Three Stories, One Question, or: So Are You Going to Join the Party or What? (Luke 15:1-32)

All right. Last week Jesus finally did what he had been threatening to do ever since Chapter 11: he fired the Pharisees from their job as the shepherds of Israel.

Then he turned to the crowds and urged them to take a good look at God, take a good look at their resources…and surrender to God. Quickly.

His message to the Pharisees and the crowds was the same: “The things you think are valuable — your race, your religion, your social class, your education, your family, whatever! — those things are all worthless. Unless you get rid of all that prideful baggage you will never accept my invitation to God’s dinner party!”

Now, what kind of people, do you think, are likely to accept this kind of invitation? The kind who have a lot of things to be proud of, or the kind who have nothing to lose?

Well, fortunately, Luke does not leave us guessing. At the beginning of Chapter 14 who was Jesus eating with (for the third and last time)? The Pharisees.

Now, at the beginning of Chapter 15, who is Jesus eating with?

[1] Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. [2] But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

“This guy who claims to be the Messiah — the Holy One of God! — defiles himself by eating non-halal food with sinners!”

The Pharisees are proving that Jesus’ judgement against them was correct. He gave them three chances — three dinners — three opportunities to humble themselves and realize that they are just as defiled in God’s sight as any sinner. And still they are unwilling to repent.

And, by the way, Jesus also gives the tax collectors and sinners three chances — three dinners. The first one happened back in Chapter 5, when Jesus ate with Levi the Tax-Collector and all his friends. And if you remember, they were humbled and delighted that a guy like Jesus was willing to have dinner with them.

This is the second time that a specific dinner is mentioned. And again the tax collectors and sinners are humbled and delighted: they are “gathering around” to hear Jesus!

There is a third and final dinner coming…but we already know how it is going to turn out, don’t we?

See, the Pharisees were invited three times to join Jesus (three being a symbolic number). They refused three times. Now their invitation has been revoked.

The tax collectors and sinners will be invited three times to join Jesus. They will accept three times. Which is an ancient literary way of saying that Jesus’ invitation to sinners is still open.

So, here we find tax collectors and sinners gathering around to hear Jesus and eat with him.

But…wait a minute! Where is the rest of the crowd that Jesus invited to dinner just a minute ago? Hmmm, I guess they’ve decided they’ve got too much to give up. They’ve taken a good look at God, taken a good look at their resources, and decided…close enough.

Besides, they aren’t even sure yet that Jesus really is the Messiah! After all, he hasn’t done all the cool miraculous signs they were expecting! — in fact, he’s almost completely stopped doing miracles at this point, he just keeps preaching and preaching and talking and talking…so: the crowds have gotten a bored; they’ve gone to look for their entertainment elsewhere, and we’re not going to see them again until Jesus gets much closer to Jerusalem.

By contrast, the sinners are gathering around to hear Jesus. For them, Jesus’ miracles are nice, but his words are true source of life. It is his words that have cleansed them. Remember those words? “Friends, your sins are forgiven. Your faith has healed you, cleansed you, saved you. Come and eat with me!”

These sinners are answering the invitation.

But as we’ve already seen, the Pharisees are being unrepentant, arrogant, religious, jerks: again.

So Jesus told them this parable: [4] “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? [5] And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders [6] and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ [7] I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

This parable is a challenge for the Pharisees because the Pharisees were supposed to be the shepherds who went out looking for the lost sheep.

Now Jesus is saying, “Listen guys, now I am doing the job you should have been doing! I am bringing in the lost sheep of God. I am saying, ‘C’mon friends, celebrate with me! Let’s have a feast together!’ because that is what God does when lost people are found.

“You guys do want to be like God, don’t you?”

[8] “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? [9] And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ [10] In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This parable is also a challenge for the Pharisees, because here Jesus is asking them to imagine themselves in the place of a poor village woman. Small house; no windows; narrow door; a house so poor and gloomy she has to light a lamp in the middle of the day to search for a coin. And the Pharisees do not like to think of themselves as poor or female, because both of those things are unclean in their minds.

But here Jesus is saying, “I am like that woman! I am here doing the job that you should have been doing: sweeping out all the dark corners, searching carefully for all the precious lost people of God! I am the one saying, ‘C’mon, friends, celebrate with me! Let’s have a feast together!’ Because, after all, that is what God does when sinners repent.

“You guys do want to be like God, don’t you?”

[11] Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons

And what follows this is one of the most famous stories in all the bible. The younger son wants his inheritance. He asks his dad for it. So the father graciously divides the property between his two sons.

Then, after a bit, the younger son sells his half of the land. Now a stranger is going to take over that property, the property that was the heritage from his father! Not only is this very disrespectful to the father, but it is against Old Testament Law, which forbids the sale of family property outside the family.

So the kid is turning out to be pretty rotten. But he’s not done yet! He collects all the cash from the sale and moves to another country — a non-Jewish country. So he is far away from his father, and he is far away from the temple in Jerusalem, which is another way of saying that he is far away from God. Which becomes obvious when he blows his entire inheritance on “wild living”.

And then…the economy crashes. Unemployement soars. And the only job he can find is feeding pigs. And he is paid so little that he wishes he dared to steal some of the pigs’ food.

Now remember, this is a Jewish kid. This would be like a Malay kid working at a Chinese food court slicing roast pork, and wishing he could eat some. This guy has fallen to the very bottom of his world.

Then, the story goes, [17] “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I’m gonna go home and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. [19] I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

And we should pause and notice that at the beginning of the story, this kid is too proud to view his father as a father. Here, in the middle of the story, he has been humbled, so now he is willing to view his father as a master.

[20] So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him — that is a key phrase, isn’t it? — he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

[21] “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son — ‘

But the father interrupts him before he can finish, he shouts, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. [23] Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. [24] For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

So this parable is really the same parable as the first two: something valuable is lost, something valuable is found, and then there is a call for a celebration dinner!

But this parable is different in two significant ways:

First, a son is far more valuable than a coin or a sheep. The shepherd lost one sheep out of one hundred: only 1% of his assets. The woman lost one coin out of ten: she lost 10% of her savings, which is worse than 1%. But the father lost one son out of two: that is a 50% loss!

Second, in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin someone went to look for what had been lost. But in this story of the lost son…no one goes looking.

Now, in the first parable, Jesus invited the Pharisees to see themselves as a shepherd who should have gone looking for the lost sheep. In the second parable, Jesus invited the Pharisees to see themselves as a village woman who should have gone looking for the lost coin.

In this story, who is Jesus inviting the Pharisees to see themselves as? Are they the younger son, who went away and lived with pigs? Certainly not! Are they the father, who had compassion on his lost son, who ran like a fool through the middle of town, who wants to celebrate now? No, that doesn’t sound like the Pharisees either.

So who are the Pharisees in this story?

Well, let’s go on, shall we? And we’ll see if the next character sounds familiar:

[25] “Meanwhile, the older son was out working hard, like a good son. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. [26] So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. [27] ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

[28] “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. [29] But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. [30] But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

So: the Pharisees are the older brother in this story. They were the shepherds who should have gone looking for the lost sheep. They were the village woman who should have gone looking for the lost coin. They were the older brother, who should have gone looking for the lost son.

Instead, the older brother stayed home and worked on his own property — because, remember, the father has already divided the land between the sons. So he is being a little dishonest when he says, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years!” He has actually been working for himself. He has been caring for himself, when he should have been out looking for his lost brother.

And that’s the whole point: the older brother does not view the younger brother as a brother. He just sees him as a sinner who deserves to be lost, to stay lost.

But it’s worse even than that: the older brother does not view his father as a father! He sees him as a heavy-handed slave-master, a harsh judge, impossible to please. He says, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years and you haven’t given me anything! And now your tak guna son comes home after spending all your money on prostitutes and now you’re going to give him a party?!”

So we’re finding out here that both sons actually shared the same sin. They both refused to view their father as a loving father. The younger son took his money and ran. The older son took his money and stayed — but the attitude of their hearts was the same: they both despised their father.

The difference is that younger brother repents. He looks at his resources, he looks at his father’s house…and he comes to his senses. He admits that he’s got nothing left, he’s got nothing left to rely on except the compassion of his father.

The older brother looks at his resources, he looks at his father, and he says, “You haven’t given me enough.”

[31] “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. [32] 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.’ ”

For a third time now, Jesus is saying, “Listen guys, now I am doing the job you should have been doing! I am being the good, compassionate, responsible older brother that you should have been. I am bringing in the lost sons of God. And I am telling you, ‘C’mon friends, celebrate with me! Let’s have a feast together!’”

In other words…Jesus is offering the Pharisees yet another chance to join God’s kingdom. He fired them because they abused their position, they abused the people of God, they didn’t do their job. But now he is saying, “Look, I am now doing your job for you. And all you have to do to get credit for my work is join in the celebration. All you have to do is show up for dinner. All you have to do is sit down and share a table with me and all your lost little brothers. After all, that is what my Father does when one of his lost children are found.

“And you Pharisees do want to be like God, don’t you?”

But they don’t. They really don’t. And so this chapter actually ends where it began. At the beginning, the Pharisees saw Jesus celebrating with sinners and they said, “We are not gonna be part of that!” And here the older brother sees his father’s household celebrating with a sinner, and he says, “I am not gonna be part of that!”

And so the chapter ends with the father pleading with his son: “Please come in. Please eat with us. Please celebrate with us.”

But the older brother can’t because — just like the Pharisees — his view of his father is wrong. He sees a harsh slave-driver instead of a compassionate father. He thinks he must earn his inheritance through hard work and good behaviour.

His view of his brother is also wrong. He sees a sinner who spend all his money on prostitutes. And that is true! — or: it was true. But when the father embraced him, gave him a new coat, a new ring, new shoes, the kid received a new identity. His father’s words forgave him, and made him clean.

And the older brother’s view of himself is wrong. He sees himself as better than his brother, more deserving. He cannot accept that his father can love both sons the same. And why can’t he accept that?

Because — just like the Pharisees — his view of his father is wrong.

It comes as a package deal: when your view of God is wrong, your view of yourself and other people will be wrong as well. You will think too much of yourself and too little of the person next to you.

This chapter is intended as a summary chapter for Luke. Here he has brought together in one place all the central concepts of the gospel that Jesus has taught us so far: the Fatherhood of God, Repentance, Pride, and Compassion.

First, we find a very strong emphasis on the Fatherhood of God. The word “father” is used 13 times in just a few verses. And what a wonderful father he is! Remember, in the Roman world of that time, a father could literally kill his son for insulting him. But this father, even though he is insulted, his money is spent, his son ruins his reputation…in spite of all this, he welcomes the kid home with such joy! There is no punishment, there is no, “Ohhhhh, you’ve been a very bad boy!” We find nothing but love.

Isn’t this the kind of father we all want to have?

Well, good news, my brothers and sisters: through adoption, this is the kind of father we have!

The second concept Luke has emphasized here is Repentance. The word is used twice — once after the story of the lost sheep, again after the story of the lost coin — and then the word is defined in the story of the lost son. When did the lost son repent? When he “came to his senses”. He looked around and remembered life his father’s house. He did not yet understand how much his father loved him, but he understood that his father was kind, gracious, compassionate; he realized he would rather be a slave in his father’s house than a starving free man. And then, when he got home, he discovered that his father is more gracious than he could have ever imagined.

Isn’t this the kind of repentance and reconciliation story everyone loves, everyone longs for?

Well, you would think so. And yet, people resist. Why? Because they don’t believe God is actually like that. They look at God, and they see a harsh judge. Then they look at their resources, and they see pigs. And they decide they would rather live free with the pigs than live as a slave to a master who might kill them at any moment. And that is the right decision! That’s the choice I would make, if those were my options.

But those are not actually the options. Our choice is not freedom with pigs or slavery in religion. Our choice is starvation with pigs or celebration with our Father.

But I will be honest: that first trip back home is an act of faith. There is lots of evidence that God is a loving, compassionate Father — but you don’t know for sure until you have taken a chance and tried it.

If you have not yet gone home, I urge you to take that step. You will not be disappointed. Our Father will show you more love than you can ever imagine.

The third concept Luke includes here is the concept of Pride. The older brother is proud of everything he has earned. He has worked hard. He has saved up. Now, the secret reason he has worked so hard and saved up so much is because he does not know his father’s character: he thinks he has to earn his inheritance. So he is angry when his useless younger brother receives the same inheritance for nothing! In fact, it’s worse than nothing: the younger brother has done everything wrong, and he still receives the same inheritance, the same love from their father!

Isn’t this a kind of pride we all struggle with?

We all have a well-developed sense of what is “fair”. We all know that those who work more should be paid more, those who work less should be paid less. And the bible agrees! — when we are talking about wages. But Jesus is not talking about wages here; he is talking about family. God does not view family as something we have to earn, but as something we are given. It is not what you do that matters; it is who you are. Who you are as part of God’s family will produce what you do. Your actions reveal what kind of family you actually belong to.

Which brings us to the fourth concept Luke wants to remind us of: the concept of Compassion. Those who view God as compassionate Father will repent. Those who repent will be forgiven, and those who are forgiven will join in their Father’s celebration every time someone new repents and is forgiven. The children look like the Father: because the Father celebrates, the children celebrate.

But those who view God as a harsh judge do not dare repent. They do not believe God will forgive them for free. And because they do not believe God will forgive them, they refuse to forgive others. They refuse to celebrate. And so here, again, the children look like the Father: because (in their minds) their father is a harsh judge, they are harsh judges.

So, as we do every week, we need to ask the question, “What does this mean for us today?” How is this chapter meant to affect our lives now, two thousand years later?

Really, in this chapter, Jesus is asking one simple question: are you going to join in the celebration?

In this chapter Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. It is hard to believe, but he was still giving them a chance to enter God’s kingdom. They are disqualified from being shepherds, but they can still be part of the flock — but only if they can accept Jesus’ plans. They were all standing at the turning point of history. In the Old Testament the Kingdom of God looked like it was going to be a Jewish kingdom. But over the last few chapters of Luke, Jesus has been revealing that, actually, the Kingdom of God is going to be a global kingdom made up of people from every nation, every race, every tribe. Jesus is telling the Jews that some really strange and godless people are going to be invited to eat at God’s dinner table. Are they willing to accept those people as part of the family?

We live two thousand years after that turning point. We are the really strange and godless people who have joined God’s kingdom. We have been adopted into the family of God, even though we do not deserve it. But Jesus’ question is still relevant to us: are we going to join in the celebration when people that we think are strange are invited in?

It is a constant challenge. It is a human problem. Our natural instinct, once we have entered God’s house, is to close the door behind us. Our natural instinct is to think that we are normal, we deserve to come in, while everyone else is strange.

So how can we keep from falling into this trap?

First, we have to remember that Jesus did all the work. He is the shepherd who picked us up and carried us to safety; he is the village woman who swept her house looking for her coin; he is the older brother who went out looking, heard our cries, and showed us the way back home.

Second, we have to remember that God is our Father by adoption. He accepts us not because we deserve it, but because his son Jesus brought us to him and said, “I want this one to be my little brother. I want this one to be my little sister.”

Third, we have to remember that God is not just a Father to you and me, but Father to many, many others as well. Jesus is always out there searching; he is always inviting new and strange people back for dinner; we have to always be ready to make a little more room at the table for our new brothers and sisters. We have to always be ready to welcome new people and give them the seats of honor. Why? Because that is what our Father does.

And we want to be like our Father, don’t we?

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