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“Lost and Found”
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Every culture has its own table customs. In India and Japan, a guest should eat everything on the plate, but in China, it is polite to leave one bite. In this country, etiquette rules dictate keeping one hand in your lap while eating, but in France and Italy, both hands should always be on the table, In Morocco, be sure to use only your right hand to eat; in Egypt, never add salt to your food.1 Every place has unique table customs. In the time and place of Jesus, one of the most important customs was choosing your dining companions. You would not sit down at the table with just anyone, because eating with someone was a sign that they were your people, that you were part of the same community. Table fellowship was an identifying mark of a social group.2
Jesus broke this custom. He dined with the wrong people, people the religious authorities condemned: tax collectors, sinners, outsiders, people on the margins. And not only did Jesus eat with them, he welcomed them, acting as host to this disreputable lot of folks.
That was what that led to this parable. This passage is one of the most well-known in all the New Testament, but with that familiarity comes a danger. As Barbara Brown Taylor said of this passage, “The problem with a really good parable—especially one as beloved as this one—is that it can become limp from too much handling.”3
It loses some of its punch, because we think we know what it says. To allow it to hold its power and become God’s word to us, we need to take a step back and hear it as if for the first time. So I’m going to shift our thinking today and ask that we look at this passage from a slightly different perspective: the perspective of the table.
The passage begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. So Jesus told them this parable.”
This is a key to understanding the passage. As we saw last week in the parable of the fig tree, Luke often places the interpretation before the parable. These leading verses provide context and meaning for what follows.4
Jesus’ response to the criticism about his table customs was to tell these stories. First he told two brief parables, not included in the lectionary portion for today: the shepherd with one lost sheep and the woman with one lost coin. In both stories, the owners searched until they found what was lost, and then great was the rejoicing!
Then we come to the parable in our passage today. The story is beautiful and multi-layered. It is good and right to focus on the forgiveness and grace abundant in the passage. But what can we learn when we look at it through the lens of the table?
In all three parables, when the lost thing had been found---the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son---a great banquet was held! The shepherd, the woman, the father, invited friends and neighbors for a feast of celebration!
Those listening to Jesus that day immediately would have thought of the great banquet prevalent in the Old Testament. Think of Isaiah’s image of God preparing a great feast for all people, a banquet of rich food and well-aged wine, when God would wipe away all tears and death would be no more. The great banquet symbolized all that the people of Israel longed and hoped for.
So when we come to the story of the father with two sons, what can we see when our eyes are open to look for images of the table?
The passage starts with the younger son. The younger son asked for his inheritance and then went far from home, where he squandered it on loose living. He was reduced to taking a job feeding the pigs, and he was so hungry, he would have shared their food, but no one offered him any.
Finally, verse 17 says, he came to himself. He thought of his father, and how even the hired hands had plenty to eat! He decided he would go to his father and confess his sin and ask to be treated as one of the hired hands. Then at least he would have something to eat.
What a long road back it must have been. Hungry, thirsty, footsore, no doubt dressed in the rags he’d worn to slop the pigs. His return was nothing like his buoyant departure.
While he was still far off, his father saw him. While he was still far off. I can imagine his father, standing at the gate, day after day, waiting and watching and one day, he sees a figure coming down the road. Dirty, disheveled, limping and bowed. Nothing like the proud stride he is used to. But he knows him. It’s his boy. And while he was still far off, his father ran---RAN to meet him! Jewish men, especially dignified landowners, did not run.5 But this father pulled up the skirts of his robe and hightailed it down the road, filled with only one thought: his son was home! He threw his arms around him, filthy rags and all, kissed his dirty head. The young man began the speech he had rehearsed all the way home.
But his father was not even listening. “Quickly, bring a robe! The best one! Bring shoes, and a ring, and kill the fatted calf, and let us eat and celebrate! For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” And they went in to the banquet.
When we read this parable, we cannot help but be moved by the father’s generous welcome of his son; it is a story poignant and profound. Sometimes we stop with the joyous reunion and do not continue on with the passage! But we are not done until we meet the older son. Remember verse 11, the beginning of this parable: “There was a father who had two sons.” The story of the older son is not just an afterthought, an epilogue. It is a key part of the tale. So let’s consider the older son.
He was the one who had done everything right! He had not left home; he had worked hard, been faithful, gotten up in the cold dark to do chores, worked in the heat and sweat of the day, developed callouses on his hands and fingers. And now, when he comes in after another long day in the field, he finds a party going on! Hearing it was for his wastrel brother, he became angry and refused to go in! When his father came out to him, he was furious, so angry and resentful, he refused to call his sibling, “my brother.” “This son of yours came back after devouring your property, and you throw him a party!”
Can you relate to the older son? Like many of us, the writer Debie Thomas felt an affinity with this figure. She composed what she called, “A letter to the son who stayed.”
“I won’t lie,” she wrote, “my sympathies are with you. Your story haunts me. Your resentments mirror mine......I’m used to being responsible, staying home, and getting things done. Whenever I think of you standing — appalled — outside your father’s house, your brother’s easy laughter ringing in your ears, I ache inside.”6
Sometimes we get lost not because of a physical leaving, but because of an emotional separation, a separation from God and from others that comes from failing to notice that God is with us, failing to appreciate the inheritance we have already been given, focusing more on who we think should not be invited than on giving thanks that we have a place at the table. The older son got lost without ever leaving home.
There was a father who had two sons, the passage says. The father told the older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours” (note the emphasis there, this brother of yours—reminding him of both relationship and responsibility) “this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found.”
How often are we like the older son, resentful of someone else getting something we think should be ours. Jealously guarding what we think of as our place. Possessive of what we have, as if there are not enough of God’s blessings to go around.
In the book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “There are always folks who fancy themselves bouncers to the heavenly banquet, charged with keeping the wrong people away from the table and out of the church.”
Evans was writing about the sacrament of communion, but her words give insight to this passage. For the older son, it was his irresponsible brother who did not deserve to be at the banquet. Like the older son, the Pharisees and scribes saw themselves as the ones who had done everything right! They resented Jesus welcoming those rule breakers to his table, people who were irresponsible and unworthy. They wanted Jesus to shun them, condemn them!
Rachel Held Evans wrote, “The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine! Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry,” she said.7
Throughout scripture, the image of God’s banquet is an image of abundance and blessing. Jesus took the Old Testament image of the great banquet and expanded it to include all kinds of unlikely people. Think of all the parables he told---including in the chapter right before this---where a host went out into the streets to bring people in, because the invited guests refused to come. Jesus used the table customs of his day to say, “Yes! These are my people!” Jesus made clear that this banquet would include some strange table companions---the uninvited, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the socially unacceptable. In other words, the guests would look a lot like those with whom Jesus broke bread, the ones for whom the religious leaders criticized him.
Like the older son, the Pharisees were missing out on the joy of God’s table. In the kingdom there is room for all, and if we think that is not so, if we try to be gatekeepers to guard God’s doors against those we think are unworthy, then we end up missing the party.
It was the younger son’s hunger that drove him back, and when with humility, he acknowledged his need, his father gave him not just bread and water, but a great feast!
The older brother was invited, too! But he chose to stand outside with his hunger, rather than going in to the party.
We don’t know how the story ends, and I think that is deliberate. Jesus leaves us hanging, because the end is up to the hearer. The Pharisees and scribes could be dining with Jesus, too. At the end, the invitation has been extended. Jesus leaves them with assurance of belonging and an invitation to celebrate, to join in the rejoicing! Now the outcome is up to them..... and to us. Will we come in and join the party? Will we sit at the table with Christ our host? Will we allow him to feed us from the great banquet table?
Only when we are humble enough to recognize that there is no difference between Pharisee and tax collector, no difference between saint and sinner, no difference between older son and younger; only when we realize that we, too, are not deserving of God’s great grace, but that God has gifted it to us anyway, only then will we be able to rejoice and enjoy the feast.
Tom Long shared a true story about a woman’s relationship with her father. When she was young, she and her father were very close. One of their favorite things was at big family gatherings, someone would pull out an old record player and they would all dance. When the song, “Beer Barrel Polka” played, her father would come up and tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance.”
But one time, Long said, “when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods,” the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ began to play “and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘I believe this is our dance,’ she snapped at him, ‘Don't touch me! Leave me alone!’ And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.”
All through her teen years, the relationship between father and daughter was strained. “When I would come home late from a date,” she said, “my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep....and I would snarl at him, ‘What do you think you're doing?’ He would look at me with sad eyes and say, ‘I was just waiting on you.’
When she left for college, she was eager to be grown up and away from home, and for years, she never communicated with her father. But then as the years passed, she became filled with regret, and she realized how much she missed her dad.
“One day,” she said, “I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the ‘Beer Barrel Polka.’ I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I believe this is our dance.’ He turned toward me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you.’”8
Whether we are the child who stayed or the child who left, God is always waiting on us, and not just waiting but seeking and watching, with words of welcome, “Come, take your place at the table! There is feasting and dancing, music and rejoicing! Everything I have is yours, so come, celebrate and rejoice!”
My friends, let us accept the great invitation, to be part of the company of people who come from east and west, from north and south, the first and last, to share in the abundant banquet of God’s kingdom. And great is the rejoicing in heaven. Amen and amen.