Sermon: This Fellow Welcomes Sinners

March 31, 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

by Eric Anderson

I think my favorite new perspective on this parable this morning was literally this morning. It was a tweet from JesusofNaz316. If you’re on Twitter, you should follow Jesus.

OK, you should follow Jesus anyway.

But his tweet this morning went something like this. “Some people call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. I call it the Parable of the Very Bad Day for the Fatted Calf.

Imagine for a moment that this family in Jesus’ story was familiar to you in a different way. Imagine that they’re not the figures of a well-remembered parable, but imagine that they’re your neighbors. That they live next door, or down the street, or that they’ve got the farm at the end of the lane.

These would be… annoying neighbors.

That younger son, for a start. He was the kid who got away with everything. You knew perfectly well he was the one who threw eggs at your house every April Fools’ Day but you never caught him at it. You didn’t want your kids to hang out with him but he was the one all the kids rotated around, like satellites of misbehavior around the great planet of sin. The parties at his parents’ house were always loud, and the father never got them quieted down.

And oh, yes, the father. The younger son had him so wrapped around his little finger that you thought him the worst parent ever. He required no discipline. He always paid for what his son had been proven to do, but fervently defended him against the things for which he’d not been caught. He was nice enough. You enjoyed talking to him when you met. He never made you feel the difference between his wealth and your middle-classness. He had the sunniest smile you’d ever seen. But he just couldn’t keep his son in line.

The older son, now. He was the least trouble, but who’d want to hang out with him? He was positively stuck up. He never stepped a foot out of line. You couldn’t figure out how he could be such a self-righteous goody two-shoes with such an indulgent father, but he’d done it. Perhaps it was the mother’s influence.

When the younger son left, you thanked God, but it was a mixed blessing at best. When the father divided the farm, the son had sold off the property to strangers. They were better neighbors than the younger son had been, you had to admit, but that was an uncomfortable change. When old families sell off their property, you knew, they’d never get it back.

At least it was quiet.

Until: oh, no. The younger son came back. That idiotic father of his ran down the road – an unthinkable indignity for a man of his station – and embraced him in the street right in front of your house. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe it.

And then: oh, no. A robe. A ring. A fatted calf. Seriously, a veal dinner for this ragamuffin? And a party. A noisy party. Of course.

As the night wore on, you asked yourself: how long before the cycle begins again? How long before the father divides the property a second time, and the younger son takes off on another adventure of recklessness and wastefulness? How long before the entire estate has been sold off to support his prodigality?

Richard Swanson writes (in Provoking the Gospel of Luke, Cleveland, Pilgrim Press), “I have asked oldest children with profligate siblings for their estimates of how long the kid stays home. The longest anyone has said is one or two years. One oldest child with a particularly talented manipulator as a sibling guessed three months. However long this interval lasts, they all expected that at the end of the time, the kid would get the father to talk him into leaving with another portion of the inheritance. The farm would now be a fraction of its former size, and the oldest child would have to slave to make it a going operation. And the oldest children expected that the kid would come home again, use all of speech, and be welcomed back. And they expected that he would leave again. Do the math. Destitution is not a great destiny. But it is the destiny of this family with a Prodigal Father.”

The older son, it must be said, seemed to see this pretty clearly. No wonder he got so angry, so angry that his behavior started to echo his brother’s. As Leslie J. Hoppe writes (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2, Louisville, John Knox Press), “The elder son’s behavior was another humiliation for the father. Sons owed their fathers loyalty and obedience. The father chose to absorb the shame heaped on him by the elder brother, just as he did for the younger brother. He willingly adopted the stance of pleading with his elder son – a major humiliation for a father from the patriarchal culture of early Judaism.”

Anyone here want to be neighbors to this family? To come to their parties? To sit down and eat with them?

You can probably think of a family with situations very much like this. You can probably think of more than one.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

Luke – he’s the only gospel writer to have known and shared this parable – placed this story as a response to this common criticism of Jesus of Nazareth: that he didn’t keep himself away from obviously, easily identified sinners. That he didn’t take the most basic steps to avoid ritual pollution from contact with unclean people.

In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus compared God’s prodigal grace with a search for items of great value: a sheep, a living creature, a valuable property. A coin, representing a significant proportion of a woman’s household resources. These might be somewhat over-the-top examples, but the value of each was clear.

But in this story, Jesus spoke of a younger son who’d made himself worthless, of an older son so self-righteous as to forget his obedience to his father, and a father so lost to his own dignity as to be an object of scorn. What. A. Mess.

I think that’s exactly why Jesus told this story. Because life is a mess.

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Real sinners. Likely to repeat sinners. Self-righteous sinners. Unable to manage their household sinners. Bad neighbor sinners. Rather selfish sinners. Charming but not great neighbor sinners. Coming back home sinners. Never left home sinners. Unable to get out of their own way sinners. Wasteful sinners. Noisy sinners. Can’t they see that it’s them that’s wrong sinners. If only they’d open their eyes and see how they’ve enabled these sins sinners.

You know. Real sinners.

I think Jesus told this story to tell his critics and his followers that faith and forgiveness live in a messy, messy world, and even faith and forgiveness are complicated things. The father’s generosity feeds the younger son’s extravagance and the older son’s resentment. Yet without the father’s prodigal love, what hope has this family at all?

Debie Thomas wrote some amazing letters to the sons in this family. To the younger son, she said, “But at least you and I have this in common: I know what it’s like to hunger.  To hunger for love, for depth, for passion, for joy.  And I know what it’s like to imagine an exotic Elsewhere, a more perfect nourishment miles away from my Father’s all-too-familiar table.  I know what it’s like to ‘come to myself’ in the broken, impoverished places of my own foolish fashioning, and to long for the warmth and sustenance of a home.

“I don’t like you.  But maybe we’re not so very different after all.”

To the older son, she wrote: “But here’s your vindication: the power in this story is yours.  Your brother is inside already; it seems he’s done breaking hearts for the time being.  Your Father stands in the doorway, awaiting your company.  You get to write his ending.

“What will you do, as the music grows sweeter?

“What will we choose, you and I?”

She didn’t write anything to the father, so I guess I’ll give it a try:

You’ve got me bothered and bewildered. You want my best, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Whether I do my best or worst, you stand there with your arms held wide and a ring awaiting my finger. What should I make of this?

Even worse, you expect me to make a right relationship with my sister, whether I’m crawling home or standing there above the wretched boy. You never seem to care what the neighbors think. And you expect me to act the same.

You expect me to welcome sinners and eat with them.

You expect others to welcome me and eat with me.

You don’t ask much. Just… everything.

You don’t give much. Just… everything. To everyone.

This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

This Fellow Welcomes Sinners

Preaching is not an exact science. It isn’t simply reading from a prepared text. That’s Pastor Eric’s story and he’s sticking to it.

The image is one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours, 1866. Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on March 31, 2019

Social Networks: RSS Facebook Twitter Google Stumble Upon Digg Reddit

Leave a Reply

close window

Service Times & Directions

Sunday School Classes

Sunday 8:45 am

Sunday Worship Service

Sunday 10:00 am

Adult Bible Study

Monday 6:30 pm, Wednesday 9:00 am

(International Young Adults Association)
Bible Study

Wednesday 7:30 pm

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

(The Rev. Tevita) Sunday 1:00 pm Wednesday 7:00 pm (Sanctuary)

The United Church of Christ, Pohnpei - Hilo

(The Rev. Ichiro) Sunday 10:00 am (Bdg. of Faith)

The Samoan Church

(The Rev. Sunia) Sunday 4:00 pm (Sanctuary)

440 W. Lanikaula Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-1283