Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The 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. A 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! 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; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So 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. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.” ’ (NRSV).
Jesus’ willingness to befriend people on the margins of both society and religion never went unnoticed. The friend of ‘sinners’.
Many, however, who lived to represent God did not behave this way. Holiness has an unnecessary habit of emphasising only apartness and difference. It can be used to highlight the gap – and this not only between God and people. It is also used to separate people and people.
And such theology is all too easily lived out. So much so that Jesus’ practice of eating with ‘tax-collectors’ and ‘sinners’ (15:1) caused the religious some anxiety: How can Jesus represent God and associate with ‘them’?
Our reading is the third of three stories Jesus told in answer to all this ‘grumbling’ (15:1).
They are wonderfully down to earth stories: a shepherd searching for his sheep; a woman sweeping her home after a precious coin; a father waiting for his son’s return.
But, despite this beginning, what this collection points to is anything but ordinary. Each of these stories offer a glimpse of heaven in party mode.
By the time we get to the beginning of Jesus’ third story there is no getting away from this interpretation. At the end of the first and second parables we have had a direct comparison between the rejoicing finders and that of heaven itself. And all this over ‘one sinner who repents’. God is an open and joyful finder of lost people.
So, by the beginning of our passage this ‘lost-found-party’ mantra has set the stage and assigned the characters.
In this third telling, however, there are changes.
This son is not just lost – he has positively abandoned his father and family. He insulted and wasted their life’s work. In asking for his inheritance he is wishing his father’s life away.
And then he is not just found. When it all goes wrong he finds himself walking home with a rehearsed speech and a broken ego. He knows that even his offer of self-imposed slavery is unreasonable. Much to his surprise he is met with a running father, roast beef, a robe, and a ring: lost-found-party.
According to the established rhythm it all should end here. There is an unexpected addition, however: lost, found, party, party-pooper.
Not all are in the mood to celebrate. The older brother hears of the feast but sees only a goat not given and the betrayal of one who chose not to stay. For him this party amounts to little more than an additional waste.
And so Jesus story ends with a conversation between father and angry son. It is outside and amounts to an unanswered plea for a lived out grace.
It is an appropriate silence. The Pharisees and Scribes must see themselves in this angry young man. Yet even now the extravagant love of heaven is requesting their participation.
Jesus wants this reckless love of God to be lived out with the same – if not more – zeal than they have applied to their holiness theology. If God can bridge this gap, surely it is not so much to ask of those who follow.
After all, participation in the party of heaven would seem the most appropriate of all possible responses to the grace of God.