prodigals…luke 7.11-32

All of us know what it’s like to lose something. Regardless of what it is, we all know the feeling. And depending on what we have lost, we have a wide range of emotions. From annoyance to frustration to deep sadness. But, we also know what it’s like to find something that we lost. There is joy when we find that which was missing. We know what it’s like to find something, to have something returned, to have someone return, or to be found ourselves. It is, indeed, cause for joy, for celebration.

One day Jesus, uncouth and oblivious to the social norms, is hanging around tax collectors and sinners. He is teaching and ministering, and the crowd’s are hanging on his every word. Then the religious leaders show up. The holy and righteous ones arrive. Grumbling. Gossiping. Complaining. Critiquing. Long faced and bleary eyed. Sound like your experience in church ever?

Why in the world would this man who claims to be from God hang around with those people? Does he not realize who they are? And Jesus’ response? Well, he tells them some stories. Simple, everyday stories. Stories of the lost, the found, and the rejoicing.

There was a man who had 100 sheep, Jesus says. One wandered off somehow and got lost. But, the shepherd or the owner (we aren’t told which, and it’s not important anyway), goes off in search of this one sheep that was lost. And he finds the sheep. The one that was lost becomes the one that was found, and it is time to party. It’s time to celebrate. He picks up the sheep that wandered astray, places it on his shoulders and “heads for home.” Rejoicing. And such rejoicing is contagious. He wants to share his joy over the lost that is now found. So, he throws a party. He invites his neighbors. And they celebrate.

Oh, and also, Jesus says in the next breath, there was this woman. She had ten silver coins. But somehow one was lost in her house. But she too sees it as worthy of all her effort to make a search to find it. She cleans house. Literally. And it pays off, for after hours of searching she finds her lost coin, and she too throws a party. Inviting the neighbors over to celebrate with her, she and her friends rejoice because the lost has become found.

But Jesus doesn’t end there. He tells them yet another story. He knows his audience well. He knows we are, all of us, foolish and slow of heart to believe.

A man had two sons. But things didn’t go as well as the father had hoped. His younger son was, well, the younger son—foolish, short-sighted, brash (sorry younger sons). He wanted his inheritance then and there—sooner rather than later. So, he went to his father and asked–no, demanded–for his portion of his father’s estate. The father, for reasons unknown, grants this request and gives his son his inheritance, which the son makes quick use of. He converts it to cash, heads off to the “far country” and spends it on whatever he pleases. He spends his days in ‘wild extravagance.’

This boy had probably never seen, much less possessed that much money. He could never imagine that it would run out. How could it? Such wealth, such luxury, such extravagance and splendor. Surely this could never run out, could it? But abundance quickly turns to destitution—sooner rather than later we know what its like to find that the surplus is now a scarcity. Such is the case of this young man. The spendthrift has become the beggar; the prince becomes the pauper. And in the end, the son encounters the truth of Ecclesiastes: I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure…And in the end it was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Not only does he run out of money, but a famine has come upon the land, and there is no longer a surplus, there is no longer even a plus. There’s simply not enough to go around. And those who had been prudent and prepared were apparently not really ready to give out to this spendthrift who had come to their town from far away and lived excessively and wantonly, wasting the money he was given. He has nowhere else to go but to a man who offers him a meager salary doing a truly dirty job—tending to the pigs in the pig sties. This guy could have gotten on the show “Dirty Jobs” without a problem. But not only did he take care of the pigs, but he is so hungry and desperate that he comes to the point of desiring to eat the very food he is feeding to the pigs. Jewish man. Kosher. Or at least he used to be. Taking care of pigs. Wishing to eat the slop the pigs would not even eat. Get the picture?

And in that moment, whether it was the first day or a number of days afterward, something hit home for him. It was a moment where all the other moments of the last few months or years (we aren’t given a time frame) coalesced into a defining moment. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We head out on a path that seems right, seems acceptable, seems justifiable at the very least. Then one day—maybe a few days or weeks or months or years down that path, that venture or action or habit—something jars us, wakes us up from the dream to reality. And we, like this son find ourselves sitting in the pig sty wishing to eat food given to pigs.

What am I doing? How did I get here? What have I done? The son realizes where he is, what he has done. And he asks not what am I here—he knew the answer to that quite well. Rather, he asks a far better question: Why am I still here? And he decides to go home.

This was no small step mind you. Not when you remember what he did. Generally the father would hand this over towards the end of his life, and thus, by taking it now the son is telling his dad that he wants his stuff rather than him. Sound like church to anyone? It’s like when family members walk through an older relatives home and start dividing up what they will have, or ask to have such and such an item, when they die. Only worse, the son takes it now. Wastes it all. Nothing left. And only then does he decide to go home.

It’s the turning point in the story. And that turn, that step toward home was probably one of the hardest steps he ever had to take. Always is. Always will be. Look what I’ve done… Look where I’ve been. Maybe I should just stay here. Maybe… Can I go back home when I’ve been go for so long? Wrestling, wondering, trembling he gets up, and takes the first step back to the father, to his father.

The steps got progressively easier for a time; yet, it was a rather long journey. He had a lot to think about, and rethink, and think again. And he had a long while to think, which only made the steps harder. Justifying himself at times. Criticizing and berating himself at other moments. Maybe he paused now and again in wonderment at how in the world he’d ever come to this place. Not how—he knew that well enough—but how he had come to this point. For any of us who have gone far from home we know the difference in these “hows.” One is about a process that can be traced. The other is asked in amazement, wonder, grief at how far from home we’ve allowed ourselves to come. And how far the journey home is.

But the son returns. Longing for home, dreading home. Mixed emotions. Joy and sadness. Hope and despair. Gladness and grief. All mixed together as he journeys the hours, the miles, the days back home. Wishing to turn the corner and see something familiar, comforting. Yet fearing all of this just the same. Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. This is why he’s returning and this is what he’s returning to say.

I imagine he was flooded with memories and emotions all the way, and these only increased the closer he got to what was familiar, to what was home. Memories flooding back. A tree, a field, a bend in the road. A river, a forest, a well. Good times and bad, fun times and troubled times, joy mixed with sadness, hope mixed with despair. Longing for home, yet fearing the arrival. Burdened by guilt, yet spurred on by hope. Hindered by fear, yet driven by need. Paralyzed at times by shame, but walking still. Overwhelmed and compelled by memories of home.

He was coming back from the far country. And he doesn’t know how he will be received. Oh, he’s got his speech prepared. He knows what he is going to say. Or does he? He’s been rehearsing his speech to his father. It’s memorized, refined, tweaked. The rough edges smoothed, the prideful elements squeezed out on the long journey, the justification and explanations removed. Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…I’m no longer worthy to be called your son….Please let me be like one of your hired servants. Memorized. Refined. Redacted. But, was it right? Did it sound OK? Should I maybe tweak the opening? Can I still call him Dad? Maybe sir is more appropriate?

He gets to the final bend in the road that leads to his house. Pause. Deep breath. A step forward followed quickly by a few steps back. A quick glance up the road he had just journeyed. Not too late to turn… He takes one last deep breathe and walks the final stretch of road. But then something surprising happens. Something grabs his attention.

He rubs his eyes and pinches his cheeks. He sees someone running from under the trees by the house. Is it a servant sent to make him leave? No, too heavy for that. His brother to welcome him home? No, too old for that. Dad.

Shunning all social norms, all pretenses, all dignified approaches and actions—his father is running down the road to meet him. Smiling. Crying. Both of them. They meet, they embrace—tears of joy pouring forth. Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; could I please become… He’s not even able to finish. The long-rehearsed speech is cut short to celebrate, to restore, to welcome the weary, broken, lost, dead son home. The father has run to meet him, comes to his wayward son with open arms, and welcomes him Home, and they set about having a party. Let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found. The lost has become the found and now joins the rejoicing. So they began to celebrate—but not all of them.

The elder brother, the “good son,” the one who has stayed behind being responsible, doing his duty, honoring his father, fulfilling his duty as a son. He comes in from working in the fields. He’s been doing what he has done for countless days now—working for his father, doing any and everything asked of him. But today is different. The usually quiet, somewhat dejected nature of the home isn’t now. “Dad just hasn’t been the same since my brother left, he thinks daily. It really got to him. It really affected him. And, as he had countless times before, he wonders—in anger. How could my brother do that to our dad? How could he be so selfish, irresponsible, self-centered? How could he? If he could only see what he’s done to our dad, to our family, to our home? It’s just not the same anymore, and it’s all his fault. If I ever get a chance to see him again I’ll let him have it. I’ll really let him know what a disappointment he’s been, how much pain and trouble he’s caused all of us?

This is usually how his day ends, but today is different. Today he hears shouting, music, servants bustling about carrying food, wine, bread. It looks like there is a party going on. But why? For who? Dad hasn’t thrown a party (at least not a good one) in quite awhile. So the older son asks one of the servants about the commotion. ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’

For him?! For him!?!? For that little… How could my father do this? Why would we celebrate him returning? He’s the one who disrupted everything, who left us alone, who broke dad’s heart. Why are we celebrating? Why don’t we point him back up the road he’s come down? So he was not willing to go in and celebrate. Sound like church to anyone?

The father again comes out, but this time to his other son, his older son, his faithful and diligent and together son. They talk for a bit, but the sum of it is this: “Son, you have indeed done your duty. The rest of the inheritance is yours. No worries there. Your brother returning doesn’t change that. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, he was lost and has been found.” But we had to celebrate and rejoice. Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.

The older brother, the faithful brother, the pious, holy, righteous and clean brother is left standing outside the house with a choice. And Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes—and even you and I—standing with the elder brother outside the house with questions that demand an answer. Join in the celebration for the lost that have become the found? Rejoice for the dead that have come to live once more? Or stand outside sulking at the vagabond, the miscreant, the spendthrift, the selfish and foolish son who is getting a party simply for coming home?

Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem at this point in Luke’s narrative. This too is the Father running to embrace prodigals. It is a long walk up a dusty road carrying a heavy burden to a hill called Golgotha. It is a journey that ends in a cross, where the arms of God are outstretched to embrace and welcome a world of prodigals such as you and I.

But we had to celebrate and rejoice. We had to—for the lost are now found, the dead are now alive, the sinners are now saints, the poor are now rich, the lame are now healed, the weeping are now rejoicing. And we’re left outside the house, outside the party with a choice. But we had to celebrate. The party is going on with or without us. But…but…with those people? With those kinds of people? With sinners and tax collectors? With drunks and prostitutes and thieves and…with…with… with….them???

Despite our best wishes and efforts at “respectability” and “holiness” to set us above and apart from the rest of the unholy mess of a world around us, we find that, by God’s great grace, no one is beyond the love, the grace, the open and outstretched arms of God who welcomes all the wayward, wandering, prodigals Home—even those who do not yet recognize that they are prodigals themselves.

We had to celebrate for the lost have been found and have gathered in rejoicing. If we can’t associate with sinners and tax collectors; if we can’t understand why God would eat and fellowship and welcome “those” people; if we can’t welcome the weary sinners and prodigals Home; if we won’t rub shoulders with those who have come from the pig sties in the far country. We may just get left outside. We may just miss the party.

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