Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a story, a parable about two sons.
One wildly extravagant and grateful. The other steady, reliable, and bitter. The father loves both sons, gives generously to both, shows extravagant grace to both. The father runs to greet his younger son and rejoices and throws a party after that son has wasted wealth and endured hunger and received no care from strangers. The father shares all he has with his older son, goes to find his bitter, envious son, and invites him to the party.
Jesus tells this parable after the Pharisees and scribes grumble about him, saying: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. To be clear, the Pharisees and scribes complain about Jesus. Maybe we understand why. Maybe we have no desire to share a dinner table with someone who makes our blood boil, who perhaps embraces a different political perspective. Maybe we would rather not sit down with someone who exhibits what we deem moral decay, making decisions we would not. Maybe the Pharisees and scribes feared “sinners,” and maybe we do too. Maybe we would never share a meal with someone who committed a particular crime, for instance, even if we were in a public space, because we feared for our safety.
Jesus’ parable comes from a real place, from a real quandary. I’m sure it isn’t just Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Jesus’ motley crew of dinner guests. I imagine the disciples look askance at some of those who join them for meals. Sharing meals was then, just as now, an act of acceptance. The people with whom we eat are the ones we include, the ones we love, the ones we identify as part of “us”…because we don’t eat with “them.” Because of that, Jesus’ parable is not just a parable, not just a story with a lesson. The parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Prodigal Father, as I like to call it, plays out at Jesus’ table in real time. For there he is: apparently sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners, women and other undesirables. He accepts them, includes them, loves them, for real. Note that the gospel writers makes no mention of these folks having to change in any way in order to be accepted at Jesus’ table. At the edges of the crowd who gather around Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes also lurk. They see that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus surely invites the Pharisees and scribes to his table too…but they don’t accept the invitation.
In my head, as I prepared to preach this week, I thought of events or circumstances where I had shared tables with people who might typically be deemed “sinners.” I brought to mind times when I had traversed human-made boundaries like race and socio-economic class, like immigration status and life experiences. I considered times when I had shared meals with people who do not follow the mainstream, at least the mainstream according to me. I very nearly wrote a sermon where I exhorted us to cross these boundaries and welcome sinners and eat with them. And then I laughed at myself and realized that the joke was on me.
You see, in the ancient world, a “sinner” was one who had committed certain sins, like ritual uncleanliness, talking with people outside a person’s social class or gender, eating religiously forbidden foods, and building relationships with non-Jews. People who committed these sins wore the badge of “sinner,” nearly as conspicuously as Hester Prynn wore a scarlet A in The Scarlet Letter. But let’s not forget that these are not the only sins. When Jesus heard the Pharisees and scribes grumble and say: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them, he probably thought: Yes, I do welcome you and would eat with you, Pharisees and scribes, if you would come to my table for I love you.
In the parable, we expect the younger, wayward son who wastes his father’s wealth to be shunned. We feel satisfied when the younger son comes shame-faced before his father, confessing his sin. We understand the envy of the older son, and we know that the older son’s bitterness isn’t helpful. We know that the father had practiced incredible generosity with his reliable, obedient son. What we may not have caught is the fact that there is not one good son and one bad son. They both sin in this story. But only one of them recognizes and owns up to his shortcomings, the younger son, while the older son simmers in his hurt, anger, and bitterness which causes him to separate himself and refuse to love his brother. Still, the father goes out of his way to welcome and eat with his reliable son. The older son is reliable and obedient, yes, but still a sinner.
And so, for us, well, at least if you’re like me, for us who may think that we are in a position to welcome sinners and eat with them, we might want to consider that Jesus tells this parable for the benefit of the scribes and Pharisees. Yes, Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. You are welcome! You are welcome! You are welcome at Jesus’ table! We all are. Whether we’ve been wasteful and grateful or obedient and bitter or somewhere in between, Jesus welcomes and eats with all of us. Thanks be to God! Amen.