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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Missing the Celebration (Luke 15.11-32)

May 16, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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We have been looking at a series of stories Jesus told in response to a gathering where religious folks were grumbling at the presence of and Jesus’ interest in some non-religious folks. Jesus had been attracting and then associating with the kind of people that didn’t mix well with the organized religion of the day, and that really set the leaders of that organized religion against him. With all these folks in one place, Jesus began to tell three stories.

I’ve described this particular story form, the parable, as being similar to the modern-day joke. That’s not because a parable is funny or not to be taken seriously, but because it has a hook that reels the listener in and a punch line that delivers the goods.

We’ve looked at two already: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. In each the hook was a main character taking time and demonstrating interest in finding something of value that had been lost. This “hooked” the religious leaders, who had written off the non-religious crowd. Once they strayed, good riddance. Jesus’ stories “hooked” the so-called sinners because, contrary to the dominant religion of the day, he portrayed God as one who was vitally interested in them and their welfare.

That’s a good lesson to take to heart – God never writes anyone off, and more than that, remains vitally interested in people even when they mess up or turn away.

But there’s more here: something even more challenging and foundational and important. It’s the punch line of all three stories, and it’s played up more and more in each story. And that’s what I really don’t want you to miss.

As I did last week, I want to point out what’s different in this third re-telling of the point Jesus is trying to make. And then I want to invite you to really wrestle with the punch line, to try to “get it” as the main point.

What’s Different the Third Time Through?

I want to highlight five differences in this story that make it stand out from the previous two. Jesus has been building momentum and this story is the most involved, has the strongest hook, and delivers the (same) punch line with the greatest impact.

In the first story, 1 in 100 was lost. In the next, it was 1 in 10. Now it’s one of two. And no longer an animal or a coin, we’re talking about a human being, and that a son. Jesus is making this issue of who’s in and who’s out immediate, important, and personal.

Second, a wandering sheep is mostly mindless, probably seeking food or just distracted. A coin has no will at all. But a human being – that’s different. In this story, the one who is lost has a willfulness of his own. And let me be clear: Jesus did not portray an immature boy who just made a few poor choices. The son chose his fate, portrayed in the most startling and stark terms: in asking for his inheritance and leaving home, he is as much as wishing his father to die. For Jesus’ audience, this son was a willful, disobedient, and dishonorable man – some would have even characterized him as hateful toward his father – and would have stirred up very strong feelings for all those hearing the story. Jesus didn’t leave out any “sinner” in the room, for the son’s sins would have trumped any sin in the room in the eyes of that first century Jewish audience.

Third, also unlike a sheep or coin, a human being has the capacity to change his or her mind, to have a change of heart, to repent, even for mixed motives. Remember, while some in Jesus’ day taught that God would receive repentant sinners, the Pharisees did not. They had written off the sinners present in the audience, and they would have had a strong reaction to the idea of the son repenting and returning home.

A fourth observation flows from that strong image of the hateful son turned penitent. And this would have shaken all those in the room even more than the shocking picture of the younger son turned against his father. Even more shocking, the father did not behave like a proper father. To some in the room (Pharisees), he should have turned the son away or refused to see him altogether. For others (sinners) in the room, the hope beyond hope would have been for a dignified Father to reluctantly receive the son after proper demonstrations of humility, repentance, and respect, and perhaps proper punishment or payback. But Jesus describes a Father who sees the son at a distance and runs to meet him, embracing and kissing him. And there is no mention of payback or restitution, only a huge party to celebrate the son’s return. Shocking! Shocking! And there’s the hook.

Finally (and fifth), Jesus also provides insight into the willfulness and mindset of the older brother – the “obedient son.” This dimension was missing in the first two stories about the sheep and coin. Having exclusively told stories about the sinners in the room and why he might associate with them, Jesus suddenly has included the perspective of the indignantly righteous, “obedient son” Pharisees. And he does so AFTER describing the party in such detail, when the Pharisees’ self-righteousness would be as piqued as the elder brother’s. Talk about a hook; he’s got them twice-hooked now.

Why Do I Keep Making a Big Deal about the Punch Line?

And then there’s the punch line – joy! And with the two hooks, Jesus delivers it twice. He does so once in verses 22-24 and then again in verse 32. Why do I make such a big deal about this punch line of joy? It’s more than just that the story-form demands it (i.e. that you have to ask what the punch line of a parable is to understand it). It’s that without this punch line we just wouldn’t get Jesus’ point, which is to describe something deeper than the performance-based religion of his day, something in which both Pharisees and sinners were entangled.

Both the older and younger brother were entangled in the notion that their father’s love depended on their behavior. The younger son rehearsed the speech he would make and returned not as a son, but in hopes of becoming a hired hand. The older son was so indignant that his own good behavior was not rewarded that he refused to be a part of the father’s celebration (ironically sharing in the sin of disassociating from the father!).

What Jesus has portrayed three times for us now, and most poignantly in this story, is the love that God the Father has for each of you. Your faithful church attendance or participation has not won that love. Your willful turning away from God has not diminished it. That is the punch line – that is the thing Jesus would have you not miss. That is the thing he wants you to know when the stories are done and someone says, “Did you get it?” God loves you first and always. You haven’t earned it; you can’t use it up.

And that, my friends, is GOOD NEWS. It is hard to understand or accept, especially when the conditional loves of this world have trained us otherwise, but it is literally the Gospel truth – the Good News truth.

Indeed, there is a message for those who are far from God: “Come home!”  There is also a message for those who view religion as a means to impress God or barter for His blessing: “Don’t miss the celebration!”

For each of us, the underlying reason is that God loves you and desires to know and be known by you. You haven’t earned that and you can’t use it up. Believe the Good News!

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