24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

The Pharisees really ticked off Jesus.  They made one simple statement.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  It is a true statement as we have just heard from Luke, “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.” It is a loaded statement, but a true one.  But it clearly strikes a nerve in Jesus.  He responds with three parables, a cascading response that does not defend himself from the charge, but explains why he has chosen this path.

First in the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus shows us a divine response.  “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  God is not happy with a 99% retention rate.  God rescues the lost, not reluctantly, but with great joy, throwing the lamb over his shoulders in glee.  Such is the heavenly reaction to repentance and forgiveness.

The story of the one lost coin of ten reminds us that we can never mourn what we did not have, but we feel particularly the loss of what we once possessed.  When the woman lights her lamp and sweeps the floor and discovers the coin, she exults.  She knows the joy of restoration.  This is the human response to what God has done for us.  She is made whole as are made whole through divine forgiveness.

Then follows the most famous parable.  A younger son demands his inheritance rudely from his father despite his father inconveniently being still alive.  He inevitably squanders his money and comes back mostly because he is starving.  Yet, the Father sees him with compassion, hugs and kisses him and slaughters the fattened calf for great feast.  This exuberant welcome of a truly guilty party is the surest sign of the joy of redemption.

Why does Jesus react so virulently to the simple statement that he welcomes and eats with sinners?  Why this avalanche of a response?  Because for Jesus, welcoming sinners and even having table fellowship with them is at the heart of his mission.  If you don’t get this, you don’t get him.  As the perfect explainer of his Father, he needs people to know that God does not hate or exclude.  God is the forgiver.  God is the welcomer.  The world where one mistake forever severs your connection to God and community is a dark alternative.  It is a cold, bleak world the Pharisees are portraying.

Which brings us to the older brother.  In twenty years of preaching this Gospel, everyone loves the older brother.  And yes, it seems like an appendage to the story of the Prodigal Son, but it might be the point because the older brother is the Pharisee who will not eat with sinners.  He depicts a sad, lonely person whose only purpose is to obey orders, the very symbol of one who thinks the point of life is simply not to sin rather than to love.  He cannot be happy that his brother who once “was dead and has come to life again,” is now safe.  He does not even claim his relationship with his brother, referring to him only as his father’ son.  His desire to separate from his own brother removes him from the redemptive joy of the Father.

The life of the older brother is not the life I want. I want to live in the assurance that I am not one mistake away from banishment from God’s grace.  I want to believe in a God who pursues me, desires me.  I want to be invited to this table of the Lord as I am, a sinner. We have all strayed and come home.  We have known the great embrace of a forgiving father. Sinners, let us gather around the table of the Lord for he eats with and welcomes us.