Listening intently to a retelling of “The Prodigal Son,” a sense of assurance combined with relief washed afresh over the congregation. Even though the younger son had ruined his life through wasteful living, the father welcomed him home with open arms. The minister’s message resonated within the congregants’ hearts, “God loves me and will accept me regardless of my past.” The lesson abruptly came to an end.
While all of this is wonderfully true and this text has been used to comfort the hearts of many, a glaring problem remains. Apparently, this is not what Jesus intended to communicate.
Jesus’ three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son were not aimed at comforting sinners in calling them to God, but were rather directed toward those who had complained about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). To those who would keep others with sullied reputations at arms’ length and who could easily live their entire life overlooking sinners, Jesus unveiled the heart of God. His goal was to refashion hearts to reflect God’s love.
Through the first two stories, Jesus laid a powerful foundation. His message was clear. People matter to God. Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents. The weight of these two stories are this: if you are serving God, you should love sinners in the same way God does and rejoice along with heaven when they repent.
Unfortunately, Jesus stood in front of some religious people who were so put off by sinners that even the prospect of the lost being rescued would not motivate them to approve of Jesus’ social behavior. Hence, in a final herculean effort to recast these hard hearts more into God’s image, Jesus told a story about a good son who refused to be joyful when his foolish lost brother finally came home.
The father had two sons with dire problems. Fortunately, his younger son repented. The older one, however, thinking himself obedient to the father, clung to his cold stony heart in spite of the father’s efforts to change him. He insisted on rejecting his brother and refusing to celebrate over a sinner come home.
If we have ears to hear, we will not only love all people, but we will join Jesus in eating with sinners in order to bring them home to God.