T HE INTRODUCTION to this parable makes clear that Jesus was once again, taking on the issue of “who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ ” within God’s community. Jesus was in trouble with the Pharisees again for spending time with the “wrong kind of people” — the sinners.
Jesus wanted to make clear that spending time with the Publicans and the sinners did not mean a rejection of the Pharisees. The reception of sinners is not a rejection of the saints! God’s love is a both/and sort-of love — with room enough for ALL.
Story of two sons — upsetting.
■ People take sides.
■ Defend father’s right to celebrate
■ Defend older brother’s right to be angry
■ We shout with the older brother: “It’s not fair!”
† † †
WHAT DO WE DO as Christians with this crazy, upside-down story?
Primary issue for younger son — not only hunger. Bigger issues - Younger son so “disconnected and alone” — broke, hungry for relationship, lost without family or friends.
Henri Nouwen says: “He was disconnected from what gives life — family, friends, community, acquaintance and even food.”
In an “Aha!” moment, this son “came to himself” [“came to his senses”]. I always recall a phrase in a devotional I read which spoke of our need, at times, to “gather the scattered pieces of our self.” Periodically, Life has found me there — trying to gather the scattered pieces of myself. This son was surely at such a time — a need to gather the scattered pieces of his own life … “he came to himself.” … He saw the truth and began the walk home.
He came home to take even a “hired hand” role. But his dad said No. You are family. You are my son. Welcome home.
† † †
HERE IS HOW Jesus taught his listeners to understand the “NOT FAIRness” of the story. He seemed to say, “This is not a justice story. This is a story of the outrageous generosity of the father.
Bible editors, through the years, have given this story the wrong title. It should not be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It should have the title “The Parable of the Loving Father.”
This father … loves both sons.
■ Welcomes one without shame
■ Includes the other
■ Both were offered everything father has to give.
† † †
THIS STORY IN LUKE of the father and two sons — one of the most powerful stories in the Bible for me. Almost 40 years ago, this story changed my life. I was the “prodigal daughter” — spiritually lost — trying to “come home” — after years of avoiding God.
I was responsible in my career, and in my family life. But I was so far away spiritually. I was so lost, I thought I would never be found. I thought it might be too late, that God would never welcome me back.
This is the story that allowed me, after years of distance and distrust, to forgive the church and come home to God.
† † †
IN 1984, I had picked up a book: Lion and The Lamb, written by Brennan Manning, a priest whose ministry attempted to help heal our image of God. He shared this:
“God loves you as you are and not as you should be! Do you believe this? That God loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity, that He loves you in the morning sun and the evening rain, that He loves you without caution, regret, boundary, limit, or breaking point?”
This is another of the stories Jesus told about the outrageous generosity of our heavenly Father.
While I am not a Justin Bieber fan, I caught one of his songs on the radio and was so moved: One phrase is this:
“Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.”
I experienced that grace.
† † †
I WAS THE ONE who had left church in my 20s, and began searching again 16 years later.
Here is the tough news which is part of my story and unfortunately, is true for many others. It took me four years of searching to find that church. One church I went to maybe six Sundays in a row. No one — no one — ever spoke to me, welcomed me, invited me to come back. No one. I was so hungry I kept going back anyway, until I didn’t anymore.
One church I could not find a place to park. Another I could not figure out what door to enter as the only parking was behind the church and I couldn’t find the main entrance.
And so months became years before I found a church. The unwelcoming spirit of many congregations astounds me still. It is true for many who are lost and seeking — that when they try to come home, there is not a welcome.
† † †
BUT I DID FIND a church—a new church, committed to offering reconciling ministry. There I was:
■ Welcomed after running away [ the church had friends enough, but made room for me anyway]
■ Welcomed into a church family, though gone so long
■ Invited to serve, even lead.
■ This story was about me — and I wept — for months as I found myself truly welcomed home.
■ About eight years later, I recognized this call to pastoral ministry. I’d have missed this if not for a church able to welcome this prodigal child.
† † †
I THINK THIS next part of this message is not for this church. You are committed to “radical hospitality.” I believe you have captured the spirit of what it means to be welcoming in the name of our heavenly Father. But I will share a few stories, to help you recognize what good is happening here and how important it is for the prodigals and those lost in your community. Because I have no doubt, some of the following still happens, unfortunately, in our Christian world.
What do we do as a church when sinners or strangers, or visitors, or prodigal sons or daughters show up in our midst? Can we find the way, like the father — to be generous to both — the one who returned, as well as the ones who stayed?
My first church, as a student pastor, would literally not make room for visitors to sit. I left the pulpit on my second Sunday with them, to welcome a family at the door and usher them to a pew. Members, begrudgingly, moved over to make room. Preaching then, focused for a season on Christian hospitality. Amazingly, that family returned anyway and became a vital part of the congregation. They had been a “prodigal family” — away from any church for several years, eager to find a church home.
At the same church, a new member was added, who came with experience in church leadership. She willingly and competently stepped into some ministry leadership roles. I recall a meeting overhearing an old member say, “she’s not been here long enough to have any voice in our church matters.” We talked about that privately later.
Another church, a member became angry that after church I spent time after worship at the door, greeting those who were leaving, before I joined others in the fellowship hall. The ones leaving were often visitors going out the door, unwelcomed if I hadn’t been there to speak with them. The “regulars” had headed the opposite direction, to coffee time. I was loudly confronted by one angry member: “Pastor, we are your boss. We don’t pay you to spend time with strangers. Your job is to be in the fellowship hall with members.” That definitely led us to a big discussion about who indeed is “boss,” what my primary task was, and into a season of teaching about being “pew hosts,” welcoming the strangers in our midst.
† † †
IF YOU ARE LIKE the older brother, always working hard, loyal, faithful — be ready to celebrate when younger brothers/sisters come home again . The church exists for them! The church exists for you. The church exists to make Christ known, and alive in each life and throughout the community.
God’s love drew me back home again …
And then the church made room for me.
I felt forgiven, included, needed, loved.
God is always the one we know as the generous father — because of who GOD is.
† † †
THAT IS MY STORY. And through all this reconciling journey, I still agreed with the older brother. It was not fair that a prodigal like me should be so welcomed.
But I was! It was outrageous. Not our standard for justice. How could it be? Throughout history, people like me have been just as welcomed in the church of Jesus Christ as have those who have been faithful their whole lives. It is unsettling.
† † †
WE MAY MESS UP our lives — but our God of new beginnings throws a party when we turn toward home,
For those who have been lost — or are still wandering — know there is a place for you within the shelter of God’s grace.
† † †
KNOW THIS: Whoever you are, God’s love is offered to you. This is a both/and kind of gift. Whether you have been faithful or wasteful, loyal or full of questions — God , our heavenly father, like the father in today’s parable, offers you everything that is His. He longs for you to be part of the family, to join the party, to be celebrated and to celebrate.
Thanks be to God. You are each God’s own child, beloved, and beautiful to behold.
[For those reading online, feel free to offer feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.]