Now tax collectors and the like had formed a new habit: they came together to listen to Jesus. Not only did they exchange bread for bread, they shared spiritual hunger for God. But another group, the Pharisees and leaders stood by observing these “sinners”. Their habit had become gathering near Jesus not to listen or partake, but to grumble. Their disapproval of Jesus’s leadership was obvious. They could be overheard complaining, “This nobody eats in front of us, and who does he invite? He kisses all the Nameless Sinners like long lost brothers and sisters!”
Jesus made a point of seeking them out. He told them a set of stories to help them see grace and good leadership. He began, “Imagine you are in a company of shepherds, tending your flock together. One night as you are counting the sheep into their pen, you discover that you have lost one ewe! As the leader what do you do? Is one sheep out of a hundred worth going after and restoring to safety? Of course! Any one of you would not hesitate in securing the ninety nine and then trekking a great distance until you find that precious one! Having found it would you not roll up your sleeves and set about bringing it home, rejoicing? How satisfying would that burden be to carry? Imagine then, this joyous news reaching the ears of your friends and neighbours upon your return. You would say: ‘We must lay a table, toast our success and celebrate together, for my lost sheep has been restored to us.’
Jesus pressed the point, saying, “What if I told you that the habit of confessing to your brothers and sisters, ‘I’ve been going in the wrong direction’ is more important than all your categories of perfection. Whether you think you are the one or of the ninety nine, having your mind changed must become part of the fabric of your lives together. Heaven celebrates the kind of ripple effect forgiveness and acceptance has on a community, beginning with its leaders.”
“Or imagine discovering a treasured necklace to be incomplete, having lost one of its ten silver coins. Would not the woman who owns the necklace make it her sole business to find that precious one? She would set about finding it–raising a lamp to every dark corner, combing every surface and exhausting every possibility until the necklace is made complete. Think of her delight when she finds that coin, coming out to you her friends and neighbours saying, ‘Look! I’ve found my precious coin that had been lost!’
Again, Jesus pressed the point, “I ask you then, is one coin out of ten worth finding to restore the whole necklace? I cannot tell you of the pure delight before God over one precious sinner who has changed his mind, but you can see for yourself the effect on the whole community.”
Jesus continued on the same theme: “There was a man who had two sons. One day his youngest son approached him with a grave demand, ‘Father, give me my half of all your wealth.’ So that is what the father did. He gave his sons exactly what each thought was their full inheritance. Very shortly afterward the younger son sold his land, stock and possessions. And do you know what he did? He took all the wealth he could carry and left without a trace. He began to live as though he never had a family–with no care for anyone. Soon he frittered away what resources he had on his insatiable appetites and became totally spent–bankrupt in every possible way.”
“Now in that distant country there was a drought, followed by widespread famine, followed by acute hunger. You can imagine the deep distress and desperate need he had brought upon himself. So he decided to fix the problem himself. He persuaded a citizen of that country to make use of him for any old donkey work. So that citizen sent him to feed the pigs in exchange for what he could scavenge. He craved even half an empty pea pod that the swine enjoyed, but those in charge of the pigs would not allow it.”
“Then in a moment of clarity he said to himself, ‘My father’s bond-servants live better than this–they receive what they earn! At least I could make a life for myself there, because I’m starving to death here! I’ll return to my father and there will be no argument, I’ll say: Father, you know my unforgivable debt against heaven and against you. I have no right to be called your son any more. Say the word, and I will live here asking nothing more of you than the wages I deserve. Only then will I know what I am truly worth.’ So he faced the long walk home and began the journey toward his father.”
While those listening were still thinking about what the man in the story deserved, Jesus went on, “But the father had never looked away from his son. So while he was still on the distant horizon the father recognised him. The father, burdened only with compassion, acted immediately. He hitched up his cloak and ran wildly, unashamedly to his son. He then caught him up in his arms and honoured him with the kiss of family.”
“As planned the son said to him, ‘Father, you know my unforgivable debt against heaven and against you. I have no right to be called your son any more.”
“But his speech was cut short. The father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bless him with my best robe, restore the family ring to him, and wash his feet as you would wash my own. Bring the choicest calf, kill it and prepare it for feasting. Set my son the place of honour! We must celebrate together, for my son who had cut himself off and was given up for dead has been restored to us alive. I have found my precious one who has been lost!’ So they threw a party, rejoicing together.”
Jesus addressed the Pharisees and teachers of the law listening to his story. “Now imagine you are the older son coming in from the field at sundown. Can you hear the music and the merriment coming from your father’s house as you approach? What does the servant say when you ask what’s going on? How do you feel when you find out it’s the brother who turned his back on you? ‘Your brother’s come home! And what’s more your father has ordered a feast of our finest young calf–plump and ready for our honoured guest.’ You hear the words of the servant but cannot see past your own anger and bitterness. You cannot bear to be in the same room with him. For sharing a cup and eating from the same loaf of bread would be to approve of his wrongdoing and forgive the shame he cast upon your house.”
“But who should come out to you? That’s right, your father. He pleads that you would change your mind and come home too. But you reply ‘Listen to me! I’ve been here for years doing all your donkey work. Do I look like I’ve been breaking the rules? Which one of your commands have I broken? Yet where is my reward? My friends and I have made do with the tough portions and old wine skins–and never asked for anything more! But oh, this son of yours comes home after selling his birthright for the flesh of many prostitutes! You insult me by giving him what I deserve: your blessing, complete with an extravagant feast! Tell me, have I not repaid you with all my hard work?”
Jesus finished with this: “What do you think the father said to the older son? I tell you, he said, ‘My son, you belong with me and all this is yours too. Do you still not get it? This is your real inheritance. Now you see why we must rejoice. For the one who was nothing to you is waiting for your word of peace; the one who was lost to you has come home. Here is your brother–receive him.”
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