Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
Jesus responded to their grumbling by telling three parables: the frantic shepherd looking for his lost sheep; the devastated woman looking for her lost coin; and the distraught father craning his neck looking for his lost son.
The Father of the lost Son says, ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’
Home coming is the theme running through our Scriptures today. The manna that had kept them alive in the wilderness ceased when they were able to celebrate and feast on the produce from the land of Canaan, their new home.
The psalmist speaks of the blessings of one’s sins being forgiven, iniquities put away and a place to hide in, namely God, who will preserve one form trouble.
Hopefully we have a sense of our homes being a safe place, and yet even better still having that feeling of knowing where ever we are, we dwell in God.
Paul speaks of being a new creation. For Paul, not only are our sins forgiven and we are safe in God but all the dross and pain of the wilderness sojourn are washed away and we are recreated, beloved children of God. Paul also says, as such, we are ambassadors of Christ. That is important, we’ll come back to it.
So here in our Gospel reading Jesus is responding to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the Scribes. Jesus wants them to know that the tax collectors and the sinners need to hear the invitation to come home into God’s loving embrace. He wants the Pharisees and the Scribes to hear that when just one of God’s children comes home that is cause enough for feasting and celebration.
Jesus tells the second part of the story: the elder brother comes home and is seriously angry. You stop and think about the story. The younger son comes home and dad calls for the best coat, a ring and sandals. He sends the servants off to kill the fatted calf. But that doesn’t happen in five minutes, it takes hours. During that time the musicians form the local village have been rounded up, so the festivities can really get underway. All of this takes time. Didn’t dad think in all this time to send someone to call the elder son in from the fields. Had dad forgotten about the second son, the elder son?
Professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests that there is something here that most of us would easily miss. (See a video where she explores this parable ) The Jewish people listening to this would have picked it up straight away. Remember Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel the younger pleases God, Cain not only doesn’t please God but murders his brother and is then sent off into exile.
Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ismael the elder brother is sent off into the wilderness because of Sarah’s jealousy. Isaac also had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau missed out on his fathers blessing. Would those Scribes and Pharisees have heard Jesus effectively say, all this time even the likes of Cain, Ishmael and Esau were at home in God’s house and that everything of God’s was theirs too. Professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests that may be we need to hear these three parables as a lesson in counting. The shepherd would have counted his flock a couple of times a day and probably had names for each one. The woman would have easily counted her ten coins and each one of valuable to her. Did the father forget to count both sons in his preoccupation with the one son? Are these parables to remind us to count tax collectors and sinners, pharisees and scribes all as people, individuals deserving dignity and love in their own right.
Professor Amy-Jill Levine is a teacher and knows the importance of not just celebrating the really bright students, or giving time to those who are struggling but also celebrating and nurturing the middle group, the also-rans. She mentions her class at the prison where they complain of being counted 6 times a day but not in a way to celebrate their dignity or humanity. We might recall children in Australian detention whose names are written out of their own memory having to learn their number. Can we learn to count each person, prisoners, asylum seekers, tax collectors and sinners all as human beings who matter, who have dignity and deserve love. Is there an invitation in all of this to see that God would love them all to sit at the feast, to come home?
Remember I mentioned that Paul declares that we are made a new creation and as such we become ambassadors for Christ. In the first two parables we see the shepherd and the woman searching. The father in the final parable seems to stay at home. Perhaps he knows that young adults need to “come to themselves”. There is no point in dragging them home. Never-the-less he scans the roadway waiting for his son to come home. What is our role as ambassadors of Christ in seeking the lost? If someone is generally a very faithful worshiper and you notice they are not here for a two or three Sundays don’t just forget about them. Give them a ring and ask if they are OK. That is why we set up set up little pastoral care teams so that we would notice sooner rather than later who is missing?
For friends and family who aren’t regular worshippers it is great top make the most of special occasions to invite time to join us. Easter, Back to Church Sunday and Alpha are all great opportunities. But also feel free to invite family members to parish dinners and gatherings.
When we run Alpha we plan to have another study running simultaneously for those who have done Alpha. The study if have suggested is call, Surprise the World, the Five Habits of Missional People. It is designed to help us more consciously and proactively be missional. In our own way, we are all different, we will contribute to looking for the lost sheep. The model is Jesus himself and the incarnation. As I said in that little story a week or so ago, just like the woman climbing into the bath water with the terrified puppy dog, God climbs into the mess of our world to bring us home. But you don’t have to be an evangelist as an ambassador of Christ. You have to be yourself. The five habits help us to hone the gifts and passions we do have.
So today as we hear again the parable of the lost son and father’s prodigal welcome and celebration, lets remember that same lavish feast has been prepared for us too. Let’s also remember to “count” people, to recognise their humanity and accord to them dignity and love.