You are who you hang out with. That’s what my mother used to say. If that’s true, then what are we going to do with Jesus? The beginning of our gospel texts reminds us that the people Jesus would most like to have dinner with is not a group of well-behaved pastors or faithful Christians with perfect attendance at church. He isn’t hanging out with people who were raised on good manors and behavior. Much to the dismay of the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus welcomes sinners, the immoral ones, to the table and eats with them. He is hanging out with the wrong kind of folks. And people don’t like it. You are who you hang out with. So what are we going to do with Jesus?
Now, Jesus really knows how to respond to his audience, his critics. Here he has two groups, the Pharisees and scribes on one side and the sinners, the tax collectors, the riffraff on the other. And then, Jesus tells them a parable…”There was a man who had two sons.” Hmm…Jesus with two groups around him. A story about a father with two sons.
Now, the younger son is just a mess. He’s spoiled and he’s selfish. I mean, that’s how it is with younger children sometimes, isn’t it, parents? You try really hard to do it right with that first one, but then, I don’t know, by the time the second or third comes around, you’re just so tired and you just let them do whatever they want. That’s how it is with this one in our story. He did whatever he wanted. And he was gutsy too. He had the nerve to go up to his father and demand his inheritance early. You only get your inheritance when your father dies, so basically, this younger has wished his father as good as dead.
The father should have kicked him out of the house for being so disrespectful. And you wonder why he didn’t? I mean, this father, being the push over he is, simply gives in to his son. Perhaps, he just couldn’t handle one more tantrum from his son. Maybe the father knew that no amount of arguing would change anything; it would fall on deaf ears. Or maybe he didn’t want to hold his son back. He wanted to set him free to be who he would be. Whatever the reason the father gives in. And then a couple of days later, this younger son gathers up all of his things and runs away. Who knows where he goes, it’s just far, far away. Probably backpacking in Europe or something. That’s what they all do. And he just throws all of his money away. He wastes it. That’s why we call him the prodigal son. It’s a word that means relentlessly wasteful. And that’s what he was. Here this money was supposed to help him start a life for himself, but instead he burns it all on gambling, fancy clothes, and hookers. And now, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing to shelter him; nothing to eat. And no one gives him anything to curb the hunger. Why would they? I mean, this kid has made his bed, so now he should lie in it, right? It will be good for him; it will teach him a lesson.
There is only one thing to do: go home. Go home and confess to his father that he was wrong and needs help. It’s hard to know if the younger son is sincere or if he is still scheming. Does he really feel bad for what he has done? Or is he just continuing to use his gullible father to get what he wants? Who knows. All we know for sure is he simply heads home.
Meanwhile, for God knows how long, this sucker of a father stands by the window night after night, wondering and worrying if his son will ever come home again. And then, one morning, having fallen asleep in the chair, something stirs him awake. There far off on the horizon, there is a little black dot that wasn’t there before. And it’s moving. Closer. And closer. He would know that silhouette anywhere. It’s his son.
Jumping up and kicking off his sandals, the father runs. And runs. And runs. Such an embarrassing thing for a man his age to do. His tunic all flapping in the wind, not caring who sees him. All he can think is, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” And when he finally catches up with his long lost son, he slams into his son with such an embrace that the son has no wind left to even begin to apologize. Plus, his father won’t stop kissing him all over the face.
And before you know it, a celebration has begun. No expense is spared. This younger son is wrapped in the finest robe and jewelry, and all the best food is served.
It may sound like a beautiful sight, but it is also a ridiculous one. And a little embarrassing. This is not a recommended parenting technique. People would think this man was crazy for welcoming home such an ungrateful and spoiled brat. Welcoming this child home only rewards his bad behavior. Doesn’t he know this? Doesn’t he know how foolish this is? This child deserves to be punished for what he has done. The father should sit the kid down and teach him a lesson and ground him. He should be grounded for the rest of this life. The father should stand on the front stoop tapping his toe giving his son the look as he makes that long walk of shame back home. But that doesn’t happen at all. Instead, the father runs towards his son. Embraces him. Kisses him. And throws a party.
It’s almost as if this pathetic father cares more about the relationship with his son than he does about his son’s good or bad behavior.
But then, there is that other son. You know, the well-behaved one. The faithful one. The one who hasn’t missed a day of work in years. The one who spends 16 hours a day slaving away on his father farm. The one who diligently walks his father to church every Sunday. The one who would never treat his father the way his younger brother did. Yeah. That one.
He is out in the field, working hard. Sweating for his father’s land when he hears the party. “What’s going on?” he asks a servant.
“Your brother. He’s back. And your father is overjoyed.” Suddenly it dawns on him. His younger brother spent his inheritance. Whose inheritance do you think is paying for this party? Doesn’t he father know that he is the one who deserves this party? That he has been the faithful one all along? Almost immediately that anger and jealously that was lurking inside him for years began to grow and grow and grow.
The father never knew it, but he had two sons that were lost. One lost to greed and selfishness. The other to entitlement and jealousy and pride.
And then, there, in the midst of the celebration, dancing in the living room, that happy father glances out the window. And on the horizon he can see a black dot that wasn’t there before. But this one isn’t moving. It’s frozen. But he would know that silhouette anywhere.
For the second time that day, this father kicks off his sandals and runs to a son. Standing there in the field, this father bears and withstands the screams of accusations from another son who has lost himself, lost his way. “I have been working for you,” the son argues. “I have never disobeyed your command, and yet you have never given me as much as you give this other son of yours! This son who has squandered your money.” How embarrassing, once again. To be disrespected by your child so publicly. Out in the open. The father should have taught this son a lesson too for dishonoring him in such a way. He should have given him a look of disappointment. He should have punished him for such disrespect. But he didn’t. Instead, he embraces and kisses him with words of affection. “Son, I am with you always. I give my life to you. You have all of me. Please, come celebrate because your brother, who was dead but is now alive, and has come home.”
Your Brother. He names the relationship that has been absent from the entire story. Your brother, he says. These two sons rejecting each other so much that they don’t even mention their connection to one another. They never even lay eyes upon one another. And stuck in the middle of these two sons is a prodigal father who is so recklessly and wastefully in love with his boys and simply trying to hold the family together.
It’s almost as if this father cares more about the relationship between his sons than he does about their good or bad behavior.
Two sons dead, yet now alive. Two sons, lost yet now found. This is why Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, with the despised, and the immoral. But also with the Pharisees and scribes too, the prideful and the entitled. This is precisely where God’s heart is, with the lost and the dead. So that they might be found and made alive again.
It’s almost as if Jesus cares more about the relationship with and between these sinners than he does about their good or bad behavior. What a ridiculous and wasteful kind of love that is. We aren’t asked to love one another like that…are we?