Missing the Party - thrive UMC Official Blog

Missing the Party

Today we’re continuing on in our reading of the story of the Prodigal Father that’s found in Luke.  But before we read the conclusion, we need to remember the event that sparked this whole series of Jesus’s stories about lost things in the first place.  While Jesus was teaching about the demands of being a disciple, these contemporary religious leaders called Pharisees were scandalized that Jesus was keeping company with sinners.  More specifically, Jesus was eating with –and sharing a table with- people like tax collectors! In fact, at the very beginning of chapter 15, it says “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus to listen to him.” 

               Now, if you were to go around asking people to make a top-10 list of sins and sinners, tax-accountants for H&R Block and employees of the IRS probably wouldn’t make the cut for us.  But for most Jewish people living in Palestine under Roman rule, tax collectors would have been about the worst.  Their list would have run something like this:

  • Tax collectors
  • The Bloody Romans
  • The Filthy Greeks
  • Blasphemers
  • Murderers
  • Thieves,
  • Children who didn’t take care of their aging parents etc., etc.

But tax collectors would have been at the top of their sin list because –remember again- to sin means to ‘miss out, or fail to have, your portion.’  And what are taxes?  Taxes are the involuntary fees demanded by the governing powers.  In this case, taxes go to fund the oppressive Roman Empire. By Jesus’s day, there was a long standing, deep-seeded resentment between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. The Jews wanted the Romans gone, for a whole long list of reasons and offenses.  But if that’s not bad enough, just imagine having someone come to your door and demand, by threat of the sword, that you have to use your hard-earned resources to fund your enemy who is oppressing you!  But get this: it wasn’t a Roman who came knocking on your door demanding you pay up, it was one of your people. Roman officials would assign local Jewish men to collect the taxes; but they wouldn’t pay them.  So to support his own family, the tax collector had to collect more than what the Romans demanded –he also had to add his own salary, and that of his boss, and often his boss’s boss’s cut on to the billed return.  And there were very few checks and balances in this process, so many tax collectors became incredibly rich basically by taking as much money as they could from their own people. 

So do we see what’s going on here?  The sin of tax collectors had two dimensions to it: it was both political and it was also very, very personal. Your money –your share, your portion- was muscled out of you to fund the evil empire and to make these greedy, sellout-traitors rich.  It’d be like, if the Girl Scouts came to your door, but instead of inviting you to buy delicious cookies for a  good cause, when you opened the door they pull out guns, loot your house, and use the money to fund foreign terrorist organizations, and their own personal coke habits. That’s the level of betrayal people felt toward their local tax collectors; and the more these men were hated, the more they would extort from those who were shunning and shaming them.

So anyway, that’s the backdrop. Jesus was welcoming these bad dudes to his table.  To eat with someone in that culture, was viewed as an act of side-taking. So from a publicity stand point, it looked like Jesus was saying he was okay with these men and what they did.

So, let’s get to our reading.  Turn with me, if you will, to Luke 15.  We’re picking back up at verse 20b.  It’s a story about a man with two sons.  The first asked for his inheritance early, and then squandered it all so that he had to come crawling back home.  Today we’ll get to hear about the other son. 

“While [the youngest son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

So, the younger son comes back desperate and starving, and is lavishly welcomed back by his compassionate, if not also somewhat crazy, father.  Instead of merely being allowed to work on the estate as a hired hand, he is reinstated -restored as an honored son. His dad even throws a party for him, even serving up a fattened calf –which, by the way, was a huge luxury. 

But when big brother comes in from working hard in the fields all day, and he hears the music and finds out about the party, he is… not happy.  In fact, it says he is furious.  He is so angry, so against everything that’s going on that he refuses to go anywhere near the feast.  His father somehow hears about this, leaves the feast to confront his eldest son and encourage –or perhaps even to beg him- to join the party.  But he won’t.

“Look,” says the older son, “I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.”

Oh, there’s so much going on here.

But wait: then the father goes –now listen to this- then the father goes: “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”

Now, for just a minute, let’s pause right here.  Because this moment in the story is the crux of the whole thing.  If you miss this moment, you’re gonna miss the invitation into a miracle. “Son,” he says, “you are always with me and everything I have is yours!”

And we can imagine this elder son, hearing this first part, and internally going: ‘I know, dad, and that’s the whole reason I’m so furious with you in the first place!  That’s my cow that’s getting served up in there! The party you’re throwing in there was supposed to be my party!  I’m the eldest son; 2/3 of everything you have is mine by rights. He took his share and blew it!  Which means, dad, this party you’re throwing for him is coming out of my inheritance. And what’s more, I’ve done all the right stuff!  I’ve worked hard.  I’ve done everything exactly as you taught me –but did I ever even get so much as a puny-goat party to have a good time with my friends?  NO!  But then this son of yours comes crawling back and right away all of your generosity, and all your compassion, and all your joy gets unloaded on him –but what about me, dad?  Where’s the party for me? This isn’t fair!

That’s the story this eldest son has had playing in his head since his kid brother left. After taking his share and leaving, all that remained of the father’s estate (which in the Greek is ‘bios’—life!) was for, and about, the older son, right?  The property, the wealth, the fatherly approval and affection were all, exclusively, for him.  With the youngest son out of the picture, there was no one left to lay any claim to anything on dear old dad’s estate.  ‘All of this is for me, and I don’t have to share!’ Hallelujah!

But then the brother comes back, and the father completely restores him and throws a party –thus ruining the elder son’s parade. And as the father begs the older son to join the feast, he tells him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours,’ which the son is already well aware of.  But then catch this next part, because here’s the turn: “but,” the father says, “but we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive.  He was lost and is found.”

     Now we’ve already heard this line once in this story already, right?  That’s the reason the father gave to the servants earlier to explain the need for the feast in the first place. He repeats it again almost verbatim.  And whenever scripture repeats something, that’s always a cue for us that it’s a really important line.  We’re supposed to hang on to it.  But here the father doesn’t repeat what he had said exactly.  Here he turns the story just a bit.  The reason they have to celebrate now isn’t just about the return of his son, but it’s also about the rise and recovery of the older son’s brother.

He’s saying, join the party son: you have a brother again!  Can’t you see that? And that is a far greater gift than any amount of sheep or land or privilege. Your brother was dead and gone, and now he’s back!  You have to be glad with me!  Because you and I both lost something incredibly precious when he left –something of infinite worth- and we have him back again!  Celebrate with us, for our family is whole again!  This isn’t just a party for your brother, it’s a celebration for, and of, all of us. Turn your hard and selfish heart around, and be glad! 

Stop counting the pennies and dollars this is costing you (which by the way, dad is still alive and healthy and the rightful head of the household –so don’t forget you don’t own a thing, kid!), look at what you’re getting back: a companion, a friend, a co-laborer.  You’re getting your brother back! And there’s only one good way to respond to such a monumental day: we have to be glad and celebrate. We have to have a feast, and go all out! 

And that’s where the parable ends: the older brother is invited to join the party –but Jesus doesn’t tell us whether he ever does or not. But you and I know that, of course, he doesn’t.  He ends up staying angry and resentful, and when all is said and done, he is the one who actively preserves the rift that keeps the family broken.  The family never becomes whole again, like the father had hoped, because the older brother never accepted the return of his younger sibling in his heart.  And we know this because we can read the rest of the gospel.

The older son represents the Pharisees, and the younger son represents the sinners –like tax collectors, who are desperate to come back home. These men –for lack of a clear better option- hired themselves out to foreign, unclean powers to do degrading and shameful work (symbolized by feeding pigs). And it did indeed impoverish the family household.  They go through all of this only to discover that no one would give them anything. And they are desperate and starving. Sooner or later, they probably end up stealing, because really, what choice did they have?  They were born into a house that would give them no land to inherit, nor place of their own; and they worked in a world where their masters didn’t pay them.  But they want to come home. In fact, they know that’s what they need. And the Father would be so incredibly happy to welcome them back.  He would throw a feast for them like they’ve never seen, because he loves them so much, and being gone breaks his heart. 

But if they did return, and there were a party, the other brother back there wouldn’t join in.  Instead he’d stay outside and be bitter and he would grumble at all this other brother had cost him. He’d never be able to forgive.  And when the party was over, he would use his leverage and his elevated status to remind his brother of how terrible he had been running off with his share and squandering everything in wasteful living, and abandoning his father and breaking his heart. And every day, through calloused gesture and cold glances, the older brother would remind him how difficult it is for the family for him to be there.  And that older brother inevitably drives the younger one away once more.

And the result is that the household stays broken, and there is no peace in the world. 

That’s how it was in Jesus’s day.  And that’s how it is … now.

At the beginning of this, I had told you there was both a personal and a political aspect of this sin problem, especially as it relates to tax collectors.  These tax collectors were greedy and they stole from their neighbors for personal gain.  But they also directly fueled the machine of the Roman Empire that kept their people oppressed.  In the same way now, the church is not only a personal institution, but it is a political institution.  We don’t have to look very far in the past to see what the Church has done to better our world:  it invented public schools and hospitals so that the poor could have health care and education.  It has held corporations in this country accountable so that children would not be turned into slaves, and that laborers could have not one –but two days of rest a week.  It led the movement that got the institution of slavery abolished.  It started the conversation of women’s rights, and then led the peaceful arm of the Civil Rights movement.  Almost all charity organizations in America were founded with a spirit that goes back to Jesus.  All around the world, when nations call for war, it’s the Church who steps up and tries to find a better way to build peace.  A way that doesn’t demand that we send our sons and daughters off to shoot and blow one another up –because we seem to be the only ones who haven’t forgotten how infinitely precious children are.  Not just our children, but their children too… because all of us, every single one of the seven billion people who populate this planet are God’s children.

They are our brothers and sisters.  And our call –which is the way of peace- is to welcome them home.  If ever the miracle happens where they come to themselves and decide to take the humbling journey home, we have to be ready to welcome them.  Not just tolerate their presence, but welcome them.  Throw a feast for them, because they are our siblings.  Each and every person plays a vital role in making our family whole.  If they should ever come back, we should celebrate it!

               They need it!  We need it. The Church needs it.  The world needs our celebration.  But before we can ready ourselves to celebrate, we have to forgive.  We have to let go of what we think is owed us.  We have to let go our entitlements, and the fake monopoly we imagine we have with God.  We have to let go of our love for stuff and status so that our hands and hearts are free to embrace our brothers and sisters.  The only cure to sin is to send it away by welcoming the sinners.  Because that’s us.  All of us are missing our share… when we let ourselves be divided, and when anyone is degraded. 

               Let us celebrate the life we have as God’s beloved children by celebrating the gift of our siblings, wherever we can find them.  Let’s pray.