Will You Come to the Party?
A sermon on Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash
The parable we just heard is familiar enough that I feel pretty safe in asking a few congregational participation questions about it. Can anyone tell me what this parable is traditionally called?
(“The Parable of the Prodigal Son”)
Right – I imagine you have all heard it before. In fact, it’s such a common phrase that even people who have never set foot in a church have probably at least heard the term “Prodigal Son” and have some sense of what it means.
So, what does it mean? Who is the Prodigal Son?
Hmm…. Maybe this is a more difficult question than first appears. The traditional answer, of course, is that it is the younger one who is prodigal. After all he’s the one who recklessly wastes his (greedily-sought, early) inheritance on a lifestyle of hedonistic excess. And he’s the one who recognizes the error of his ways and returns. His actions very clearly fall under most of the dictionary definitions for prodigal.
But there is one definition of prodigal that fits another character better: prodigal can mean “lavishly generous.” Who does that sound like?
It’s the Father!
He’s the one who generously (some might say foolishly) agrees to the younger son’s request for his inheritance while the father was still living. He’s the one who permissively provides his clearly immature son with the means to squander his future and ruin himself. And He’s the one who throws an opulent party as soon as the wastrel son returns home, without a question about what he had done to return in such a destitute state.
He might not be a prodigal son, but we can make a case for him being a prodigal father…. Especially when we consider his wastefulness. When he kills the fatted calf, the calf specifically fed and raised for a feast of special significance, he is disposing of his older son’s property, according to his own later words. And in doing so he is proving himself wasteful of something far more important than any possession – he is thoughtless and dismissive of his older, faithful son’s goodwill. I mean, he doesn’t even send anyone out to the fields to invite his older son to the party… he just leaves him to keep working while the whole household celebrates.
So, what about this older son? Does he play a prodigal role as well?
Well, not in the sense of extravagance. There is NOTHING about this young man that is overflowing in lavish excess. But there is one way in which he is wasteful… he is wasteful of the opportunity for joy. He throws it away as though it has no value.The ways in which he has been wronged appear far more important to him than the return of his brother, and the happiness of his father.
And there’s something else to consider as well…not evidence for the older son being the real “prodigal son”, but evidence that in naming this the parable of the Prodigal Son the tradition has missed the point. If we read more closely, we will recognize that the Parable’s central character isn’t the younger son at all… it’s the older son.
To see this, we have to back-up before Jesus starts telling this parable and consider why he is telling it at all. It was in today’s reading, do you remember? Who is he telling the parable to?
(The Pharisees and scribes)
And what prompted Jesus to tell this parable?
(They were grumbling)
The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them”… just like the father in the parable welcomes the obviously sinful returning son, and has a banquet prepared to eat with him.
And who is it that is doing the grumbling in the parable?
(The older son)
That’s probably a clue that the older son is the figure his audience is supposed to pay attention to, don’t you think?
But wait, there’s more. The lectionary selection skips over a section of the original gospel text. Jesus actually tells the scribes and Pharisees three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then the parable of the man with two sons. The first two parables are short and follow the same pattern:
A thing of some value is lost. There is a reckless effort exerted to find it. Then the owner throws an extravagant party in celebration of the recovery, inviting friends and neighbors to share in the joy. And then Jesus adds a claim that this same rejoicing is seen in heaven when a sinner is restored to God.
Then comes the third parable, the one we heard today, and it follows a convention of teaching in threes that was common in Jesus’s time. According to this convention, when stories are told in threes, the first two stories should follow the same pattern, but the third should add a twist, and that twist is the heart of the teaching.
In the parable of the man with two sons it is the response of the older son that is the twist. In the first two stories there is no question of whether the friends and neighbors will join in the celebration, but in this story the pattern gets interrupted. The older son becomes angry and refuses to come into the house. When his father comes out to plead with him, he presents a list of grievances, defending his right to be angry, and then the father makes his final plea… it is RIGHT to celebrate and rejoice when the one who was lost is found.
And that’s where the story ends. On a cliff-hanger. Jesus’s listeners don’t hear how the older son responds. They don’t get invited to peak into a heavenly celebration. They are left to contemplate the question for themselves… would you join the party?
The third parable is a direct challenge to the grumbling leaders to decide whether their sense of personal righteousness is more important than his, Jesus's, message of welcome.
And – to be clear – I’m not taking a swipe at the leaders for false righteousness, and nor is Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees were the recognized faith leaders of the community. They devoted themselves to the study of the religious laws and to the practice of purity under the Torah. They – like the older son in the parable – were justified in holding up their record of faithful obedience. Their righteousness is not the problem.
The problem is that they want to gatekeep God’s welcome, and Jesus has the gall to say they can’t.
The twist of this parable says to them: “You who are in the right… who do the hard work everyday… who have been faithful to the father and delayed or denied your own desires in your pursuit of righteousness – you are the ones in the wrong if you refuse to celebrate a radical welcome for those whom you don’t think deserve it.”
The brother in the parable isn’t wrong about what his brother did, he’s just wrong about whether or not that matters.
These three parables are not stories about repentance earning a sinner restoration – how can a lost sheep, or a lost coin repent? These three parables are setting up the question of whether or not the grumbling arbiters of righteousness will join the party that is going to happen whether they approve or not.
Jesus is clearly telling this parable to those in his community who were struggling with HIS “prodigal” welcome, but his teaching has broader application. Whenever we want to draw lines of deservedness…Whenever we cast ourselves as gatekeepers of welcome… Whenever we seek to defend our own rightness against actions that upset our view of how the world is supposed to work…We are confronted by the question: if those we see as unworthy are welcomed, will we still come to the party?
Our community has the opportunity to answer that question for ourselves today. After worship we will host our first ever “Loving Listening” session, as part of our Reconciling in Christ journey. Wherever each of us in on that journey, this gathering gives us a chance to say yes to Jesus’s party of radical welcome.
For those of us on the core team, and others who might be eager to push ahead, it’s a reminder that we are not the bouncers of God’s welcome party. Our job is to hold the door open for everyone, including for those who might be feeling more hesitant about whether this party is a good idea.
And for those who are hesitant, it’s an invitation to walk through the door, doubts and all… to be brave enough to voice questions and concerns in the spirit of the prodigal family, where mistakes do not have to be the last word, and even when we don’t have everything worked out, we can still celebrate the life we share where no one has to earn their place at the table.
I won’t pretend that the party is uncomplicated, or that it answers all the questions, but that’s the invitation.
And it’s an invitation extended to us by Jesus, who is, I believe, the ultimate “Prodigal Son” practicing extravagant generosity with his welcome and grace.
Thanks be to God.