In two short, understated sentences, Luke nails down both the problem and the solution. Here they are:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)
The “problem” is that state of separation between God and man that we call sin. In answer to a newspaper editorial entitled “What is wrong with the world?” G.K.Chesterton crisply retorted:
In ten simple words, he offered a reaffirmation of the Christian teaching about the sinfulness of the human race. Dayo Adewoye writes, (in The Christian Mind), “This view counters the belief that evil and corruption in the world stem from the environment. Taking a long, hard look at the ills and heartaches of today, it discovers the root cause of all that is wrong in the corrupt and deformed stature of our hearts.
Sin is all around us. It is in the terrorist who blows up innocent people in a market square; it is in the rapist who molests a seven year old girl; it is in the husband who abuses his wife.
But sin is also within us. It is in the thoughts of revenge and bitterness. Sin is in the selfishness and lack of care for those in need around us. It is in our lustful desires and greedy intentions.
The Christian worldview emphasizes that though the world was made good by a holy and just God, the earth went into decline the moment man rebelled against God. Like a virus, sin infects and distorts all that is a part of God’s created order – marriage, business, government, knowledge, religion, family. Everything is affected.
Therefore, since the problem is heart-deep, we need a remedy that can transform the heart of man and make it holy once again. And since the decline is comprehensive in scope, we need a corrective that is equally comprehensive in its scope.”
This is exactly what God’s plan of redemption through Jesus accomplishes.
And that’s the solution, right here in the same passage: “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”
Of course, it was intended as a slur, but it is a wonderful truth. In Jesus, God was drawing near his lost people to bring them home. The chapter has three connected stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
The famous story that we call “The Prodigal Son” really has two sons who are at a distance from their father. The youngest, the guy who goes crazy with the beer and skittles, is the one who demands his inheritance, and runs off on a spending spree. When the money runs out and he comes to his senses, he makes his repentant way home. According to the story, he creates a geographical distance that has to be overcome. It’s “a long way” home.
The older son never budges. He works the farm, and does his chores. Happy as Larry, apparently. Until Larry comes home and Dad throws a party for the errant kid. “We have to celebrate!” Dad says. And then all his resentment boils over, and you realise just what has been steaming inside him all these years. “Why are you so nice to him, who has turned you grey with worry, and never take any account of me? I never had a party.” You can almost see the pout.
The father’s reply is fascinating. “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” So, in the case of the older son, the distance is purely emotional. He is there all the time, but they have “lost touch.”
And the story ends at this intriguing point. The way Jesus tells it, there is no “happy ever after” with the family reunited and enjoying the barbecue together. Instead, the story ends with the poignant question: “Will you come in and enjoy the party?”
It’s a question that continues to intrigue me. The context of the story, of course, explains its purpose. Jesus was roaming the hills and villages of first century Palestine with a swelling crowd of followers. There was a massive gush of expectation about who he was and what he was doing: there were reports of astonishing miracles and his stories must have spread like wildfire. The “common people heard him gladly” as the Bible puts it.
But there were others who heard him not so gladly. These are variously classified as “the scribes and Pharisees” or “the religious leaders.” They saw him as a threat to their position, as someone who entirely lacked credentials and yet mocked their pretensions of authority, piety and God-fearing-ness.
And so here are the two sons. First, the disreputable rabble who have wandered far from God, are now welcomed home with a riot of noise and pleasure (like having a party for 30 five year olds in your living room). Don’t worry! Father God loves you! ENJOY! Yaay!
And the other lot. Standing at the edges with slightly sour faces. They already know all the theology and are professional religious leaders. They have standing in the community, and a role to protect these innocent and slightly foolish people from con-men and charlatans. Besides, it’s their job to teach and preach. They ask awkward questions which Jesus bats off with a grin, never losing step, never losing focus on God and his love.
So Jesus poses a question back. You already know the Father. Everything he has is yours already. But will you come in and enjoy the party? Or not?
Sadly, it seems that their very knowledge of God has turned into self-importance. Jesus said that it was if they stood at the door with the key, not going in themselves and not letting anyone else in.
Maybe this is why God has to keep doing new things. Maybe this is why there’s a million denominations. Simply because, we forget to enjoy him. We know all the words but have forgotten the song.
Or in a different metaphor, (from “Lord of the Dance”): “I am the dance and the dance goes on…” If you stop it over here, it will simply spring up over there.
I have spent most of my adult life as a pastor in various churches. So I guess I’m a professional religious leader myself. (It’s a slightly worrying thought in the light of this story!) And the two sons are evident in the story of my life. There is always a level of friction between outsiders and insiders, between evangelistic and pastoral ministry.
To be honest, it just feels now -looking back-as if a huge amount of my energy has gone into persuading older brothers to lighten up.
Ever had that experience in a restaurant when there’s a table just over there with a bunch of people laughing at something that you can’t hear? Don’t you just want to go over and join them?
Over there, where there is real, unbridled joy over the lost who have been found. In the words of Steve Brown: “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”
And in the light of that: “You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.”
Pic: Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c1668) shows both sons. One shaven and broken, the other hands crossed in judgement. Rembrandt scholar Rosenberg writes: “The whole represents a symbol of homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.”