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Luke #57 Invited to the Party

Invited to the Party

Reading: Luke 15:11-32

Introduction: Our story from Luke this morning is perhaps the most famous parable in all the teachings of Jesus--most commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. The parable is the third in a series of parables told by Jesus in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and Scribes when Jesus continued to be surrounded in his ministry by the wrong kinds of people. “He receives tax collectors and sinners and eats with them,” they said. In other words, he has fellowship with bad company. Last week we talked about the wisdom of staying away from bad people, lest their corruption rub off on you. It was the wisdom of the age then just as it is now--bad company corrupts good morals. The righteous man keeps himself unspotted by the evil world. In response to the complaint of the religious leaders, Jesus told three parables, all of which oddly enough, are known to us in negative terms: the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. They could just as easily be known as the found sheep, the found coin, the found son. But we think of these stories in terms of the condition prior to being found.

Last week we looked at the first two parables, and talked about the great risk involved in the shepherd leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness for the sake of saving one lost sheep. We witnessed the great determination of the woman who would stop everything else and search her house thoroughly and diligently until she found that coin. The celebration was great each time. The neighbors were called in to celebrate because the lost had been found. Such is the heavenly father’s love for his lost people. He loves each one so much that the others can be put at risk to save the one. The good news for the 99 is that he would do the same for any one of them.

These two parables illustrate God’s love for sinners by focusing on human love for possessions--for a sheep and a coin. The final parable in the series concerns personal relationships, with the human interest in possessions being the trigger mechanism for what goes wrong in the story. We identify this parable with the so-called prodigal son. Others have called this the parable of the loving father, or the parable of the self-righteous elder brother. Jesus himself identifies the characters in the beginning as a father and his two sons. All three characters play key roles, and the story is incomplete without focusing on all three. The youngest son is described first, and he would fit well with the “me-generation” thinking of our own time. Totally absorbed with himself and “what is mine,” he claims his inheritance before his father is even dead. According to Jewish Law he was entitled to one third of the estate when his father died. But custom and honor said, never break up the family farm. Because he is consumed with his own desires, he shames his father and his family and takes his share and leaves. It should be noted that the father does not prevent his son from making that choice but knowingly risks the loss of his son at that point.

The son proceeds to do everything possible destroy every identity link with his past. He goes to a far country, denying his relationship to family and geographical heritage. He squanders his inheritance in loose living, thus denying any moral or ethical heritage. When the famine comes and he is flat broke, he denies his Jewish heritage by attaching himself to a Gentile. Most offensive of all, he ends up taking care of pigs, the epitome of uncleanness. In the midst of total failure and collapse of his life, wishing he could eat the food served to the pigs, he “comes to his senses”--he repents--and remembers his father, and the hired servants back home who are now better off than he. So he composes his plea of repentance: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

We know the story. While he is still a long way off the father, who has been watching for his son, sees him in the distance and has compassion on him and rushes to embrace him and kiss him--both physical signs of acceptance. The son tries to get his speech out, but is interrupted by the father ordering his servants to bring the best robe and ring and sandals—again, all signs of adoption of re-investiture of sonship. “And kill the fatted calf, and start the party.” There must be a celebration, “for this my son was dead, and now he is alive; (even more than that) he was lost and now is found.”

The parable would simply parallel the first two in this chapter if it were not for the rest of the story that follows. There is still the other son to be heard from, the one who did not leave, the one who honored his father and mother, and took care of the family inheritance, and for all of these years has been faithful in every respect. But it turns out, he has not thought of himself as a son any more than the younger brother. The elder son comes in from another day of work in the field only to discover that everyone else quit early and there’s a party going on. When he asks what’s going on, he learns from a servant that his estranged brother has returned and Dad is throwing a party. He is furious and refuses to go in. Just as the father went out to meet the younger son, now he goes out to meet the elder son. And Dad gets an earful: “All these years I have slaved for you and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat, much less a calf, that I could have a party with my friends.” Refusing even to claim kinship with his brother, he talks about this “son of yours” who devoured your living with prostitutes--and you reward him with a party.

The father entreats this son with the same love he extended to the younger brother. “Son, you’re always with me; everything I have is yours. But it was the right thing to do to celebrate, because you brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Suddenly it becomes clear that the elder son hasn’t felt like a son all of these years--he’s been a slave. Now he is enslaved by bitterness and envy, and we are left to wonder whether he ever did go into the party. The parallels to God and his love for sinners are so obvious in this story that they go unstated rather than being offered as explanation like the first two parables. God is the loving father who cares for all of his children equally. He will not stop his child from risking it all and losing it all. But he longs for his child to return and he offers redemption and celebration when the lost is found. He loves the one who remains faithful just as much, but the self-centeredness of the elder son ends up being more damning than that of the first.

Joe and Charlene first met in church when they were children. They were high school sweethearts, actively involved in church activities, a model of Christian conduct to other young people. Everyone was pleased when they got married, even though they were a bit young--neither had finished college at the time. But Joe went on to finish college, they had a couple of kids, and they returned to the church they had grown up in and became very active with the youth group. Again they seemed like the model family. Joe was successful in his work; they were leaders in the church. All was well in the world--until Joe suddenly ran off with another woman. He divorced his wife, married the lady he had been having an affair with. Charlene was crushed; the church was devastated. A few years later, Charlene remarried and got on with her life. All was as well as it could be, until folks found out that Joe and his new wife had come back to the church and gone forward asking for restoration and forgiveness--it was at another congregation, of course. But friends of Charlene were heard to say, “I could never forgive him for what he did to Charlene and the kids.”

There was the young lady who came forward one Sunday, and we all knew why: she was pregnant, but not married. She wanted the prayers of the church in her behalf, and we did that. But then there came the inevitable question: do we give her a baby shower or not? What kind of message would that send to the other young girls in the congregation?

There was the deacon in the church, back in the days of bus ministries, who worked tirelessly, day and night, for 10 years on the bus ministry, getting less and less help from others. And then he stopped--not just his work on the bus ministry but everything. His words were something to the effect, “I’ve worked my rear end off for this church and nobody else ever lifted a finger to help. No one even said thanks for all of your hard work. People come off the street and get more attention that I’ve gotten for 10 years of sweat and effort. I’m out of here.” And he was.
Fred Craddock tells the story of a time while he and his family were living in Oklahoma. He says “there was a family who lived up the street. The husband and wife were divorced. There were two beautiful daughters. The youngest daughter, about 14, had matured early and was particularly pretty. But there was not much home life and this younger daughter had all kinds of problems. She was truant at school; she was suspected of marijuana and taking other drugs, just constantly in trouble, drinking and hanging on the tail end of every Honda that roared through town, always in trouble. Finally the judge sent her to a detention home in the northern part of the state. She was pregnant at the time. She had the baby when she was 15 while she was there. All of us in the neighborhood heard about it.

“We also heard she was coming home. The afternoon that she was to come home, all of us in the neighborhood had to mow our yards. And I was mowing the yard, watching down the street, waiting to see that young girl come home, wondering if she would bring that baby with her. I was mowing and watching for her to come home, no cars were coming, I kept mowing slower and slower. Finally I was down to about a blade of grass at a time. Finally a car pulled in and this girl got out, and she had that baby, born to a girl out of wedlock, born in prison. Some folks came out of the house and they rushed to hug and kiss that girl and they all wanted to see and hold that baby. They were kissing and hugging that baby, kissing and hugging that girl, and another car pulled into the driveway, and then another car. And those people all were wanting to hold that baby and hug that 15 year old delinquent mom. Then another car and another car--they started parking on the street. Pretty soon the street was so jammed you couldn’t get a Christian car down that street--everybody coming to see that baby!

“Finally I got a bit self-conscious and went on inside the house because it suddenly struck me that someone down there might see me and come down and say, ‘Fred, we want you and your wife to come down to the house—we’re having a party for our daughter and the grandbaby.” Would I go?” Craddock concludes by saying, “It’s easier to preach the prodigal son than to go to the party!”

There is an offensiveness to the grace of God that is sometimes hard to swallow. There are the Susan Smiths of our world, the Jeffrey Dahmers that are beyond the pale of forgiveness. And we are afraid to find out that God might forgive them because it just wouldn’t be fair to those of us who have been good all of our lives and never even gotten a thank you, much less a party. Isn’t the father condoning the life and lifestyle of the younger son when he forgives him and throws a party?

There are those of you who have come this morning who know the self-centered life of the younger brother, of wanting to play and live it up in the good life and maybe you’re back this morning. Or maybe you’re just waiting to get the chance to bust out and get your inheritance and spend it all in riotous living.

There are others of you here this morning that have been dutiful sons and daughters and faithful Christians all of your life. But it feels more like slavery to be a Christian this morning than family. And it’s just cheap grace to allow others to get away with adultery and remarriage and abuse and alcoholism and all that these other people seem to get away with. And mind you, this story does include repentance--the young man did come to his senses and turn his life around--there was no presumption of grace on his part. But there was a surprising reception of love upon his return.

“Pray then like this,” Jesus says...”forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” God is giving a part in his kingdom this morning. He longs for the lost to be found the dead to be made alive. He also wants the self-righteous to put away their pride and forgive as he forgives, love as he loves, accept his forgiveness and truly be sons and daughters rather than bitter slaves who stay outside the house. Whatever your need this morning, don’t refuse God’s loving invitation as together we stand and sing.

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, September 10, 1995 a.m.

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