This Fellow Welcomes Sinners

Meditation on Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 31, 2019

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

      prodigal

     Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  3 So he told them this parable:

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 

20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 

29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 

31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

***

Years ago, I learned that I gave birth to at least one strong-willed child. I learned this from books by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame. Well-meaning friends with well-behaved children recommended these books. I was disappointed to find that these books didn’t have all the answers to godly parenting for me. Every child is different. Every parent is different. Every family situation is different. We should never compare ourselves to other parents; I know I did and couldn’t understand why what worked for them didn’t help my kids and me.

Parenting is ALWAYS hard—because it matters SO much. You just love your children SO much and you don’t want to make any mistakes, especially the ones your parents made with you. But we do. We mess up. If anything will bring us to our knees, humbly seeking the Heavenly Father’s wisdom, patience, and grace—it’s being a parent!

Reading the Bible as not just a pastor, but a mother, it’s encouraging to me that I am not the only one who struggles with parenting.  You should be encouraged, too! Plenty of biblical families were dysfunctional, going back to Adam and Eve, who also had 2 sons—Cain and Abel. And we know how that ended! First there were two; then there was one. Or Isaac’s twin sons—Jacob and Esau, with Jacob tricking his aging father and stealing his older brother’s birthright. And then Esau wanting to kill him and Jacob having to run away.

***

“This fellow welcomes sinners,” the scribes and Pharisees grumble at the beginning of our gospel reading today in Luke 15. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

the-prodigal-son-3-638

Then the lectionary leaves out the next 2 parables that Jesus tells in response—the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. They all fit together. All 3 have the same general message; God rejoices over repentant sinners! God cares about everyone and desires all to be saved. In Luke, these parables come before what has been known traditionally as, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” though it might be more accurate to call it, “The Parable of Two Lost Sons.”

The story begins on the day the younger demands his inheritance and his father gives it to him. We can imagine what family life was like before this day. Were there always disagreements between father and son and anger and resentment between brothers? And where was the mother? Had she died, perhaps in childbirth, as many women did? And was the younger spoiled by the father because he was the child of the preferred wife, in his old age, like Jacob spoiling Joseph and giving him the beautiful coat? That’s what comes to mind when the father in this parable tells his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him.” Why did the father give him his inheritance? Was he weary of the arguing? Did he just want peace in his home?

Considerable time has passed since the son left, with no word to his family; they fear he is dead. The son going to a distant country is a rejection of his kin and small, tight-knit community—the kind where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Why else would the entire village be invited to his homecoming party?

The father is over the moon about his son’s return, telling the older one, who shames him by refusing to attend the party, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice; this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  This father has never given up hope that his son will change and come home a different man. Imagine, he is watching for him and sees the son while he is still far off! Filled with compassion, he runs, without worry about what the neighbors think. He puts his arms around him, kisses him.

I wrestle with this as an example of a repentant sinner. Does he really have a change of heart? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Why does he come home? Does he miss his family and realize how much hurt he has caused? No. Is he ashamed of what he has done? No. He comes home because he runs out of money and is hungry. He is feeding the pigs and has an AHA! moment. These pigs are better off than I am. The hired hands “have bread enough and to spare, but I’m dying of hunger.” So he hashes a plan, considers carefully what he is going to say to his dad when he returns. He is going to ask to be treated like a hired hand, but he stills uses the intimate, kinship language of “Father.” Beginning at v. 18, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” And so he does. He uses the exact words that he rehearsed.

The story ends with the father trying to comfort and persuade the elder one to forgive the younger and be glad that he’s home. Instead, he is jealous and bitter. We are left hanging, wondering what will happen. Will the elder son, who is great at pointing out the log in his brother’s eye, but can’t see the splinter in his own—come to have mercy on his brother—and forgive?

Often, preachers invite us to choose the character with whom we identify in the story. Are you the prodigal, who ran away from God, then “came to yourself” and realized your need for the Lord and that you had squandered God’s gifts to you?  Are you the older brother, who has been in a church a long time, laboring for the Kingdom, but has trouble accepting and forgiving others? Maybe you have a little of both of these brothers in your journey of faith?

Or maybe you see yourself as the struggling parent, for this is a parable, a story with layers of meaning as a teaching device. The father isn’t necessarily our Heavenly Father, though he certainly is loving, patient and merciful. Are you unable to keep the peace in your family? Are your children jealous and resentful of one another? Or are you waiting and hoping for a wayward child to come to the end of themselves, realize their human frailty and need for God, and come home?

Are you praying that your family, broken and wounded now, will be made whole?

If you could write an ending to the story, what would it be? Mine would be that the two lost sons would both be humbled and turn back to the Lord who has never stopped loving them. They would forgive one another and they would tell their father that they love him and thank him for his love, patience and generosity. And the father would realize God’s grace for him—that no matter how perfect a parent we try to be, we can only love and forgive our children and teach them all that we can for as long as they are open to receiving our teaching. Because sometimes parents are the last people that children will listen to.

God has sent the Son to redeem the world by becoming one of us and, in obedience to the Father, willingly suffered and died so that the world would not perish in its sins, but might, through belief on Him, live eternally. As the choirs will sing in their anthem, Love Held Him to the Cross. That’s the point of today’s message. There’s no one for whom Christ did not give his life! For love.

He died for you!

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Have you accepted God’s love and mercy? Have you had a change of heart? If you haven’t, it’s time. Let go of the mistakes of the past. Forgive yourself. Don’t look back.

You can trust in the one about whom the Pharisees and scribes complained, “This fellow welcomes sinners.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for your generosity and kindness to us. Thank you for sending your Son to welcome sinners and to show us your love when he died on a cross. We pray for the families in our community. Heal what is broken, Lord. Make us whole. Strengthen us to do your will. Help us every day. Teach us to walk in your ways and never depart from the faith in which we were raised. We lift up those who are struggling with parenting. Give us hope and mercy, patience and wisdom, courage and grace. We lift up the wayward children—maybe we are one of them. Forgive us for our sins and draw us back to you. Lead us on the right path. Show us the way to your heavenly home. In Christ we pray. Amen.

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