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In his book "Shepherds and Bathrobes," Thomas Long tells the following story:
I was once staying in a motel in a large city and was surprised to find, posted to the elevator door, a small handwritten notice that read, "Party Tonight! Room 210. 8:00 p.m. Everyone invited!" I could hardly picture who would throw such a party, or for what reason, but I imagined that at 8:00, room 210 would be filled by an unlikely assortment of people-sales representatives seeking a little relief from the tedium of the road; a vacationing couple tired of sightseeing; a person stopping overnight in the middle of a long journey, looking for a bit of festivity; a few inquisitive and wary motel employees, there because of professional responsibility; perhaps some young people who had slipped out of their parents' rooms, anxiously curious about what was happening in room 210.
But alas, the sign by the elevator soon came down, replaced by a typewritten statement from the motel staff explaining that the original notice was a hoax, a practical joke. That made sense, of course, but in a way it was too bad. For a brief moment, those of us staying at the motel were tantalized by the possibility that there just might be a party going on somewhere to which we were all invited-a party where it did not make much difference who we were when we walked in the door, or what motivated us to come; a party we could come to out of boredom, loneliness, curiosity, responsibility, eagerness to be in fellowship, or simply out of a desire to come and see what was happening; a party where it didn't matter nearly as much what got us in the door, as what would happen to us after we arrived.
Perhaps if there is to be such a party, the church is going to have to throw it.
Now the context of today's scripture story is that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the social activities of Jesus. They said of him, "This man receives sinners and eats with them!"(15:1-2) Their insinuation is that if Jesus is a party boy, then what kind of Savior could he possibly be?
We might expect Jesus to back off and say, "But, I will redeem these whores and tax collectors with whom I party! I will make them straighten up, be more responsible, appear more middle-class like you and me." But, instead, he tells them three stories in which it is unquestionably clear that God loves to party with sinners. Jesus tells one story after another with hardly a pause for breath in between. He begins with a party where a woman finds a lost coin from her wedding dowry. He progresses to a bash thrown after finding a lost sheep. And then he tells of the biggest, most questionable blowout of all, the party for the prodigal son. (William Willimon, "When God's Story is Your Story," Pulpit Resource, March 26, 1995)
This story has always been a shocker, because we like to think of Jesus as being the one who was going to improve our ethical standards. We want him to put a little more fiber into our ethical diet, which is often found lacking. But in this homecoming of a story, we find the unexpected -- a party for the ne'er-do-well son. Our question often echoes the question of the older brother: "Is it fitting to throw a party for a prodigal?" Perhaps a fresher understanding of this well-worn story begins when we define which character is the real prodigal.
The obvious answer is that the younger brother is the prodigal. He did, after all, treat his father as if he were dead by asking for his inheritance prematurely. He then travels to a far away land and squanders his estate on loose living. It was not only his money that he lost, but also his chance in life to be someone and to do something redemptive with his resources. But he is wasteful. He is wasteful with opportunity, with money, with his inheritance, and even with his youthfulness. As if these decisions were not enough to break his father's heart, this Jewish boy then finds a job feeding unclean animals. It would seem that he was determined to turn his back on his father and all that his father loved in order to satisfy his own pangs of emotional and physical hunger.
The less obvious answer to "Who is the prodigal?" is the son who remained at home. While he does not ask for his inheritance, he does resent being the one left at home to tend to the farm and to satisfy the father's wishes. He shows this in his refusal to address his father with an appropriate title and his refusal to claim the prodigal as his brother. He refers to his returned brother only as "this son of yours." This elder son is so tight that he has never asked for a goat with which to have a party with his friends. All he could see was that his father's forgiveness was a grand waste. Yet the parable ends with this brother also lost. He is lost because of his inflexible principles, his envy, his judgmental attitudes, and his resentment over his father's generosity. (Michael Ball, The Radical Stories of Jesus: Interpreting the Parable Today)
In each case, neither son shows concern for his father's feelings. Both distance themselves from their father's concerns and activities in different ways. Both seem to resent their father's control of the farm and the limits they perceive it sets on their lives. Both at some stage seem to prefer parties with their friends rather than meals with their father. (Ball)
So who is the prodigal? Is it the younger or the elder son?
Let me propose that it is neither, for the prodigal in our story is the father.
The father is a prodigal in that his love is extravagant and more excessive than either the younger brother's loose living or the older brother's moral rectitude. This parent is excessive in his persistence to claim a family. He is the one who impetuously meets us when we drag in from the far country after good times go bad, or who risks coming out to the lonely darkness of our righteousness or the rigidity of our sanctimonious ways and begs us, "Come in. Come in to the party." It is a father who continues to be dreadfully wasteful, for he gave away his own son, Jesus Christ, in order to claim us for the Kingdom of God. (Willimon)
It is this Son who told the story in the first place. For Jesus told the story to those who prided themselves on being hard workers and on having earned the love of their Heavenly Parent. These were, however, the same persons who openly despised Jesus for wasting his time with those whom good folk regarded as human waste: tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, and the incurably ill. These, however, were the very ones that Jesus said would enter the Kingdom of God before the church "super workers," like the scribes and Pharisees! It is quite likely that Jesus wanted the hearers of the parable to go away wondering, "Is it wasteful of God to be merciful to outcasts and derelicts, to those who have wasted their lives? Is it prodigal of God to open the realm of Heaven to persons like the returning son?" (John C. Purdy, Parables at Work)
In his book "The Return of the Prodigal Son," Henri Nouwen points out:
…Jesus became the prodigal son for our sake. He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father's home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God…Jesus is the prodigal son of the prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that I could…so that you could…so that we could…become like him and return with him to his Father's house.
This story confronts us with a world where we have a home, where there is Someone who is determined to love us, and where brothers and sisters who leave and resentful brothers and sisters who won't leave are all claimed and waited for and celebrated.
Please note that the story does not have an ending. We are left to wonder if the older brother will accept the father's invitation to come in to the party. In the best story telling fashion, Jesus leaves the story open ended so that we must finish it for ourselves. And we are. For every church family has its younger brothers. These are those who are always gasping for air, threatening to leave, and sometimes leaving with their share of the inheritance. But before we become too judgmental of them, always keep in mind that there exists a younger brother within each of us who is gasping, reaching for space, and kicking at the established boundaries. (Willimon)
The older brother is also known to us. He is ever dutiful, thoughtful, caring, concerned, and eventually filled with great resentment. This is the sibling who carries too much of the moral weight and gets tired of all of us others who never seem to shape up…at least in their estimation. (Willimon)
So in the search for the story's ending, do not neglect the most prodigal one of them all…the father. For in the end, it is the father with whom each child has to deal. And in each case, the father gives them exactly what they need. The younger son is accepted back home and given a place of belonging. And the older son is given reassurance: "You are always with me. Everything I have is yours." Then he extends the invitation to come inside to the party and to celebrate.
When my niece, Mary Margaret, graduated from college, I was invited to deliver the baccalaureate address. As a consequence, my oldest son, David, my husband, Lloyd, and I were included on the president's invitation list to all of the graduation festivities. One of these was the dance given the night before graduation. When we arrived, the room was full of young men and women already enjoying the good music and celebrating the milestone that each would capture the next day. Mary Margaret's friends were particularly gracious to dance with 8-year old David, who, by the way, danced with so little inhibition that he was asked to dance on the stage with the lead singer of the band! Lloyd and I, on the other hand, stood self-consciously nearby. We remembered our own university days and the nerve it took us then to get on the dance floor. But as the night went on, our toe tapping progressed to hand clapping to making the letters "YMCA" to finally joining in with the hormonal gyrations of a younger generation. The song that finally moved us beyond our self-awareness was Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." You probably know the words better than I do. They go something like this:
There's a party goin' on 'round here. A celebration to last throughout the years. So grab a good time and some laughter too. We goin' to celebrate this party with you. C'mon on…Celebration! We're goin' to celebrate and have a good time.
My friends, we gather as the body of Christ as a celebration to which prodigals and do-gooders have been invited. It is a party in which the sinners and the righteous celebrate the good times. It is where the old and the young alike can throw their inhibitions aside and marvel in the goodness of the Lord. For there's a party goin' on 'round here given by an extravagant God and we are all invited.
So if you are standing at the door, if you have heard the music and the laughter, if you have smelled the fatted calf roasting on the open fire, c'mon in! For it is a party to which we are all invited. It is a party in which there are wondrous things to celebrate! It is a party hosted by a God who is willing to waste it all in order to bring us home again.
Oh Lord, Our God, we like a good party; and you are the most gracious of hosts to seek us out and invite us to yours. Thank you for loving us this much, for being diligent in searching for us, for waiting patiently. Thank you for greeting us and giving us a place of belonging within your family. We would ask for your direction. May your excessive love guide us in our decisions and woo us into returning home to you. May your warm embrace encourage us to leave the enticements of this world. May your identity as your children spur us into becoming living examples of your grace. For those of us who have been to this party before but have wandered away for one reason or another, prepare a happy homecoming, one in which we will celebrate each other's unique place within the Kingdom of God. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the prodigal son of the prodigal father, Amen.
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