(This is a follow-up to this week’s posts – a sermon I preached several years ago that was part of a series on how Jesus thought of God.)
Party at My House – God
Luke 15:11-32: Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
In our first week of this series, we saw that salvation is the principal theme of Luke’s Gospel. He wants his readers to know God’s salvation has been brought by his Son Jesus to all people, including the least, the last and the lost. We’ve seen how this has worked out in practice, as Jesus exercised God’s saving power for Gentiles, Samaritans and prostitutes; for the irreligious and even, as we saw last week, for the despised tax collectors.
These were people that society intentionally excluded, and they believed it was morally incumbent upon them to do so. But Jesus welcomed them, and that left some people puzzled and others scornful. This was particularly true of other religious leaders, who considered Jesus’s chumminess with such people to be evidence of a morally defective character. They publicly criticized him and tried to use the issue to defame and marginalize him. Reputable folk avoided contact with such people whenever possible so that they wouldn’t be contaminated. Any contact was risky, but certain kinds of contact were worse than others, chief of which was eating or drinking with them – and especially sharing their utensils or dinnerware.
So what does Jesus do? He goes off to be the guest of honor at the first annual Sinners and Tax Collectors Banquet. Was he ever criticized for that! What else did he do? He asked a Samaritan woman to give him a drink – from her cup! Even the disciples found that shocking.
Do you remember when news of the AIDS virus first broke? No one knew how far the disease might spread, but crazy theories about the disease were spreading everywhere. Since it was a virus, and viruses are capable of mutating, people were wondering if the virus could mutate in such a way that it might be transmitted through simple contact, like sharing a cup. Churches that used a common cup for the Lord’s Supper were changing their communion practices because of it. Everyone was on edge.
One day I met a couple who both had AIDS and had several children at home with the disease. This was in the early to mid-80s. I visited them at their home, and they told me about how people in the pharmacy that week had turned and almost ran the other way when they saw them. They told me how people at work didn’t want anything to do with them. Everyone was afraid that they would give them the virus.
That’s when they asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee, and offered me an old stained, chipped cup. I accepted, but as I sat looking around at their unclean, messy kitchen, I wondered if that cup had even been washed. The idea that the virus might mutate crossed my mind. I drank their coffee, but I wondered if I was putting myself at risk.
We know now there was nothing to worry about, but at the time it seemed like a risky thing to do. Well, in the first century, that’s how people felt about eating and drinking with people who were not Jews, or were not following ritual practices, or who were living sinful lives. Being around them might very well contaminate you. It is hard to overstate how universal and how powerful this idea was. And yet Jesus welcomed these people and whenever they invited him over for a meal, he went.
By doing so, he was showing them – and everyone else – what God is like. Jesus intentionally challenged the traditions of his day because those traditions obscured the love God has for everyone – even the least, the last and the lost. But he did so without ever obscuring God’s righteousness. He welcomed people joyfully, but he did so without giving them the impression that the way they lived their lives didn’t matter. In fact, he repeatedly told people, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus was born into a culture that catalogued people according to social groupings. He grew up in a society where even little children could recognize a Pharisee from a block away, where the respectable were distinguished from the disrespectable, and where everyone was assigned worth on the basis of their classification. Yet he utterly disregarded those distinctions. He welcomed people gladly, while other religious leaders did just the opposite: they ignored and excluded people, and felt completely justified in doing so. Why was that? What could account for the very different ways they thought about people and acted towards them?
It’s important to understand that thoughts and actions flow out of beliefs, and the religious leaders’ beliefs about others and, more importantly, about God were radically different from Jesus’s. The Pharisees sincerely believed that God did not want these people; that he didn’t like them. They thought that God himself considered them to be a kind of infection. But Jesus believed that God did want these people, that he loved them and considered them to be a kind of treasure.
Look at verse 1: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him.” “Were gathering” reflects an imperfect tense in the original language, which implies repetition. It had become their habit to “draw near” Jesus, as the Greek puts it.
“But” (verse 2) “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” That he welcomed them was bad enough, but that he ate with them was indefensible. Eating together was that culture’s most powerful way of signaling mutual acceptance.
Now we need to understand that these Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t act this way because they were terrible people. They acted this way because they sincerely believed something that wasn’t true. They thought that welcoming and accepting people was tantamount to approving their sinful behavior. They thought that acceptance would remove any motivation for them to change. They thought the only leverage they had over them was rejection.
But Jesus knew that people don’t get better or holier because you reject them. Only contact with God can make that happen. The religious leaders were waiting for people to clean themselves up and become worthy of salvation. But God doesn’t wait. He doesn’t withhold his affection and love until people meet a certain standard. He loves people and wants them to be with him, which is another way of saying that he wants them to be all they can be. But the religious leaders couldn’t see that, and they criticized Jesus for it.
In response to their criticism – criticism that would have made sense to many of Jesus’s followers – Jesus told three stories. The stories were meant to help people reorient their lives and their relationships around the will and character of God; that is, around his kingdom and his righteousness.
Each story is about something lost – a sheep, a coin and a son; lost, but still valuable. The sinners that the Pharisees and teachers of the law despised were like that: lost, but still valuable. Now I said the stories are about a sheep, a coin and a son, but they are really about a shepherd who seeks his lost sheep, a woman who searches for her lost coin and a father who longs for his lost son. But on a deeper level, they are about the God who never gives up. We often refer to the third and most famous of these stories as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it is really the Parable of the Loving Father. It, and the other two, are stories about the God who never gives up, who keeps looking and waiting for his lost people.
In the first story, a shepherd loses one of the hundred sheep he owns, and immediately goes in search of that one sheep. Even though it is only one of a hundred, he still wants it and does everything he can to find it. In the second story a peasant woman loses one of the ten coins she possesses. In that society each coin amounted to a day’s wages, so we are talking about one tenth of this peasant woman’s savings. So the stakes have risen from the first story, where it was one out of a hundred; here it is one out of ten.
The stakes are even higher in the third story, where we are no longer thinking about a coin or a sheep, but a son. And not one of a hundred sons (like King David might have had), or one of ten (like some of Jesus’s hearers might have had) but one of two sons.
The shepherd searched for the sheep until he found it. The woman swept up a storm until she found her coin. But the father could not use the same technique. His son was not a sheep or a coin, but a person. He would go to the ends of the earth to find him, if it would help. But finding him wouldn’t be enough, because he would only have his body and not what he really wanted: his heart. So he waits and watches, and longs for his son to return.
Jesus wanted to help the Pharisees and teachers of the law to realize something about God that had escaped them. He wanted them to see that God is like the shepherd who looks for his lost sheep, even though he has plenty of others. And he is like the woman, who looks for her lost coin, and he’s like the father, who watches for his lost son. And God doesn’t look for his lost ones so that he can avoid them, like the Pharisees did, but so that he can restore them.
These stories are tied together by the repeated use of the same terminology. For example, the word “lost” (or “to lose”) is used in verses 4 (twice), 6, 8, 9, 17, 24, and 32. The word “sinner” is used in verses 1, 2, 7, 10. The word “rejoice” (or “joy”) is used in 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10 (along with the words “celebrate” in 23, 29 and 32, and “be glad” in 32). And the word “call together” is found in verses 6 and 9.
In each story the picture is this: something is lost, and the one to whom it belongs is determined to get it back. He or she searches for what is lost until it is restored, and is then so happy that he or she calls everybody together to have a party.
I’ve just said that the word “lost” is used eight times in this chapter. Jesus would have agreed with the Pharisees and teachers of the law that sinners are lost – and desperately so. They are disoriented – that is, their lives are oriented in the wrong direction, around the wrong markers and leading to the wrong place, where irretrievable loss is the result – the Bible calls it “hell.” Though they are lost they are still valuable – just as my car keys are still valuable even when they are lost. Valuable but, for all practical purposes, useless, until they are found.
Unfortunately, the Pharisees’ response to lost people was totally different from Jesus’s. They thought, “God doesn’t need them. He has plenty of others – ourselves included – so why would he bother with these sinners, who got lost through their own doing?” But Jesus knew that God cares about sinners. They may be lost, but they are his lost.
Another of the words that is repeated in these stories is the word “rejoice.” Every time the lost thing is found, there is a party. The shepherd calls his buddies and says, “I found that sheep I lost. Come on over. Everybody’s getting together to celebrate.” The peasant woman calls her peasant friends and says, “I’m throwing a party because I finally found that coin I lost. We’re all meeting at my house tonight; it’s going to fun.”
When the lost son – and lost by his own choice, by the way – is found, the father posts an invite on Facebook: “The boy’s back! Party at my house tonight. Bring a friend; we’re going to celebrate.”
Now look at verse 7: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Verse 10: “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Heaven breaks into a party every time a sinner repents; every time someone who has been lost is found.
Jesus pictures God as someone who is just itching to throw a party. He texts all his friends and says, “Found another one! Party at my house tonight.” Heaven is a perpetual party. And why? Because God seeks the lost … and he is really good at finding them.
This idea is radically different from the one people usually hold – from the one the Pharisees held – about God. There was a rabbinic quote that said in effect, “God rejoices over the downfall of the godless.” When the Pharisees heard that, they solemnly nodded their heads in agreement, but Jesus emphatically shook his in disagreement. That is not what his Father is like.
The parable of the lost son (or better, the loving Father) makes that abundantly clear. You know the story: the younger of the two sons breaks his father’s heart by demanding his inheritance while his dad is still alive, cashes it out, and leaves home as fast as his feet will take him. He wastes all his money, sinks lower and lower and brings shame on his family. Then, when he has totally ruined everything and hates his own life, he decides to go back to his dad for help. He figures his dad won’t want him back, and so he works out a plan he hopes his dad will accept: to hire him as a low-level employee, a grunt in his dad’s business.
You know what happens next. He heads home, rehearsing his apology and figuring out how best to ask for a job. But his dad is out watching for him, waiting for him, longing for his son to come home. He runs to him. (Remember, in that culture it was considered extremely undignified for an older man to run, but he doesn’t care; this is his son!) The son may have thought he was running toward him to accost him and drive him away but instead he hugs and kisses him. The father is overjoyed to have his son back.
So what does the father do then? What else? He throws a party. But remember that there were two sons. The younger one left home, the older one stayed and worked. When the older one found out that younger one was back – and that his dad had thrown him a party – he was so angry that he wouldn’t go in. His brother was an irresponsible, self-centered jerk, and fathers shouldn’t throw parties for irresponsible, self-centered jerks. If his brother was lost, it was his own fault. He shouldn’t be rewarded for it.
I wonder if the Pharisees saw themselves in that older brother. I wonder if we do.
And he wasn’t just angry at his brother. He was angry at his dad. And so he sat outside, pouting – or fuming, which is more like it. When his dad learned that he was outside, refusing to come in, what did he do? He went looking for him, because that is what a father does when his son is lost.
But this wasn’t the son that was lost, was it? This son had stayed home and worked. And yet he was lost – and profoundly so. He was more deeply lost in the thickets of self-centeredness than was his brother. He just didn’t know it. He had remained present in body, but his heart was a thousand miles away, and it was his heart that his father wanted. His heart had wandered even further than his little brother’s. The older son was lost.
But he was not just lost; he was a slave. His younger brother had hired himself out to do slave work for a Gentile, but the older brother was just as much a slave as he was – and perhaps more, because he thought of himself as a slave. Look at verse 29: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” Is this a son talking, one who loved his father, loved his work, and loved the estate and cared for it? No, these are the words of a slave. At least the younger brother had, verse 17, “Come to himself” (Greek); the older brother had still not come to himself; that is, he had still not become himself. Instead of being the son of a wonderful father he had trapped himself in the role of a slave.
Now let me wrap this up. First of all, I summarized this entire passage rather than taking a smaller part of it verse by verse because I didn’t want us to miss the main point in the many wonderful details. The main point is about God and what he is like. He is the kind of person who never stops caring. No matter how much a person has messed up his life, he doesn’t give up on him. He cares for the profligate, the drug addict, the sex addict, the money addict and the fool. But he also cares about the stuffed shirt, the hypocrite, the person whose religion has made him bitter and not better. God loves the lost, in whatever woods they’ve managed to lose themselves.
This is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He is so full of joy that he is always ready to throw a party. He is so full of love that he is never ready to throw in the towel. Every bad thing you’ve ever heard about him – usually from the mouth of someone like the older brother – is a lie. Every good thing you’ve ever heard about him is an understatement of infinite proportions. The truth is better than you can even begin to imagine.
I said earlier that if it would help, the father would go to the ends of the earth to find his son. But God went further than that to find you: he went to the cross. It is from the height of the cross that he sees his lost children, and it is by looking at the cross – and only by looking at the cross – that they can truly see him.
One more thing: no matter what mistakes you’ve made, no matter what sins you’ve committed, God still wants you. God wants you He does not want you because of what you can do for him; he doesn’t want you because of your great potential. He wants you because you are his, the way a loving father wants his child.
You may be thinking, “Well he doesn’t want me.” But you say that because you are looking at yourself, not at Jesus. Look at him, nailed to a cross, and tell me that he doesn’t want you! You’re believing in the God of the Pharisees, not in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stop looking at yourself and all your faults, and look at him and all his love.
A man who lost his dog posted signs all around the neighborhood, describing the dog and offering a big reward. The description went like this: “He’s has three legs, he’s blind in the left eye, he’s missing his right ear, his tail has been broken off, and he answers to the name ‘Lucky.’”
He doesn’t sound lucky, does he? He apparently got himself into one mess after another. And yet he was lucky to have an owner who totally loved him and wanted him back. And you – no matter what you’ve got yourself into, and no matter how much of it was your own fault – have a God who totally loves you and wants you back.
 Philip Griffin, from the sermon “A God Who Redeems.”