Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”
The Bible is scandalous.
I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time completely naked until they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.
The patriarch of the faith, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.
And David, the one who brought down the mighty Goliath, killed 200 Philistine men just to procure their foreskins in order to present them as a dowry so that he could marry the daughter of King Saul.
And that just three example from the Old Testament.
When Jesus shows up on the scene it gets even crazier.
He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people.
For awhile, in the midst of his ministry, he attracts all kinds of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last. But at some point the crowds begin to change; they start leaning in a direction we might call undesirable.
All the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near to listen to him. The tax collectors were Jews who profited off of their fellow Jews. They took from the top and made little nest-eggs for themselves while their fellow countrymen suffered under the dictatorial rule of Rome. And the sinners, well, just imagine your favorite sinful behavior and you know who those people were.
And they are the ones gathering near.
Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have here at church. Not the folks who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe. Not the people who jockey to the highest positions in the community.
No, Jesus attracts the very people we would repel.
And the Pharisees and the scribes, the good religious folk, (people like us), they were grumbling among themselves and saying, “This Jesus is bad news. He not only welcomes sinners into his midst, but he has the audacity to eat with them!”
So Jesus told them a story.
If you don’t know this by now, well then let me tell you yet again, Jesus loves to tell stories. Everywhere he went, among all the different people, with all their different problems, he would bring his hand to his chin and triumphantly declare: “I’ve got a story for that.”
And this story, the one he tells to the grumbling religious authorities, the story that is probably best known among all the parables, is through which the whole of the gospel comes to light.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important parable Jesus ever told, and just about every time we retell it, we ruin it.
And it’s scandalous.
Listen: A man had two sons. And one day the younger son gets the bright idea to ask for his inheritance right then and there. He didn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to die before he received his due. And the father, inexplicably, agrees. He splits himself, turns it all over to his boys, he effectively ends his own life so that they can have what they would have had at his death.
To the older son, he gave the family business.
To the younger son, he cashed out his retirement package.
The older son remains at home, taking care of that which was entrusted to him, and the younger son, the one who demanded the inheritance, runs off in a fit of joy with his now deep deep deep pockets.
But it’s only a matter of time before the younger son has squandered his early inheritance. Maybe he blew it at the black jack table, maybe he threw it away in empty bottle after empty bottle, or maybe he spent it on women. Regardless it gets to the point that he is now far worse off than he was before he asked for the money – he steals food out of garbage cans at night, he sleeps under a tarp off in the woods, and he showers in the sinks at gas stations.
And then, one day, he arrives back to himself and realizes that he could return to his father and his brother, that they could give him a job and he could start over. So he begins to practice his confession and contrition: “Dad, I’m so sorry for what I did. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Would you please help me?”
He hitch-hikes home, all the while practicing his little speech under his breath, wondering if his father will buy it and welcome him home or slam the door in his face. He even practices making his face look properly repentant to help him with his cause.
The day of his hopeful reunion arrives and he paces around the block worrying about his words when all of the sudden someone tackles him from behind and it takes him a moment to realize that someone is kissing his hair and head and neck.
The younger son rolls his assailant over only to discover that it’s his father, crying profusely, with a giant smile on his face.
The son opens his mouth to begin his practiced speech and his father interrupts him: “I don’t want to hear a word of what you have to say. We need to throw a party.”
And with that the old man grabs his son by the collar yanks him up off the ground, and starts singing at the top his lungs out in the middle of the street. They stop by every convenience store on their way home picking up all the cold beer, ice, and hot dogs they can carry. And by the time they make it to the house a slew of text messages, emails, and tweets have gone out inviting the whole of the neighborhood over to celebrate the lost being found.
Meanwhile, the older son (remember the older son), he’s out mowing the backyard at his Dad’s house. He’s got sweat dripping everywhere, and his mind is running over the list of all the other stuff he’s supposed to do, when he looks up and sees countless figures moving past the windows inside. And when he turns off the mower he can hear the music bumping and the people singing.
He quickly makes his way up to the closest window, peers inside, and sees his father with his arms around his good-for-nothing younger brother, and the older son shuffles off it a fit of rage.
Hours pass before the father realizes his other son is missing the party. So he tries to call him, no answer. He tries to text him, no response. It gets to the point that the Dad gets in his car and shows up at his older son’s house and starts banging on the front door.
“Where have you been? You’re missing the party!”
“I’m missing the party? When did you ever throw me a party? I’ve been like a slave for you all these years, taking over your business, driving you to your doctor’s appointments, heck I was even mowing your yard this afternoon, and you’ve never done a thing for me. And yet my brother shows up, and you throw him a party and you invite the whole neighborhood?”
And before he can continue his litany of complaints the father smacks his older son across the face and shouts, “You idiot! I gave you all that you have. And what do you spend all your free time doing? Taking care of an old man like me and I never asked you to do any of that.”
“Don’t you interrupt me right now, this is important. All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you, you’re hardly alive at all. The only reason you didn’t come into the party after mowing the lawn is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectations that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time and you, you’re alive and miserable. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and just drop dead. Forget about your life and come have fun with us.”
That’s the whole story right there.
And we know what we’re supposed to make of it.
We know we’ve been like the younger brother, venturing off into the unknown world only to make stupid choices and hope that we will be received in our repentance.
We know we’ve been like the older brother, disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though they don’t deserve it.
Or we know we’ve been like the father, praying for a wayward child, or spouse, or family member, or friend to come to their senses and return home.
And just about every time we encounter this story, whether in a sermon, or Sunday school, or even in a book or movie, the same point is made – see yourself in the story and then act accordingly.
But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is really about Jesus.
If the story we’re about us then we would hear a fuller ending. We would learn whether or not the elder brother decided to ditch his self-righteousness and join the party. We would discover whether or not the younger brother truly repented and left his foolish life behind forever. We would even discover how the father attempted to reconcile his sons back together.
But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we might be hoping for. We don’t get to know what happens and to whom because that’s not the point.
Do you see it now? This is about as scandalous as it gets in the Bible because no one gets what they deserve, and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!
The father loses everything for his sons. He gives up his life simply to meet the demand of his younger son.
The older son loses out on all that he hopes for by doing all of the right things only to never be rewarded for it.
The younger son dies to his ridiculous extravagance and is thrown the party of all parties just for coming home.
In this story, straight from the lips of the Lord, we catch a glimpse of the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the great party, save for ditching our snobbery.
This story, whether we like to admit it or not, ends before we want it to. We want to know what happens next, we want to know if the older brother goes into the party. We want to know if the younger brother stays on the right path. We want to see the father relaxing in his lazy boy knowing both of his kids are home.
But the fact that Jesus ends the story without an end shows that what’s most important has already happened. The fatted calf has been sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, and take off our shoes, and start dancing.
We were lost and we’ve been found.
That’s the only thing that matters. Amen.