I have a friend who baffles me . . . he once told me, “I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who was a friend of mine.” That kind of floored me as we had been friends—good friends-- for quite some time, and we still are. It is true that he had led and was still leading a pretty wild and crazy life that kept getting into all sorts of trouble with people and bordered stepping into the legal area . . . but, he was a good person with a heart of gold. It was also true that lots of people warned me about getting into a friendship with him as he was “trouble” . . . but, I liked the guy. We were friends despite all of the warnings I had received. I imagine he had heard them all and thus the statement, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyone who was a friend of mine.”
Our scripture reading this morning starts out with a stark judgment against Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Apparently the Pharisees and teachers of the law do not approve of who Jesus is friends with . . . seems they wouldn’t want to be friends with anyone who would befriends sinners. But, Jesus doesn’t care . . . he welcomes the sinners and everyone to come and sit at his table . . . all are welcome . . . even the Pharisees and teachers of the law if they want to come.
What was Jesus’ response to those murmuring about his choice of friends? He told a parable . . . at least in our particular reading this morning, he told a parable. In reality he told three parables: one about lost sheep; one about a lost coin; and, one about the lost son. Our reading this morning focuses on the lost son, or what we call the parable of the Prodigal Son. Though we only focus on the Prodigal Son, all three parables deal with something or someone being lost.
Of course, we all understand the point of these “lost” parables . . . Jesus has come to find the lost and to invite them back into the fold. A sheep gets lost, you go out and find the sheep to bring it back to the flock. A coin gets lost, you search for the coin to return it to the bank. And, finally, a child wanders away from the family . . . becomes alienated from the family . . . returns and is welcomed back. The point is, the lost is always returned . . . always received . . . always welcomed back.
We all know the story of the Prodigal Son. The youngest son decides that he wants to satisfy his wanderlust and demands his inheritance from his father. The father gifts the son with his inheritance much to the dismay of the older son . . . the older son, the dutiful son, the son who stays behind and waits for inheritance the old-fashion way.
So, the younger son goes off to the bright lights of the city where he gets caught up in the adventure of debauchery. He parties like there is no tomorrow only to wake up one day broke and alone in a strange city. Embarrassed, he tries to make a go of it . . . looks for work wherever he can find it, but can find none. Hungry, scared, and all alone, he even considers doing the unthinkable . . . becoming a pig farmer! Good Jewish boys do not become pig farmers. That is when he decides it is better to return home, seek his father’s forgiveness, and to live with the ridicule the family and community will put him through. So, he returns home.
Much to his surprise—and to his older brother’s surprise—he is welcomed back by his father with open arms. The father is so excited to have his “lost” son return that he even throws him a great big shindig sparing no expenses. This just really torques the older brother off, who then throws a big fit, storms off and wants nothing to do with his brother or father.
That is pretty much the parable of the Prodigal Son in a nutshell. When studying this parable the big question that gets asked all of the time is: “Which character do you identify with in this story?” Well, if we want to look good we are all going to answer that we identify with the father . . . that we would welcome the Prodigal back. Isn’t he the hero in the story? But, if we were going to be honest with ourselves, we should answer that we one or the other of the brothers . . . if not both.
Now remember that this parable and the other two are prompted when the Pharisees and teachers of the law put down Jesus for mingling and eating with sinners. And, remember that these parables—including the Prodigal Son—are about being “lost”. The parable of the Prodigal Son screams with all sort of “lost”. The younger son gets lost . . . the father is lost without the younger son . . . the older brother gets lost . . . what once was—a family—is torn apart and lost in this story.
During the season of Lent I contend that all of us are prodigals of one sort or another. Lent is that season in the church in which we are called upon to examine our lives—to look at our faith journeys, and determine what it is that has separated us from God—separated us from our relationship with God. We are to figure out how we got lost . . . how we lost this relationship. In that sense, we are all prodigals of one kind or another.
That is just our nature. We get lost. We lose our way in the journey of faith. Sometimes it is as flamboyant as the younger son in the story—we go out sow our oats, have a great time, and then wake up one day and realize we sure have been wasting a lot of time. Sometimes it is as the older brother—we remain steadfast to what we have been done, we conduct business as it should be, we wait for our opportunity, we do things right, and then one day we wake up as realize that our rigidity has separated us from that which we really want . . . a relationship with our family, friends, and God. And, sometimes we are like the father—loving, caring, and wanting to please our children—we bend over backwards, break the mores of our times, and ship off our children into the world. Then we wake up one day and discover that we have lost that which we loved. Yeah, we get lost and often it is not even on purpose . . . it just happens.
Yet, Jesus wants us to know—indirectly, mind you, through his parable-telling to the Pharisees and teachers—that the lost will be found and will be welcomed back. And, he wants us to know it does not matter how “lost” a person might be—no matter how wicked and bad he or she might be, the lost will be welcomed back. Remember, Jesus is friends with the sinners to the point that it does not bother him to be among them even to the place of intimacy of breaking bread with them.
That is the “good news”! There is plenty of room for all of us prodigals. We are all welcomed to the table. There are a lot of people who probably would not want to be friends with me, but I am thankful that Jesus is not one of them.
One of the characters that we often forget about in any story is the person who is telling the story . . . we forget the storyteller. Remember when I asked you which of the characters in the story you would identify with . . . did any of you say, “Jesus”? Jesus is the one who tells these parables . . . Jesus is the one responding to the accusations of the Pharisees and teachers of the law . . . Jesus is the one who is living what he is telling. Jesus is the one who welcomes the prodigals back home again . . . all of the prodigals. Since we are all prodigals of one kind or another, Jesus welcomes us. Shouldn’t we all? Amen.