“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Amen. (Luke 15:2)
This morning we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that is no doubt familiar to most of you. It was one of the first stories that many of us learned in Sunday school; a story that has inspired some of the finest art and literature of the Western world. It has shaped our culture and our consciousness in ways both subtle and profound. We know this story, and many, many people see in it the narrative of their own lives.
In my experience, most people tend to identify with the younger brother in the story. Who hasn’t sown a few wild oats? Who among us hasn’t strayed along the way? Are we not all sinners in need of forgiveness? We all long for the loving embrace of our Mother-Father God welcoming us home. We are human. But Jesus isn’t overly preoccupied with sinners. He isn’t concerned about those who recognize their need for forgiveness and are able to exercise compassion toward themselves and others. It is people like the older brother in the parable, who worry Jesus.
One of the story lines that drives the dramatic narrative of Luke’s gospel is the developing tension between Jesus and the religious leaders, who use their moral authority to enhance their social status at the expense of those whom they condemn. They are undone by Jesus’ pushing of the boundaries to include those whom they have excluded: the sick, the poor, women, outcasts, and sinners. In their growing resistance to Jesus, they reveal their hypocrisy, their pretense of loving God while despising their neighbor.
Jesus was continually pressing their buttons. One of the ways in which he really ticked them off was his practice of sharing festive meals with sinners and tax collectors, who were considered to be traitors. In fact, the religious leaders accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. He was a party boy, and he partied with the “wrong sort of people.” Through his table fellowship, Jesus enacted the inclusive love of God. Jesus was defining communion with God in ways that undermined the exclusive status of the religious types. If everyone is welcome, then religious folks are no longer special – they are just like everyone else – no more and no less than human; no more, and no less, welcome.
This just drove the religious leaders crazy, and so they are grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners . . . and EATS with them.” They were shocked and appalled that Jesus would make himself impure by associating with such people. For them, impurity is contagious. Jesus turns things upside down: for him, purity is contagious and the mechanism for its transmission is compassion. This is the religious leaders’ ultimate blind spot: their lack of compassion. So, Jesus tells them this famous parable, providing a mirror in which the grumbling Pharisees and scribes are invited to see themselves reflected in the person of the older brother.
Listen again to the part of the story that surely got the religious leaders’ attention:
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" (Luke 15:25-32)
The elder brother is like the religious leaders, enraged by the party going on. He thinks he deserves the party – he doesn't understand that the issue of deserving or not deserving is beside the point. He distances himself from his own brother, referring to him as “this son of yours.” He refuses to share table fellowship with such a notorious sinner. As far as he is concerned, any party with little brother on the guest list isn’t worth attending.
The older brother, the religious types whom Jesus gives such fits, are all bound up by notions of entitlement, superiority, and condemnation of others. Theirs is a religion of judgment. Jesus offers a religion of compassion, in which God’s judgment takes the form of mercy. Will the religious leaders hear the good news offered to the older brother? “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The father in the parable insists on connection: “this brother of yours was dead” – challenging his oldest son to acknowledge the bonds of affection, the common humanity that they share. And he insists on compassion – “we had to celebrate and rejoice.” Through compassion, the one who was cut off, who was dead, is restored to relationship and to life. The party is just revving up. Will the older brother relent and join in? The parable ends without revealing his response. And so the invitation remains open.
Here, I’m reminded of a story that Louie Crew tells about his family. While his parents came to accept the fact that Louie is gay, they could not accept the fact that his husband, Ernest, is black. Ernest was not welcome in their home. They had stretched the boundaries of inclusion as far as they could go. Jesus was pushing hard up against the limits of their white privilege and
In the midst of all this painful rejection, Louie and Ernest found it amusing that both sets of parents would confuse them with each other on the phone. Evidently, they sounded the same when they answered. One day, after six years of marriage, Louie answered the phone and heard his father say, “Let me speak to my son.” Louie laughed, “Dad, you are speaking to your son.” “No Louie,” his father replied, “I want to speak to my OTHER son.”
Louie picked his jaw up off the floor and handed the phone to Ernest, whispering, “This one’s for you.” Ernest’s father-in-law said, “Ernest, We are Christians but we haven’t acted like Christians. Please forgive us. We want to invite you and Louie to come visit us this weekend. We are going to have a party and invite all of our friends so that they can meet you. You are our son and you are welcome in our home.”
Louie’s parents, who started out as “older brother” types concerned with maintaining the boundaries of religious and racial purity, were eventually willing to accept God’s open-ended invitation. In welcoming Ernest to their home, they, too, finally joined in the party.
The good news of Jesus is that communion with God is a terrific party and God, not the religious authorities, is in charge of the guest list. Indeed, it is impossible to crash God’s party, because you are always already invited. The religious authorities do so much grumbling, because the “wrong” people keep showing up at the door. They sometimes forget that associating with the “wrong” people is the whole point.
As Brian Taylor reminds us, “Being a follower of Jesus means that we associate with the ‘wrong’ crowd. We are to make friends wherever we find an open heart and a desire for God, no matter what ‘sort’ of person they are. We are to drop our judgments that are based upon social conformity and look into the heart of each individual. We are to move beyond our fear and listen to the other. What we often discover when we do so is a refreshing perspective that gives new life to our dusty old religiosity. We discover the spirit of Jesus alive again. (Becoming Human, p. 58)
On the altar of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in