Who doesn’t love to hear the parable of the prodigal son? Or the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin? We love hearing these stories about God’s immense love for us and being reminded of our value as children of God. But there’s the rub. These stories are not necessarily about us. They are about the other. We have all grown up loving these wonderful stories about God’s love but we rarely take into account the context of these three wonderful parables:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2.
During the time of Jesus, there was a vibrant renewal movement going on among the Pharisees, Sadducees and Teachers of the Law. It involved a rigorous keeping of “every jot and tittle” of the law. They were especially focused on the rituals of table fellowship following strict dietary codes, ritual cleansing and purity laws as well as eating with only those who were “pure” like them. It is important for us to remember the play of words for Luke in this context. “Pharisees and teachers of the law” were a part of this Torah and Table renewal. “Tax collectors and sinners” refers to all who were not rigorously observing these table rituals, Jews included. So you can imagine just how unnerving it was for this influential teacher of the law, son of God, Jesus to eat and drink with sinners.
Marcus Borg in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time writes,
“The open table fellowship of Jesus was thus perceived to be a challenge to the purity system. And it was: the meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. The ethos of compassion led to an inclusive table fellowship, just as the ethos of purity led to a closed fellowship.”
So imagine with me for a moment this earthy, radical, young and influential Jewish rabbi Jesus sitting around a table with those people… you know those people who aren’t keeping the law, people who made you unclean. You know, those people who make us feel uncomfortable,who aren’t like us. Right? Anyway they are laughing and eating and drinking at the same table as Jesus. They are rubbing shoulders with him! Jesus is teaching them, loving them, affirming them but most of all he is including them in this new kingdom of God.
Now imagine with me, a group of people in the background, they are whispering in hushed voices about the company that Jesus is keeping. How could this prophet keep company with the likes of these people? Doesn’t he know that they don’t obey the law of the scriptures? Doesn’t he know that they are making him unclean and not fit to worship or teach in the temple? What will other churches think if he keeps letting people like that come to Bible studies?
Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence in our Christian communities.
Churches spend more energy in dark corners worrying about who’s in and who’s out, arguing about the rules and those people, rather than focusing their energy and resources on actually loving people.
Richard Rohr recently wrote in his recent blog entry, “learning to love”,
“Jesus became someone to actually imitate and not just to collectively worship. Believe it or not, this has hardly ever been the norm or practice of most Christians. We preferred Sunday morning worship services and arguing about how to conduct them or prohibiting each other from attending “heretical” church services. God must just cry.” – Richard Rohr
So overhearing their murmuring, Jesus responds to these Pharisees and naysayers with three parables. Each parable tells us something of Jesus and his love for the other… those people.
In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus wants us to remember that the one sheep that wondered away from the flock because he couldn’t hear or chose to ignore the shepherd’s voice is as important to the good shepherd as the other 99 sheep who were faithfully following their masters voice and commands.
Now to tease this out you have to remember the audience. The 99 sheep who were keeping the commandments were of course, the Pharisees. Their life was committed to keeping all of the commandments, observing all of the purity rituals, making all of the appropriate sacrifices… and because of that, they felt protected. They were in the flock. They were secure.
But the good shepherd does something just crazy! He leaves all of those obedient ones and runs after the one sheep who, for whatever the reason, is not obeying the shepherds voice. And when he finds the sheep he beats him and punishes him and gives him what he deserves! Good on him.
No, he puts the sheep on his shoulders and carries him home. He calls his friends together and says rejoice with me!
Similarly, in the second parable, the widow loses a precious coin. She looks all over the house trying to find it. Who among us hasn’t lost something precious to us only to desperately try to find it? We put microchips in our pets, find our phone apps so we can locate our cell phones when they’re missing. When we recover those precious things there is genuine joy, relief and celebration. How much more rejoicing in heaven will there be over one lost soul that finds its way back into the loving arms of Jesus?
You see, Jesus is saying two things here:
- All of humanity belongs to God. We are all created by God. We are all loved. We are all valuable to God… so valuable that God will go to all extremes to recover what belongs to him.
- People are more important than rules.
Have you ever wondered why we get so hung up on the rules and place such importance on them? They give us a false sense of safety. If we are following all the rules well then, we’re good when it comes to God and well, he must really love us! Subsequently, all of those others who are not keeping God’s commands, well they are wrong. They are out. God doesn’t love them as much as he loves us.
This is the rub for the Pharisees in Luke chapter 15. Jesus sums it all up for them at the end of the prodigal son story… you may remember the son goes out and squanders all of the inheritance while the older brother remains at home… working hard…. Keeping all of the rules. When the younger son finally returns home the father throws a huge feast, killing the fatted calf reserved for the most extravagant occasions. The older son is nowhere to be found. The father goes out to find the older son… you know… the Pharisee… sulking because it isn’t fair. The father should love him more for being obedient. Its just human nature.
But notice what Father says in the parable:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Jesus tells this parable so that they can understand. The inclusion of others doesn’t exclude them! It brings the kingdom of God a little closer. Luke retells this story to remind the church to rejoice over the recovery of life and the inclusion of the other. We are to make room at the table!
Jesus told his disciples in John 13:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35
You see my friends, it’s all about love. It’s the one thing that we need to get right as the church. It’s the power of God’s love that wins, that melts the hardest heart, that consoles the loneliest heart, that restores the heart that is broken.