father—not as his child but as a hired hand, a worker in the fields.” Even in his lostness, the son anticipated a measure of his father’s mercy. He knew his father well enough to expect that, even though he had squandered his identity as a child and an heir, he would be given a place among his father’s servants. Considering the shame that the son had caused the family, that would indeed be merciful. The Book of Deuteronomy says that a stubborn and rebellious child who refuses to respect his parents should be handed over to the elders and stoned to death in order that Israel might be purged from such evil (21:18-21). To take him in as a hired hand, therefore, would have been more than generous.
But, when the father saw his lost son walking in the distance, he threw aside his shame and ran in a most undignified way to embrace his boy and kiss him. “Bring the best robe and the finest ring and the nicest shoes,” he said to his servants, “and give them to my son. And go and get the fatted calf and kill it so that we can celebrate properly because this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
It's not supposed to be that way, but that’s how God’s love is. That’s why Jesus tells the second half of the story. The older son, who had always done his father’s will, who had never done anything to bring shame upon his family, could not accept his father’s generosity and love toward his sibling. “You never even gave me as much as a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends,” he said to his father, genuinely hurt by the lavish reception his younger brother had received. “Why don’t you love me like that?” he asked.
To make his point to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus tells three stories—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the two lost sons. Both sons are out in the fields. Both are approached by the father. Both underestimate the magnitude and nature of the father’s love. And both are lost until that love finds them.
When we underestimate God’s love, we, too, are lost. Whether we doubt our own lovability or the lovability of another, we hide ourselves from the goodness and mercy of God, who nevertheless comes out to find us. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them not only because they needed a rabbi, too, but because they are the ones for whom God is searching. It is at their table where the God of mercy and love is to be found. Whether we are a notorious sinner or a self-righteous Pharisee, we are beckoned to sit down at that table, too.
To those who have always lived a faithful life, whose behavior has never brought shame upon their family or their faith, that kind of love is offensive and infuriating. And, to those who have lived that life of deep shame, who have burned all their bridges more than once, that kind of love is impossible to imagine. Yet that is the love that comes looking for us, searching for those who are lost. Don’t be surprised by the company that Jesus keeps. And don’t be surprised to find that you belong at that table, too.