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. So he told them this parable… (Luke 15:1-3)
Sometimes when we read a passage of Scripture, we look at those few verses alone, forgetting that the verses on which we are focusing are set within the midst of a larger context. We have been looking at the parable of the Man Who had Two Sons as a totality, and it can truly stand alone. However, it is important to understand why Jesus told this parable, as well as the two parables immediately preceding it: the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin.
As we see in verses 1-2, all sorts of unsavory folk were gathering around Jesus to listen to him, to learn from him, or perhaps simply to be in the presence of a truly holy person. They were not welcome at the Temple in Jerusalem and likely not at their local synagogues as well. They were beyond the circle of polite society and shunned by those who would keep the faith pure from such as these. They were the outcast of their day. Now tax collectors and sinners were one step above the true “untouchables”—those who were lepers—but they were not welcome in worship or invited to the homes of righteous folk.
Jesus welcomes all comers. Not only are tax collectors and sinners welcome, but he also greets and entertains Pharisees--even dining in their homes-- scribes, Sadducees, and at least one member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus. All sorts and conditions of people have an equal opportunity to be taught, fed, and led by this itinerant preacher.
As Luke begins this section we discover that the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees had become a distraction. Rather than ignoring the disruption, Jesus faces it head-on. He tells first the parable of the shepherd who loses a sheep. However, rather than begin his story as we might expect, he puts his hearers on notice that he is speaking to them, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…” He concludes his story of the lost lamb, “And when he comes home he calls together his friends and neighbors saying to them ‘Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”
He immediately tells another story and again begins it by challenging those in the crowd, “What woman having ten silver coins…” and concludes it by saying, “…she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” He has laid the ground-work by setting up a lost-found-rejoice pattern.
Finally in this chapter he moves to a deeply demanding parable, our story of the Man With two Sons. At the end of each act we are called to rejoice. The first act concludes with the great feast, complete with music and dancing at least for the household, but possibly including friends and neighbors as well. All is well, and I can hear “amen” from the crowd. Remember, however, that Jesus does not begin this parable by saying, “Which one of you, having a son who wishes you were dead, goes off into a foreign land and squanders his portion of the wealth…” He simply begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” The clincher comes in act two, as we hear about Older Brother and his response to the rejoicing at Younger Brother’s return. Jesus drives home the point that the dour, self-righteous son refuses, at least at first, to enter into the rejoicing. He figuratively points his finger toward those in the crowd who would refuse others because the outsiders were not as pure as themselves. As with many of Jesus’ parables, The Man with Two Sons ends without a conclusion to Older Brother’s dilemma; will he “come home” or will he exile himself to a lifetime of bitterness at the generosity of God. For Older Brother, generosity to Younger Brother diminishes whatever Father can give him. Love and material wealth are portioned out in a finite way, reducing that which is available to the elder sibling.
As we move closer to the celebration of God’s ultimate act of generosity in the Nativity of God’s Son, help me to remember that I am heir to ALL of God’s Kingdom. My share is not reduced if others are welcomed to join in on the feast. In fact, my portion contains more than I can ask for or even imagine, because it is in community with you and those who accept God’s invitation that I discover the totality of God’s riches. Young and old, rich and poor, tax collector and sinner, all are invited to the banquet. Rejoice brothers and sisters, and welcome everyone God invites.