Imagine a world where the worst of offenders or the least conforming or the most offensive — in other words, sinners — are restored to the table of fellowship.
That’s what Jesus exhorts the Pharisees and legal experts to imagine when he tells the parable of the “prodigal son” (which you can read after the jump).
Again, the Pharisees and legal experts are offended by Jesus’ behavior of welcoming tax collectors and sinners to the table. Jesus’ response is to tell stories, and by those stories he ushers everyone into a storied world — an imagined world — where a different order obtains.
In that world, Jesus says, we can imagine a man with two sons … the younger one a corrupt character who wipes out his dad’s inheritance and disrespects his father grievously and publicly, squanders it away in the Diaspora, and ends up — shockingly and comedically if not tragically — feeding pigs. But the kid comes to his senses and commits to going back home and telling his father he’s sorry and begging for mercy — just enough mercy to work on the outskirts of the estate.
We wait for Jesus’ story of how the father responds because we know that world was not fond of rebellious wandering sons, but the father’s response mirrors Jesus’ table practices: he throws a huge party and gives the son everything and more, so much so the son gains his father’s status.
The story’s not over because the kingdom world Jesus imagines is not ideal or perfect: we are asked to imagine what the older son’s response was. And he, like the Pharisees and legal experts, grouses over the father’s behavior. We’ve come full circle, then.
But the father’s response, once again, surprises: instead of reprimand, the father shares his commitment, too, with the older son and reminds him in covenant language of his covenant love and faithfulness. Covenant people, he says, need to celebrate when the sinner repents and rejoins the table.
If God welcomes them to the table, God’s people must as well!
What the Pharisees and legal experts need most is a renewed imagination, an imagination that can see what God can do in healing people. Imagine a world, Jesus wants us to see, where sinners are restored to God and to the community.
15:11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 15:13 After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. 15:14 Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. 15:15 So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 15:16 He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 15:17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger!15:18 I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”‘ 15:20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. 15:21 Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 15:23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, 15:24 because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again – he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
15:25 “Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 15:26 So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. 15:27 The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ 15:28 But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, 15:29 but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! 15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. 15:32 It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.'”