Apr 12 2013 - Luke 15:1-32 – This man welcomes sinners and eats with them
For the last few years I have been involved in a competition that challenges people to put together a pitch for the making of a short film based on a story from the Bible. Each year there have been several that have wanted to make a film based on the parable of the prodigal son. It is not only one of the best known parables of the Bible, it is one of the best known of all the Bible's stories – and one of the best loved. All of us have, at some time or another, done things of which we are ashamed, things that have got us in trouble; all of us have longed for a way home while at the same time fearing how we might be received. This parable holds out a timeless message of hope.
But for all of our fascination with this parable, we sometimes forget the context in which it was told. The crowds had gathered to hear Jesus. It was particularly the outcasts of society who pressed in to hear him – the "tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 15:1). Nor did Jesus seek to fend off the attention of such folk. On the contrary, he frequently ate with them. The Pharisees and teachers of the law argued that Jesus must favour such company because he was one of the same sort – a sinner. They muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (15:2). It was against this background that Jesus tells the parable of the lost and returning son, the third in a set of parables about the recovering of that which was lost.
It can be dangerous to try to identify every character and action in a parable, as if it were a detailed allegory. However, the father in this parable is surely intended to be a picture of God (particularly in the light of the preceding parables). This is what God is like, says Jesus, he welcomes the returning sinner; he not only allows him back to eat at his table, he throws a party and welcomes the prodigal home with open arms and much joy.
Jesus is telling the sulking Pharisees that in all that he is doing he is showing the world the character of God the Father; he is making him known. And this still is the message of the gospel; it is not just that Jesus is like God, the wonder rather is that God is like Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like; the one who created the universe "welcomes sinners and eats with them."
And then there is the elder brother in the parable. He does not share his father's joy over the returning prodigal; he does not want to associate with sinners. This character surely corresponds to the attitude of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. In turning up their nose at "sinners" and refusing to have anything to do with them they think that they are reflecting the character of God – but they are not. It is Jesus, not the Pharisees, who shows us the character of the Father. God may be holy, but he loves sinners and longs to embrace them and welcome them home.
And whose character do we display in the way we relate to others around us?
Living God, open my eyes to see the wonder of your character – that you are a God of grace who runs to meet the returning sinner. Thank you Lord Jesus, that you, my elder brother, did not remain in the Father's house but came into the far country to seek us out when we were far from home and bring us back to enjoy with you the untold riches of your inheritance. As you have reflected and displayed the heart of the Father, so help me by your Spirit to reflect your heart of love in my attitude to those around me.