Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Many people came to hear Jesus teach. Among them were the “tax collectors and sinners,” considered alike to be low-lifes and shameful. But they were welcomed by Jesus — and the Pharisees and teachers of the Law did not like it one bit. “Look who this Jesus is keeping company with,” they grumbled. They were out to shame him, too.
Jesus answered them with three stories. First, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Then, the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). But it is the third parable that really laid it out for them, the Parable of the Lost Son, a.k.a., the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
A father had two sons. The younger son came and asked for his share of his father’s estate. He cared more for his father’s wealth than he did for his father, and it was as if he wished his father were dead. He behaved very terribly, shaming not only himself but his father as well.
But the father loved both his sons nonetheless and divided the estate between them, giving each their share. And though it broke his heart, he let his younger son go his own way — what else could the father do? So the younger son gathered up all he had been given and went off to a distant country, far away from home. He wanted nothing more to do with his father or his family.
There in the alien land of his self-imposed exile, the young man wasted his wealth, indulging himself in a life that only tore apart his soul even more. Eventually, he had nothing, and to make matters worse, a hard famine came. The son became so desperate that he took what was considered a very vile work form or work, and especially degrading for him as a Jew: feeding swine. Yet he would gladly have eaten the unappetizing, barely digestible pods they ate — he was that hungry — but there was no one who would give him even that.
That would have been a suitable ending to the story for the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. “Disgraceful Young Man Gets What He Deserves,” would have been the caption. But Jesus was not yet finished and there was an unexpected turn-around to the tale (seems like Jesus was always doing that):
When he [the younger son] came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)The younger son had come to a realization, not only about how low he had sunk or how much better the life was that he had left behind, but about how reprehensibly he had behaved. However, he did not run from his shame nor did he wallow in it, but he owned it and, repenting, returned to his father. He prepared the confession he would offer: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” He had no hope for restored sonship, only that he might be allowed to stay and serve as a slave in his father’s house.
The Pharisees would have, perhaps, been appeased by that. But that was not yet the end of the story. See now what happened when the son neared home.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)Here was an amazing thing: Even while the son was a long way off, his father saw him. That was because the father never gave up watching for, even longing for, the return of his son. And when he finally saw him off in the distance that day, his heart was full of love and yearning and deep sympathy for what his son was going through.
He ran out to meet his son. This was another amazing thing, because it was quite undignified for a man of his age and position. But he simply did not care. He loved his son too much for that. He finally reached him and with great joy he threw his arms around him and covered him with kisses.
The young man began his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He was scarcely able to get it out, and did not even reach the part about being nothing more than a hired hand, before his father shouted out to his servants:
“Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24)The father did not heap any shame on his son — he lifted it off him. He did not receive him as a servant, which was the most the young man had hoped for, but fully as a son. Here was unexpected grace and undeserved mercy. In fact, what was deserved or undeserved was not even on the father’s mind, only on the son’s. All the father cared about was that his son had been dead and was alive again, that he had been lost but now was found.
Happy ending? Probably not so much to the Pharisees, for this is exactly the sort of thing they criticized Jesus about: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But there was still a little bit of the story left to tell, and the part the Pharisees most needed to hear.
Up until now, the parable was about the younger son and the father. But remember the other son, the older brother. When he heard the noise of celebration and found out it was because his younger brother had returned, he was quite angry, not only with his brother but even more with his father. His father went out and pleaded with him to come and rejoice, but the older brother would not receive it:
“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)The father had lifted all shame off his younger son but the older one wanted to heap it back on. “This son of yours,” he called him, distancing himself not only from his younger brother but also from his father. But the father would have none of it.
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32)The father would not heap shame back onto his younger son, and he would not tolerate any distance between the older son and the younger. He treated them both fully as sons: “This brother of yours.”
The younger son had returned home realizing his shame and his helplessness, and was joyfully welcomed by his father. The older son acted shamefully, too, by the hardness of his heart, and was just as helpless as the younger, though he did not realize it. Yet he, too, was received with just as much love by the father, though he did not believe it and so took no joy from it.
Jesus welcomes publicans and sinners, for that is the heart of the Father, who has loved us all along and is always watching for our return. He does not heap shame on any who turn and come home to him, for they have already realized their shame and helplessness. But he removes their shame, lifting that terrible burden off their weary souls and receiving them not as slaves but as sons and daughters.
Jesus has lifted our shame and carried it to the cross. By that shameful death, he put shame itself to death, for he is pure and righteous, and shame had no right to him. There is, then, no shame so deep that the love of God is not deeper still, pouring itself out, even on a cross, for our sake.