“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
What the Pharisees and Scribes didn’t understand, and what many still fail to understand, is that Jesus came into this world to save sinners. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
“Sinners” are in a desperate situation that even they themselves don’t realize. They’ve fallen into a deep pit that can’t get out of. And they’ll die in that pit unless someone pulls them out.
The big problem with ‘sinners’ is EITHER that they believe that they have NOT FALLEN into a pit and that Jesus and His Christians have the wrong idea about their life, OR they think they can get themselves out of the pit.
Sinners will either say, “This is the way life should be” OR “I got myself into this. I’ll get myself out of this.”
“Repentance” is that change of heart and mind that only happens by the Holy Spirit, whereby the sinner begins to accept the fact that unless someone comes to pull him out of the pit, he’s doomed, NOT ONLY to die in it but to spend eternity in it.
This change of heart, this ‘repentance,’ is what Paul was talking about in our Epistle reading when he said, “The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2Cor. 5:17) The ‘sinner’ welcomes Jesus and calls Him, ‘my savior.’
It wasn’t that the Pharisees and Scribes weren’t aware that they were ‘sinners.’ It’s that they were thoroughly convinced they could get themselves out of the pit. In fact they probably thought of themselves as ‘already there.’ “And if we can do it so can they.”
Paul writes to Timothy saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Tim. 1:15). All sinners! Not just some sinners or a certain class of sinners. “ALL” sinners – tax collectors and sinners as well as Pharisees and Scribes, and if them, then you and me too.
In His parable of the two lost sons, Jesus gives us a picture of the way the love of God for sinners is either received or rejected. Here we see the picture of ‘repentance’ and ‘hard-hearted refusal’ of divine love. And as we hear His story, we must ask ourselves, ‘which one am I?’
- The Younger Son
The story begins with an introduction of the main characters. “There is a man who had two sons.”
The curtain opens on one of these two sons of the father. “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’
He wants his freedom. He’s tired of living under his father’s roof with all of his father’s rules and regulations and curfews. We can almost hear him shouting over his, “I’m never coming back to this place. I can’t wait to be free of you and live on my own and do as I please.”
Some of you may find yourself thinking, “Oh yea, I’ve been there and done that.” And some of you may be saying, “What a jerk this kid was. I would never do anything like that.”
The boy goes to some unnamed, “far country” which could be anywhere as long as it’s away from the ‘old man.’
But he quickly discovers that a buck doesn’t go as far as he thought it would. And he remembers that refrain his father constantly repeated while he was at home – (c’mon, say it with me) “don’t you know that money doesn’t grow on trees.”
It doesn’t take long at all before he’s broke. Now he’s got to find a JOB. Which he does, which a “citizen of that country.” Which sounds innocent enough until Jesus embellishes the story with the gory little detail that this naughty little Jewish boy is slopping pigs.
Just try to picture the Pharisees and scribes as they listen to Jesus spin this tale. “Pig farmer.” “Oi vey.” Suddenly the tax collectors and sinners don’t look so bad.
So, let’s be sure to notice here that as Jesus paints a picture of “a sinner,” He doesn’t create a “respectable sinner.” He’s not minimizing the offense of the younger son as if to say, “you know, these sinners aren’t really so bad once you get to know them.” No, Jesus paints a picture of a truly pathetic person that everyone back home despises… EXCEPT THE FATHER.
Eventually, the young man hits rock bottom. “He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” He had longed to be out from under his father’s thumb. And now finds himself under the thumb of a foreigner, who doesn’t even give him his DAILY BREAD.
His pride is crumbling, but it goes deep and it’s not easily broken. He has another plan for how he might save BOTH his life and his face.
“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’”
He figures he’d fill out an application for whatever work might be available around the father’s house and in that place where it asked for “references,” he’d put his father’s name. If the plan worked, he’d at least have something to eat and a roof over his head. He’d save up his wages and before you can say, ‘compound interest,’ he’d be able to strike out on his own again.
And with that, we come to the crucial moment in this story. Will the father receive his rebellious son? Or, will the Father slam the door in the Son’s face and disown Him? Would he refuse to “receive him and eat with him?”
And the terrible answer is, “YES,” He would do JUST THAT. The Father punished His Son with the full measure of His righteous anger. He handed His Son over to the executioner and had Him flogged unmercifully until His body was a mangled mass of flesh and blood. And then He had His son nailed to a cross and left to die. And when, from the cross, the Son cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” the Father turned His back on His Son.
And the Father saw all of this while His prodigal children were still a long way off. He saw this from all eternity. And because He sees this, His Son, His only Son, whom He loves, crucified for sinners, for His sake, He is “filled with compassion” for this sinner and for every sinner, and He runs to him and embraces the sinner in His ‘FOOLISH LOVE.’
And before the son can offer his plan for what he will do to earn his way back into the father’s good graces, the Father cuts him off, and dresses him in the best robe, puts the ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, so that all the whole community will know that this son of his has been fully accepted and completely restored to sonship.
And there is laughter and crying and hugging and kissing and the angels in heaven are singing and dancing. And all because “This, MY SON was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
“And they began to celebrate.” The whole village celebrated the Father’s FOOLISH LOVE. For his son that was lost is now found. The Father has WHAT BELONGS TO HIM again.
2. The Older Son
But there’s another son of the father too. He’s the older one. And being the ‘older’ one he should also be the ‘wiser’ one. As Jesus paints the picture of the older son, he also lives in a “far country.” While all of this is going on, the older son, Jesus says, was “out in the field.”
Even though the older son lives in the father’s house and has never left it, he is so far removed from the father, he doesn’t even know that his brother has come home. Coming in from the far away fields, he actually has to ask the SERVANT what the celebration is all about. And once he is told, he refuses to go inside and share in his father’s joy.
The younger son staged his public protest by leaving the father’s house. The older son stages his public protest by refusing to enter it.
So, once again, everyone is embarrassed for the Father who has to bear this public humiliation of another rebellious son, who represents the Scribes and Pharisees.
And once again, Jesus brings the story to a point of crisis. How will the Father respond to his older son? Will he respond to the boy’s insolence by commanding his servants to bind the boy and give him a good beating in front of his guests? Which is just what all the other fathers at the party expect him to do so their sons don’t get any crazy ideas.
But no, once again, the father humiliates himself. He gets up from his seat at the head table, in front of everyone, “came out and ENTREATED HIM.”
Picture it. This respectable father, PUBLICALLY begging his son to come inside and join in the celebration and share in his joy. Oh, what “FOOLISH LOVE” the Father has for His older son.
And inside the house, the music has stopped, and everyone is watching out the windows.
Now since Jesus is the one telling this story, He can tell it however he chooses. How will the tension be resolved? He could have said, “And the older brother kissed his father’s cheek, took his father’s arm and entered the banquet hall, and for the sake of his father, he embraced his younger brother and said, ‘Welcome home bro. You’ve made Pop so happy.” And then turning to everyone in the house says, ‘This round’s on me.’
But Jesus doesn’t tell it that way does He? The older son is so angry that he can’t even bring himself to address his father as “Abba,” but disrespectfully says, “Look!” Refusing even to recognize his relationship with his own brother he refers to him as “your son.”
And then, just loud enough for every mother with a single daughter to hear, he uses the boy’s name and the words, “with prostitutes” in the same sentence. He neither loves his father nor his brother.
And why is the older son so angry with his father? Because it’s not fair. “Look, all these years I’ve served you.” All this time he’s thought of himself as a servant and never as a son. To him, it was all tedious work with no reward. “And you never gave me even a young goat that I might celebrate with MY friends,” who are clearly NOT the kind of friends that “you receive and eat with.”
And the father is patient and pleads with his older son, whom he loves just as much as He does his younger son. “SON, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this YOUR BROTHER, was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
And at that, the story stops. It doesn’t end. It just stops. The curtain remains open. The father is standing there with arms wide open towards his older son. Guests are all leaning forward, frozen in place. Everyone is waiting to see how the older son will respond?
And the unspoken lesson to the Pharisees and scribes if they will only hear it is this, “Do you want to know why I receive sinners and eat with them? Because if I don’t, then I can’t receive and eat with you.”
The older son’s response will come on Good Friday. It will be, “crucify him, crucify him.” And only then, will Jesus bring this story to its end. “It is finished.”
“It is finished for the tax collectors and sinners.” “It is finished for the Pharisees and the Scribes.” And it is finished for you.
There banquet table is set. The celebration is about to begin. Repent and come home, and make the Father’s joy complete. For He sent His Son into this world for SINNERS just like you.