“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15: 2). This is how it started. This is what motivated Jesus to tell three stories about lost things, lost animals, and lost people. The religious elite criticizing his eating habits, questioning his motives, and interrogating him on his mission. Three stories to demonstrate his purpose.
A farmer has one hundred sheep. One carelessly wonders off. The farmer leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one lost sheep. When he finds it, he calls to his friends and neighbors to celebrate.
A woman losses a valuable coin. She turns her house upside down to find it. When she does she goes door-to-door inviting her neighbors to join her in the celebration.
Then there is the tale of two sons. The rebel. The perfectionist. A father who loved both. The youngest set out on a path of destructive selfishness. The oldest stayed close to home but lived in judgment and jealousy. Regardless of where they found themselves, both brothers were lost. Both were in need of grace.
In the next couple of weeks we are going to explore the tale of the two brothers. In the parable it is two different individuals but if we are honest with ourselves there is a little bit of both in us. We can as quickly turn from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others. When it comes to ourselves we want a God of mercy. But when it comes to others we want a God of fairness.
In his recent memoir entitled In the Sanctuary of Outcast, Neil White recounts his eighteen-month federal prison sentence for bank fraud. Neil was not sent to any ordinary prison. He was sent to a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. He and other similar inmates who had been convicted of white collar crimes shared space with the last people in America disfigured by leprosy (show image on screen). In the early days of his stay, Neil does everything possible to avoid being near the Hansen’s diseased outcasts. Over time and learning more about the condition, he befriends a number of them. He comes to admire their tenacity as they cope with the cruelty of their condition and living in a forgotten world.
One evening, the lepers were holding their annual spring dance. The inmates were assigned to set up tables and sound equipment in the ballroom. The party started before they were able to leave the room. Patients limp and wheel and slide onto the dance floor. Scarred limbs in the air and disfigured faces are radiating joy as they move to the music. An elderly woman motions for Neil to dance with her. As they move around the dance floor, suddenly the party is interrupted by a leper named Smeltzer. He screams out, “You are not invited! No inmates at our party! You are not welcome here. Get out!” Quietly, Neil and the other inmates exit through the door. Neil writes in his memoir, “We just got kicked out of a lepers dance.”
Have you ever felt that low? Have you ever felt that you were not even welcome at a party for the unwelcomed? Sometimes a divorce can make us feel that low. We are not sure how our old friends will receive us. We are not sure what the neighbors are saying. A battle with an addiction where we have hurt those we love leave us in a place of unwelcome. Sometimes those who have a spouse or a child that has committed suicide are left feeling ostracized. They feel that the questions are being directed back towards them. They are afraid to leave the house. A person struggling with their sexuality and trying to make sense of their feelings feel unwelcomed even among those that are supposed to make them feel supported.
And sometimes it is just being the baby in the family and always feeling judged by the accomplishments of the older brother or sister. Living under the constant shadow of someone more successful than you can drive a person to do irrational things. We don’t know what drove the younger brother in the story to demand his father’s inheritance. It may have just been simple selfishness. It could have been a rebellious streak. It could have been he was tired of playing by the rules of the house. Regardless, he finds himself neck deep in pig mud. A big-time player turns into a big-time loser. He starts out in a righteous home and ends up in a pig sty. He plays his father’s love to claim a portion of his father’s fortune and then blows it on a binge. He abuses it and he strays from it. He squandered it and now he wants to return it broken.
This is where Jesus gets so frustrating. I got enough religion in me that I can understand letting him back in the house. But maybe he should come in through the backdoor. Let’s let him eat in his room by himself. Let’s put him on probation, a trial period. We need to create a schedule so that he can work off some of the money he took from the old man. There is a lesson or two that this boy needs to learn.
A party. We going throw this kid a party? Here is where it gets challenging. If I were the kid, I would long for the mercy. But If I am the one asked to show the mercy, well I might need to see some proof that you have changed.
The word prodigal means wasteful and reckless. If you ask me, we need to rename this parable. If anyone is being reckless and wasteful, it is the father. The kid hasn’t even apologized. The father cut him short of a full apology. He saw him coming. He didn’t wait until he got to the front door. He hiked up his skirt for all the town folks to see and ran across the field and embraced his irresponsible son.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called “The Capital of the World.” In it, he told the story of a father and his teenage son who were estranged from one another. The son’s name was Paco. He had wronged his father. In his shame he had run away from home.
In the story, the father searched all over Spain for Paco, but still he could not find the boy. Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt to find his son, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper. The ad read: “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA. NOON TUESDAY. ALL IS FORGIVEN. LOVE, PAPA.”
The next day, in front of the newspaper office, eight hundred Pacos showed up. All seeking forgiveness. All seeking the love of their father.
If your name is Paco or Tony or Julie or Sherry and you feel that you have no one searching for you, then I want you to know that God will seek out ever Meth house or Methodist Church, Bar or Baptist or Hell hole or dark valley until you are found. The world may have given up, your family may have quit searching, your friends left you alone, but God is on the hunt and God won’t stop until you know that you are loved. God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost.
For those worried about wayward children, friend, or family members, I want you to know it is not their remorse that forces God to set a banquet table, it is not their desire to start over that causes God to kill the fatted calf. It is not their getting their life together that causes God to be on edge until their return home. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is limitless. God’s love is soaked in grace.
One of my favorite stories in Philip Yancey’s excellent book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, comes from an article in The Boston Globe about an unusual wedding banquet:
Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered a wedding banquet. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.
The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”
When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry, Really, I am.”
It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken “in honor of the groom,” she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life of the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.
Grace. Grace is being welcomed to a party by someone who came to eat with sinners. Amazing grace. Amen.
(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)