Scripture scholars and holy people have said that the whole New Testament is summed up in the 15th chapter of Luke. So let us look at this important chapter.
“The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
To understand why eating with sinners was considered wrong you need to understand that in the time of Jesus eating with someone meant that you had a bond with them. It meant that you were one with them.
A rabbinic tradition says “Let not a person associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Torah.” It was praiseworthy to feed sinners but not to eat with them. Sinners were seen as being less then the righteous.
Jesus brought us a new way to look at this: that we are all sinners and that God is deeply in love with us in ways that would seem to us crazy. They would seem crazy to us because his ways are not our ways. The lesson of the 15th chapter is that we are sinners and that God loves us extravagantly.
Consider this famous passage: “’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?’” Those of us who are not sheepherders think that one would of course go after the lost sheep. I come from Nevada and where there is a large Basque population who are sheepherders. I have also talked to missionaries who ministered to sheep and goat herders in Africa. Both groups have said that no self respecting shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep to go after one sheep.
Sheep, you see, are amazingly stupid. If you leave them they may all jump off a cliff or be eaten by predators. A lost sheep is just considered part of doing business. It is better to have the 99 than to risk them by going after one. This is good business for human shepherds.
But God is no human shepherd. God loves all of us infinitely: enough to die for us. He goes anywhere to save us: the depths of addiction, the illusion of pride, or the horrors of hatred and rage.
Remember that I said that sheep are stupid? Well sometimes so are we. At least when the sheep get rescued they don’t fight the shepherd. All too often our response is: I don’t need you I am doing just fine. The sheep accept the rescue. Sometimes we don’t. But when we do there is rejoicing in heaven.
The next part of the 15th Chapter is the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. I think it should be renamed the parable of the Loving Father.
“’A man had two sons’” These two sons stand for us. Some of us are like the younger son. We are restless. We often fall into sins of the flesh. When we do we remain restless, because what we really want is God, and we are never satisfied without God.
The other son was the eldest son. He was very responsible. He did everything that the father wanted. He was reliable. But he also was resentful. He resented the love the Father showered on the younger brother.
The younger son did something that was a terrible insult in the culture of the time. He asked for the inheritance early. This was basically asking for the father to drop dead. The father took the insult and gave him the money.
The younger brother went to a far away country and had a non-stop party. He became very popular with a number of fair weather friends. Then a famine hit the country right about the time his money ran out. His no good friends deserted him. He became so hungry that as a Jew he hired himself out to a pig farm. That was about as far low as he could go. He went even lower. He was so hungry that he ate the food they were feeding the pigs.
He then realized that his father’s hired hands were treated far better then he was. He decided he had better go back home before he starved to death. On the way back he truly repented of his stupid ways. He just hoped that his Father would take him back as a hired hand. But his Father had other ideas.
His Father’s response was this: “’Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’”
You can imagine the befuddlement of the crowd when they hear this. The younger brother’s hope for at least being a hired hand would have been the outer limits of kindness for such a wayward son. Most of the people in the crowd would have felt the Father was more then justified in kicking the young rascal out. Yet this Jesus is celebrating the young man’s return and welcoming someone that was lost.
What is this world coming to? I’ll tell you what this world is coming to. The reign of a loving and forgiving father, a father who loves the elder brother as much as the younger. He loves the elder brother even when the elder brother says this: “’Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’”
Such self pity! Such resentment! Yet here is what the Father says to him “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
You see God loves both the rascals and the responsible who may be wound a little too tight. He sees both as his loved children, and both as sinners. I saw that most forcefully in working in a detox in Las Vegas in the 80’s. At that time there was a conflict between older alcoholics and younger drug addicts. We had an observation room that was kind of like a fish bowl. This was to make sure they were okay. You could see the alcoholics huddling together, and the drug addicts huddling together. If you were to put a thought bubble around both, the alcoholics would have said, “Look at those whippersnappers!” Meanwhile the drug addicts would be thinking, “Look at those old fuddy duddies!” Yet both were in the grip of equally horrible addictions, and both were loved children of God.
To conclude here are some questions. How are you like the younger brother? How are you like the older brother? How do you respond to this extravagantly loving Father God? How can you respond better?
—Father Mike Van Cleve
Father Mike is a priest for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.