Summary: Saving the lost is God's highest priority and heaven rejoices when a single sinner receives Christ. We are saved by grace, and knowing this frees us to share God's grace with others.
"LET THE PARTY BEGIN"
When I was growing up in Iowa, my parents gave me and my brothers words of wisdom from time to time. We were told, for instance, to eat everything on our plates because "people were starving in China," and to associate with good kids because we would be "judged by the company we kept." Frankly, the first bit of advice never made much sense to me, but I had already noticed that the crowd you hung out with did affect your reputation. So, I have a little sympathy for the men who criticized Jesus for hanging out with sinners. Why DID he associate with men and women who were unseemly and unclean? Why didn't he form stronger relationships with religious leaders of his time? Well, it's clear that he associated with sinners because it was sinners who needed him, and besides, Jesus noted, heaven breaks into applause when a single sinner is saved. New life, rebirth, salvation- these are heaven's goals. Saving the lost- this is God's highest priority!
Essentially, it's all about grace, but let's turn to our passage and listen to our Lord. Join me now as we go back in time and gather around Jesus of Nazareth as he speaks to a crowd about kingdom joy and the nature of God's love. Look around and see that the Pharisees are here. They aren't necessarily bad people, but they are intolerant people, obsessed with the letter of the law and with being "good enough." Look and see that the Scribes are also standing with us. They are learned people. They are very smart, but they are too smart to accept simple truths. The Sadducees are here as well. They are the religious elite and the cultic "fat cats" who have sold their souls to the Romans. Perpetually unclean tax collectors are standing with us, and all sorts of ordinary sinners (am ha-aretz). Listen now, because Jesus is beginning to speak.
A father, he says, had two sons- a diligent older son, as first-borns can be, and an impulsive, self-centered younger son, who is bored with life on the family farm. So, in an act that would still be shocking in our time, he asked his father for his inheritance in advance, knowing that this would drastically reduce his father's resources and substantially add to his brother's burdens. Just asking for the money was an insult on many levels, but for reasons of his own, the father gave his youngest son what he wanted. Well, with cash in hand, the young man left the farm and split for faraway places, where he did who-knows-what with who-knows-who and squandered all that he had. Jesus said that the young man ended up in nothing short of a nightmare for any Jewish boy in the first century. He was penniless. He was working for a Gentile. He was slopping hogs, for minimum wage, and the pods that he fed the pigs began to look good to him. As they say in our time, he hit bottom and the jolt brought him to his senses. Even the hired help who worked for his father had a better life. He made up his mind. He would throw himself on his father's mercy and ask for a job as a laborer. So, he set out for home, rehearsing the words he would say to his father as he went. In the meantime, his older brother continued to work hard in his father's fields and the father stared down the long road, hoping to see his youngest son again. Finally, the father's prayers are answered. He sees his prodigal son coming up the road, and while the boy was still a long way off, the father threw protocol aside and ran to meet him. It was a touching and awkward scene because it was undignified for elders to run in those days and also because the prodigal should have been the one running to the father.
New beginnings are hard to come by. They are almost too hard to believe. So the prodigal was taken aback when his father accepted him without hesitation. No insults. No snide remarks. Just joy and love and even empowerment, as his father had a robe brought to him (a sign of belonging), shoes (a sign of freedom), and a signet ring (a sign of empowerment). Sometimes I think that this parable- the one we call Prodigal Son- should be called Loving Father, or even, Radical Grace. Indulgent young men are a dime a dozen, but new beginnings and unconditional forgiveness are not. Grace- radical grace- is priceless. It is life-giving, and it is unsettling to religious scorekeepers everywhere. It is upsetting to those who are self-righteous today and it was upsetting to those who were self-righteous in Jesus' day. Yes, real grace makes us mad. It makes us mad because it is unearned and because it is not fair. Grace is unearned, and the harder that someone has worked for what he or she has, the angrier they get over grace. They themselves may want a break of two, but unearned blessings simply drive them crazy. Look around and see those who are judgmental and unforgiving are agitated. They are bothered by this parable. It is too loving, too soft, too forgiving. The acceptance, the easy forgiveness- it is all too much for them- but that's when the party began!