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This man eats with sinners!

15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

“He can’t be the Messiah, he’s hanging out with sinners. The hard to love, the unruly, the dirty, the outcast.  We already know what the Messiah will look like. We’ve spent centuries deciding what kinds of things he will and won’t like. What kind of things he will and won’t do. It was a hard task because the Bible is so tricky to understand, but we have it figured out.  We have all kinds of songs we made up about it, and we even wear WWMD bracelets!”

Why the Messiah came

3 So he told them this parable:

It’s curious here that he doesn’t simply say: “No, no, you guys don’t get it. Here’s how it works.”  He doesn’t do this because they were already convinced in their mind that he wasn’t the Messiah.  They had their religion figured out. They were rock solid in their theology. And that was the problem!  He didn’t need to inform them, he needed to transform them.  He does this by telling several artful parables that encompass pretty much the entire story of the scriptures, from human nature and God’s nature, the human experience, and two very different reactions to God’s grace and mercy.

Contrary to what the Pharisees thought, the Messiah was not coming to confirm them in their correct theology and correct religious practice.  If they would have read their scriptures correctly, they would have understood that the Messiah was coming to seek and save that which is lost (Luke 19:10, Ezekiel 34:11).  Lost in terms of scattered sheep.  Jesus is gathering his sheep.  His stray sheep are everywhere, not simply among the religious, and it has nothing to do with rule keeping.  It has everything to do with repentance. 

The sheep metaphor

4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The sheep metaphor is fascinating. In the moment, it probably would have seemed like a completely random story from Jesus. In fact I wonder if he might have seemed a little mentally unstable at the moment. “Why is he talking about sheep?  What does this have to do with sinners?”  They would be forgetting their allusions to the writings of the prophets.  Or perhaps a few of them got it that day.

The parallel between people and sheep is not intended to communicate a warm, fuzzy, pastoral scene where we are the nice, peaceful, fluffy white sheep and God is our wonderful, gentle, well groomed, perfectly clean shepherd in a blazing white robe.   It actually would have been something of an insult.  Ask anyone who raises them. Sheep are stupid.  They are completely incapable of surviving on their own.  Helpless, defenseless, oblivious animals.

When Jesus uses the image of a shepherd going after a lost sheep as a symbol of repentance, he is, in line with the rest of the prophets and the Psalms in the Old testament describing a one-sided transaction.  The sheep (us), stupidly, and sheepily goes galavanting off doing its own thing, getting helplessly lost and putting itself in mortal peril.  The shepherd (God) goes after the sheep that belong to him, and finds it, sometimes at which point the sheep bolts.  The shepherd has to tackle the sheep, bind its feet, and hauls it home on his shoulders.   Only after the sheep is back with its flock is it happy to have been rescued. Sheep do not go skipping along behind the shepherd happily and willfully like a dog (or my cat). Only whole flocks follow the shepherd together. This parallel is very intentional.

Diligently searching for the lost

Jesus tells a second parable, this time maybe helping the women among the “sinners” group to connect a little more closely and describes what he is doing in terms of a woman diligently searching for the one lost coin.

8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

It’s worth noting in both of these, that there might be some shepherds who would think it a bit foolish to waste time looking for one single stray lamb when there are 99 to be kept safe in the open country. Or that it would be a waste of time to look for a single silver coin (not worth a fortune), when she had nine more, but this shows God’s concern for each individual, no matter what worldly value they might add to the entire group.  This is a good warning for us in the church today.  Search diligently for every sheep.  Every small coin. You’ll probably find them among the outcast, hard to love, difficult to work with, and among those who won’t “contribute” much.

The Prodigal son

He then moves to perhaps one of the most well known of all of his parables.  And I’d argue one of the most shallowly understood.  It is a parable of three prodigals. Or rather, two prodigals and one would-be-prodigal.

The definition of prodigal: 

adjective:

1. spending money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully extravagant.

2. having or giving something on a lavish scale

noun:

- a person who spends in a recklessly extravagant way.

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 

You might be familiar with the setup. Young, impetuous son (representing the tax collectors, and sinners, and most importantly, you) comes to the father and demands his inheritance early.  This is the cultural equivalent of telling the son telling father that he wishes he were dead. Inheritances are distributed upon death and are done so in land and livestock. This son wants cash. The father, rather than doing the appropriate thing and smacking the idiot across the face and expelling him from the family shows his true love, mercy, and kindness, and gives it to him.  The son proceeds to waste it on women, whisky, and sin. I wonder if he told people, when asked where he got his money, that his father had died.  Isn’t that what we do when challenged about the way we’re living?  Lie to ourselves about God?  “God is dead” we say.  

 Then everything changes... He goes runs out of money, hires himself out to probably the most degrading honest work he could find: tending pigs, which were unclean to a jew. It would have been an offensive job to any self-respecting Jew. At his lowest point, something remarkable happens:

“He came to himself”

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!

He didn’t get tired of his work. He didn’t get bored of the life he was living. He didn’t change his mind about this whole “prodigal son” thing.  “He came to himself.”  He wakes up.  He looks around, and he realizes, probably for the first time in his life, that he was living a life filled with hog manure... just like he had been his entire life.  This wasn’t a simple change of career he had in mind.  It was an intense, deep, personal revelation about what kind of person he was.  God had brought him to this exact point in his life, on purpose, to show him what his heart looked like: a muddy, smelly, filthy, hog wallow.  And he was starving.  And he knew where he could find food.  

It is significant and important that he combines two thoughts here in his realization: “I perish here.” and “my fathers servants have more than enough bread.”  The hopelessness of his situation and the benefits of the lowliest in his father’s house. Deciding to go to God because the benefits of being there are a better deal than you’re currently getting is not the same thing as repentance.  Repentance is total rejection of your current life.  Repentance means confessing the reality that you have made a mess of things trying to do it your own way.  Repentance is saying: “there is nothing for me here”.

He starts to prepare a speech.

The younger son’s speech

18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father.

“I have sinned against Heaven and before you.”  

He gets the picture complete and he gets the order right.  Every sin is primarily an offense against God, and oftentimes also an offense against a person or people.  He admitted his wrong doing.  Simply being upset over the pain that the sin is causing you is not repentance.  We must be grieved over the offense against God.

“I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants”

True repentance causes us to ask: How could i have treated God like this?  Look at how good He’s been to me. I am not worthy to be called his son or his daughter.  There are no excuses, no blame shifting to other people or past circumstances, only humble ownership of the wrongdoing.

The prodigal dad

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

It might be obvious, but it is worth stating, that the father in this story represents God. When you repent, this is the reception you will receive in heaven.  Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?  Because where there is repentance, there is celebration in heaven!  I’m not sure if the Pharisees caught it that Jesus was speaking from personal experience, he personally witnessed it in heaven, that when a sinner repents, there is joy and celebration in heaven!  He is telling the Pharisees that this is how they ought to feel that people are admitting the reality that they have been out of relationship with God, that they have been offending him with their actions, with their lack of faith, that is to say, their sin.  And now admitting their need for God and desire to be in relationship with him!  Instead, Jesus says, this is how the Pharisees are acting:

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,

The older son’s speech

The older son himself gives a speech at this point.

 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 

Compare these two speeches for a moment.  

“Father,” vs. “Look!”  

“I have sinned against heaven and before you” vs. “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command”

“I am not worthy to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired servants” vs. “yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends”

The real heart and motives of the older son come out.  He, like the younger son, is simply after the father’s stuff, not the father himself.  I wonder how many times the older brother had celebrated with his father with a young goat.  The many years the son had spent with the father were apparently about “service” and “obedience” and not about simply being the loving father’s son!

Jesus is pointing at the Pharisees, but I think also the tax collectors and sinners, and us, with this story.  Every time we lack compassion, mercy, or grace toward another person, we are the older brother.  Every time we lack the humility to identify with someone else’s faults, or sit in a sermon and nod along self-righteously and think about how much someone else needs to hear these words, we are the older brother.  Every time we refuse to generously and patiently give our time toward someone who is more difficult to be around, we are the Pharisee.  Jesus came to gather the stray sheep, to diligently search for the lost coin, to welcome back the prodigal son with prodigal grace.

The father’s response floors me every time.

31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Even now, God, the Father is extending grace and mercy toward even the older brother.  He understands that accepting the younger son back into the family is going to cost the older brother something. 

[Notes on Dividing the inheritance.]

You can’t serve God and money. (Luke 16:13-15)

The true older brother: Jesus.