“But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice, because this one, your brother, was dead and lives, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32, my translation). Perhaps a good sermon title might be “Some Celebration Required.” N. T. Wright suggests, “The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well, we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality” (page 184).
I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.
Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.
Of course, there is rejoicing over the one found lamb, the one found coin, and the one found son. But what has really happened is that the coin collection is once again complete. The flock is full. Will the family be whole? Or will we on the inside settle for being found ourselves and giving little thought to those who still are lost? That’s a good reason for the third parable to be inconclusive and unsettled. The question is still in the air. The family is still on shaky ground.
I wish the NRSV had not over-determined the translation of Luke 15:32. The Greek text is much less specific than the translation. “But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice…” Necessary for whom? The text doesn’t say. It was necessary, perhaps, for the family to be whole again, but that can’t happen until the older brother is once again able to claim his connection to the younger brother. It was necessary because “this one – your brother – was dead and lives and was lost and is found.”
Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.
God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.
But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.
If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.
I was part of a congregation that wrestled long and hard with what it means to be a “welcoming” community. The congregation reflected honestly on this question. When we say, “all are welcome,” is it really a question: “Are all welcome?” Framing the issue in this way sparked some deep introspection and honest confession. We welcomed those who looked and sounded like us, who brought something that we wanted, who came and stayed on our terms and didn’t kick up a fuss.
We weren’t looking for people who might make our community more whole and our lives fuller through their unique gifts and perspectives. Instead, we were like the Borg in the Star Trek franchises. As a long-time Trekkie, I remember the moment when I made the connection. “We are the Borg,” the mechanical voice from the Borg cube threatens. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”
We were happy to welcome people who were willing to be assimilated to our congregational culture, habits, assumptions, preferences, practices, and traditions. Until we could engage in a welcome that moved beyond assimilation, we would continue to be content with incompleteness. I’m happy to report that the congregation made some real progress in moving from assimilation to open engagement. But it was not an easy process.
Would the older brother be open to new possibilities, to a change in the family system? Or was his condition for reconciliation really assimilation – the application of punitive power to the younger son to make sure the system was not threatened like this again? We don’t know how it went for the older son. Do we know how that goes for us?
The parable makes me wonder to what degree we are happy with a limited, familiar, comfortable community that leaves us as the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Jesus’ critics advocated that the tax collectors and sinners should be segregated away from decent people. Those who crossed these boundaries were in danger of being contaminated by the outsiders and thus becoming one of them.
American cities remain just as segregated, if not more so, as before the days of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. “Segregation is a costly self-imposed error,” writes Heather Abraham. “It is not a natural phenomenon. It is government-subsidized and government-reinforced,” she continues. “Some of the documented ways segregation infiltrates our society include how it drives the racial wealth gap, undermines metropolitan GDP, drastically diminishes life opportunities like quality education and healthcare, and ultimately results in highly unequal health outcomes like shorter life expectancy and higher homicide rates for communities of color” (page 2).
We who live well because of White Supremacy and systemic racism can easily document those costs to communities of color and the individuals in those communities. But how often do we think about the cost to those of us who not only benefit from but continue to impose such segregating systems on other human beings? As part of the perpetrating system, we make ourselves less than fully human.
More than that, we have persuaded ourselves that we are complete by ourselves. We who live completely White lives state by our way of living that people of color and their communities have nothing we want or need. We have made Whiteness the be all and end all of existence and notice no deficit created by limiting ourselves to one skin tone and one cultural reality. If there are things from other communities and cultures that we desire, we do a Borg assimilation and simply appropriate them and make them ours.
If I apply a Christian biblical lens to this reality, I see that our White life does not reflect the character of God. God, as Jesus portrays God in these parables, is not content with a part of the flock or the piggy bank or the family. A part won’t do. God wants us all and wants all of us – and wants us all together.
I think this takes us once again to both the first and second lessons for this Sunday. It’s not often that all of the texts work together in such an effective way, so let’s be sure to take advantage of the intersection. We think about community as insiders vs. outsiders. That’s not how God thinks about or sees things. We are the ones who need to change our vision (that’s repentance, by the way).
Reconciliation doesn’t come immediately after repentance. It takes repair of the relationships and the community impacted by the brokenness. White Christians have always wanted to go straight to reconciliation and to skip the repentance and repair stages. Even if we make some efforts at confession and repentance, we’re still not willing to do the hard work of making reparations. Until we do that work, reconciliation is really just a word to make White people feel better about themselves.
We don’t get beyond some initial repenting in the third parable. Perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs had to be made in that family system before real reconciliation could happen. And perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs we need to make in order for all of us to act like God’s family.
In the meantime, whenever sinners are welcomed, some celebration is required. I look forward to celebrating a bit once again this week, even as I wrestle with who does not yet have a seat at the table.
Resources and References
Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.
Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
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