I hope you’ve been enjoying our little holiday series on meals with Jesus the last few weeks.
It’s a funny little thread we’re pulling through Luke’s gospel and it’s kind of amazing how far and deep it runs.
I remember Louise was working on a dress once, she pulled on a loose thread on a button and it turned out it as she pulled on it that it kind of unravelled in a way that took it right up to the next button and then the next one and she realised if she pulled it any further that all the buttons were just going to pop off in a row. All the buttons, connected from behind by a single thread. Which is one of the reasons, if you’re wondering, clothes are so inexpensive these days.
Meals with Jesus are on a thread in Luke’s gospel that runs further than you think and ties together more than you expect.
Who’s invited? Who’s not? Who Jesus will eat with? And the Pharisees won’t? Who comes to the party; and who refuses to come in? Which ultimately is hugely important because in the end it’s actually all about who’s coming to God’s final party. And who’ll be standing outside. Images Jesus uses over and over again.
It’s a thread that weaves in and out in some unexpected ways.
Here’s a warm up. Jesus, in the end, is a gatherer, he’s an inviter. He says he’s clucky like a mother hen… so pull on that thread a bit. Back to Luke 13:34. You get this. He says,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
Literally you did not wish to be gathered in.We’re going to see that exact expression again this morning. About an older brother.
Forward a bit to chapter 14. A parable you looked at with Kim last week about a banquet. Jesus says, Luke 14:16-18:
A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses…
NOT WILLING, NOT COMING
I’m not willing. I’m not coming. So watch out in today’s passage for the guy saying those same words with that same attitude. All part of the same thread.
We’re stepping into Luke 15, it’s a chapter thick with parables that are all making the same point. Which you can see right from the start where the scene’s set by these familiar words from the Pharisees. Notice who it is that’s clustering round Jesus and hanging off his words. It’s the outsiders. It’s the tax collectors who are unpopular because they’re working for Rome, and it’s the sinners who’ve just totally botched up their lives to the point where they’ve got no hope of satisfying the religious rules ofthe Pharisees and they’ve just given up trying. And the Pharisees and teachers of the law are growling those words we’ve seen before; it’s the thread! Take a look, Luke 15 verse 2:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Exactly what they were saying all the way back in chapter 5 when he has dinner at Levi’s house. The tax collector. With all his mates. Vs. 30:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Exactly what Jesus says the Pharisees are always saying about him in chapter 7:34:
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
And yet Jesus says, lost sinners are exactly who I’ve come for. To gather them in. The question is if you’re standing with the Pharisees, if you’re well raised and religious and upwardly mobile and driven by the approval of people… if you’re likethat, are you going to humble yourself enough to come to the party or not?
Which is, in the end, the main point of the three parables Jesus go on to tell them about celebrating after lost things are found again. A lost sheep. And lost coin. A lost son.
And because we’re focusing on meals with Jesus this morning, we’re diving straight in to the longest parable; number 3; the runaway son. Because it ends with a meal. And it’s got a meal in the middle as well. With pigs.
THE STORY OF THE RUNAWAY SON
It’s a parable, a story, with two edges to it. And it’s most usually been told with the youngest son in mind; because it’s full of good news for runaway sinners like the younger son.
And traditionally the parable’s come to be known as the parable of the prodigal son which literally means the recklessly wasteful son; although that’s not a word that’s actually used in the bible.
And look, it clearly is about the recklessly wasteful son, I know.
But we need to notice there’s another son as well. The stay-at-home big brother. And when you remember he’s telling the story because the Pharisees are complaining that Jesus eats with recklessly wasteful sinners all the time. And they won’t; you can’t help but notice that’s exactly like the scene at the end of the story.
And so ultimately this is just as much or maybe even more a parable for people like the older brother. As it is for returning runaways.
Let’s start though with the good news for runaways.
Over the last two thousand years this story told by Jesus of the runaway son, the lost Jewish boy who ends up in the pig pen, over the last two thousand years, countless people have found it’s a story that resonates. With their own lives. Withexactly where they’re at.
Maybe that’s you.
Especially if you’re someone who when you look at your life and you know you’ve kind of messed up and spent the family heritage on partying and you’ve walked away from God and now you stop to think about it you’re such a long way from God and you know in your heart things aren’t the way they ought to be. How’s it working out for you?
See, whatever else it’s about, here’s a story from Jesus that’s clearly saying, God loves it. That there’s a party in heaven. Whenever someone lost like you. Is found again.
The incredible thing is, if you read what Jesus says here, there’s no recrimination. There’s not even a harsh word. Just a party. To say welcome home.
And let me tell you, this bit of the bible, it’s not rocket science. You don’t need a PhD in theology to figure it out.
It says it back in 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.
Now you mightn’t be all that comfortable with that word sinner. These days we just talk about people who have made some bad choices. Well, plug that in. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one person who’s made bad choices about Godand about life; who gets to the point where they want to retrace their steps and start again.
Whatever you want to call it, they’re the sort of people hanging off every word of Jesus; they’re the sort of people he’s in trouble for having dinner with; sharing their table. And they’re wanting to do that because somehow they sense he’s where thenew start has to start.
And Jesus says, there’s a bigger party in heaven over one of those… than 99 self-righteous Pharisees.
So here’s the story. There’s a man with two sons.
And the younger son, here’s your sinner. He asks his dad for his inheritance early, and he goes overseas and he blows the lot.
The Ferrari, the beachfront villa, the parties, the girls. Especially the girls.
And then suddenly there’s a global financial crisis. And it’s gone. And the car’s repossessed and the girls were just there because you had a convertible and they’re gone just even faster than the Ferrari. Everything’s gone.
And he finds himself at meal number 1. Feeding pigs. And longing to share their pig food.
Now look, my dad used to have a pig farm. And I’ve been up close and personal with plenty of pig food. Never seen any of it that was tempting at all. But here he is. Verse 16. Here’s the only feast you end up with when you’re the runaway son.
He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
So finally. Finally. He decides to eat humble pie instead. And head back to his dad. Maybe ask for a job; be treated like one of the hired hands. So he gets up. And he walks the long road of humility back to his dad.
So look, the first point from the parable this morning, the first point you need to notice as we come to this familiar story is if that’s you out there a long way from God, you might be at any one of those three stages. Still partying? Or has the tide maybeturned. And you’ve realised you’ve come to a point where you’re lower than you thought you could ever go. The party has turned into a pigsty? It’s time to go home.
The runaway son turns his heart for home. Having no idea what he’ll find there.
But get this. His dad’s heart’s been aching for him all along.
And he’s been out on the front verandah watching for him every day. And he sees him in the distance. And he runs to him. Which is something senior men in that culture never did.
And he throws his arms round him and he kisses him.
Verse 21, the kid gets out his prepared speech that he’s been rehearsing since verse 18, “Dad, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” Which in every way is true. But his dad doesn’t even let him finish. He doesn’t even get to the bit where he’s going to say “make me like one of your hired servants.” Because his dad’s too busy saying, let’s party!
Let’s have a feast and celebrate. Vs. 24:
‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
The point is, God loves it when people who have made bad life choices about him turn back. And come home. God loves it when people who have walked away come back. Even if you’ve just kind of been disinterested. And quietly ignored him. You know, it wasn’t where he’d been that was the problem for the runaway son. It’s not the pig-pen he ends up in that’s the issue. It’s step number 1. I’m going to treat my dad like he’s dead. Grab everything now. Do it my way.
But it was the son who ended up dead. And now he’s alive again.
You might think things are going just fine for you. But if you’ve done that, you’re him. And God would love to have you back.
Which is why Jesus just loved having dinner with people like you. He’d come over for a beer and a BBQ.
And the thing is – if this is you – no matter how many protective layers you’ve put on, no matter how many times you’ve heard this stuff and ignored it, if you’d been around back then and you’d heard him in person, you would have been drawn to himkind of magnetically. As I hope you are now when you hear his voice in his parable.
It’s just that people like the Pharisees. Wouldn’t. Which is a problem in the end if the ultimate party is going to be full of people like son-junior.
BAD NEWS FOR BIG BROTHER
Let’s pick up the story with big brother getting home from the back paddock; he hears what sounds like a party in the farmhouse, and he’s curious. He grabs one of the servants, he says, what’s going on? Vs. 27:
‘Your brother has come,’ [the servant] replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
And when big brother hears those words, he’s not happy.
Remember the thread? Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and they don’t want to be gathered? People who are so religious that they won’t come to the banquet because of who else is there? The Pharisee types; refusing to mix with anyone who doesn’tcome up to standard?
Verse 28. It says, “The older brother becomes angry and refuses to go in.”
It’s funny. From this point on you can almost track the story just from the way big brother and dad talk about the runaway son. This son of yours, in an accusing tone. No… this brother of yours, in a fatherly tone. It’s all there
Verse 29. Big brother’s upset, because he’s been following all the rules slavishly. Just like the Pharisees. Without the heart in it. Just like the Pharisees. And so he says to his father,
Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!
This son of yours! To which the Father says in verse 32,
…we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
He’s not just my son. He’s your brother as well. He was lost. And is found. So it’s a party for all of us.
Or it should be. Shouldn’t it?
Look, I might as well warn you if you’re here for the first time today, maybe the first time you’ve been in church for years. I might as well warn you that from time to time… there are still those big brother types that tend to hang round in churches. Justbeing grumpy.
And it shouldn’t be that way.
So I want to apologise if that’s been your main experience of church in the past. Of people who want to call themselves Christian. When by that they mean they just want to complain about everyone else. When Jesus himself just wants to havedinner with them.
Funny isn’t it? That the public perception of Christianity. That the public perception of Christians. It’s totally skewed that way. That we think we’re better. That we want to make the rules for everybody else to live by. That we’re looking down atpeople and we’re always disapproving.
Maybe it’s like that with you; over the years you’ve had a lot of practice at being religious. And it’s been all about setting standards. And so there are certain people you just wouldn’t want in your home, maybe? That you certainly wouldn’t want at your table. That you wouldn’t want in your church?
I heard a story recently, a former call-girl on the south side; she became a Christian. And her life changed; she met a Christian guy, they were getting married. In their church. And so she did the most natural thing in the world and invited all her oldfriends. And there they were in church and their cars parked up and down the road outside. And one of the old deacons outside was beside himself. I mean, don’t you know the kind of people we’re letting into our church? At least get them topark round the corner in case somebody sees them.
Look, I’m sure your not quite that overt about it. Much more subtle. Who you talk to over morning tea. Who you do lunch with. Who you’ll have over. Who you’ll want your kids playing with. Why you’ll choose a certain school.
The English pastor Tim Chester says, “I wonder what reputation Christians have in your neighbourhood.” Well, maybe at that point he’s actually asking about what reputation you have.
He says, “We should have the reputation for throwing the best parties. And it’s not hard,” he says, “to find an excuse to throw one.”
- Personal occasions, he says, like birthdays, and anniversaries, and new jobs, and housewarmings. Invite the neighbourhood.
- Sporting occasions. Like the Australian Open Grand Final. Or the State of Origin. Or the World Cup. Include everyone.
- Seasonal Occasions. Easter. Christmas. New Year. Australia Day. Invite your friends from Church and a few neighbours as well.
- Cultural Occasions, says Tim Chester; a Mexican Food Night. Or if you’re really desperate, he says The Eurovision Song Contest. Or maybe even a Family Feud party on February 16th.
If you want to be like Jesus open your homes to people and open your lives to people.
Because parties like that, says Tim Chester, when you combine them with a passion for people and a passion for Jesus; are a far more missional than the best church programs in the world. Because sharing a table is sharing life.
And a meal with Jesus that includes all kinds of people is a great picture of what it’s going to be like at the biggest celebration of all.
By the end of the story big brother is still standing outside the gate; and he won’t budge. He won’t come in; which means he’s in danger of missing God’s party completely.
That’s the thread we’ve been pulling on as it runs right through Luke’s gospel. The Pharisees with all their complaining about a saviour who’d come to seek and save the lost; a saviour unimpressed that they’re saying, “I did all the right things. I’vebeen religiously perfect.” Which might be a thread in your story as well. You’ll say to God, “I’ve served you like a slave.” And he’ll say, “Yet you’ve forgotten to be a son or daughter. And refused to be a brother or sister.”
That’s where Jesus leaves the story. A decision to be made. Not by little brother. He’s decided already. A decision by big brother. Are you going to celebrate what God celebrates, or not?
This brother of yours… was dead and is alive again. Was lost… And is found. So come in, and join the party.