Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pursuit and a party

Beginnings and endings matter, especially in scriptural accounts. And, although I usually rail against chapter breaks in biblical texts, the monks got it right in Luke 15.

You know Luke 15. It’s the chapter where Jesus tells three parables: the shepherd who searched for the lost sheep until he found it, the woman who searched for the lost coin until she found it, and the prodigal son.

How often do we hear the parable of the prodigal son dissected apart from the rest of the chapter? Way too often. It’s better understood in the context of the chapter.

The beginning of chapter 15 introduces the scene. As the lowlifes of the day – the tax collectors and sinners – were drawn to Jesus and his message, the protectors of religious law – the Pharisees and Scribes – were complaining: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:2)

Jesus responded to their grumbling with three parables. His third parable, the familiar story about the prodigal son, ends with the older brother complaining because his father welcomed the wayward brother and prepared a feast for him. In other words, the father welcomed the sinner and ate with him.

Somehow it doesn’t seem fair that the wayward should get better treatment than the loyal. But if we examine Luke’s context, we see a strong parallel between the older son and the Pharisees. In holding the line on tradition and law, both had lost sight of relationship.

Jesus explained at the end of the chapter: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." (Luke 15:32)

While the Pharisees grumbled at the unworthiness of sinners and tax collectors, Jesus’ outlook was of celebration: they were lost and have now been found.

How should we relate to “sinners”? With pursuit and a party.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15:7

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