Bible lesson - Luke 15: 1-3,11-32

You know,….this is the kind of story that could get someone in trouble.

Jesus tells the story commonly called ‘The Prodigal Son’, and it’s one of his most famous parables.

The one son was the ‘good son’, who obeyed and properly served the father all his life.

The other son was the ‘bad son’, who went out and squandered his valuable inheritance and lived a life of decadence in the process.

But then Jesus says that the ‘bad son’, at one point, “came to himself” and decides to return home with a heart full of repentance.

As he humbly admitted to God that his behavior was terrible, he heads back to say,  ‘I’m sorry’  to his father.

But when the father sees him returning he runs out to greet and welcome him home and forgives his transgressions.

If you think that’s the happy ending to the story;…think again, because many who heard this tale being told, were not very happy.

We have to go back and consider who the audience is for this parable.

At the beginning of today’s lesson we heard that “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to” Jesus’ teaching.

We also know that the “Pharisees and scribes were there”.

However, they were grumbling about the fact that Jesus had allowed and welcomed those kinds of people to be in his presence.

And not only were they aggravated and ticked off over the fact that Jesus was going around with such ‘sinners’,….

but they were even more incensed that he’d been dinning with them! 

According to strict Jewish custom, to eat a meal with someone was one of the highest forms of fellowship you could have with them.

So that means Jesus didn’t just allow these ‘lowlifes’ to be in his presence,… but he actually hung out with them sometimes too.

And the Pharisees thought they had every right to object to this, because they were better than such people.

They were the ones who observed all the many rules that had been established towards good religious behavior.

They were the ones who gave their offerings,… attended worship,… and did not sin like these other scoundrels (at least not openly so).

So the mere fact that Jesus cavorted with these sinners made this story-telling session a dangerous thing for him.

But, then, there was the story itself.

The clincher came with the ending of the story.

At the end of the parable, the ‘good son’ objects vehemently when the father pardons the ‘bad son’ and basically says that ‘I love you both’.

Being so pious and religious, the Pharisees and scribes wouldn’t have approved of the father’s pardoning the ‘bad son’.

Those pure and pious Pharisees would have, instead,… identified with the ‘good son’.

The ‘bad son’ was the equivalent of the sinners that Jesus welcomed. 

The holy ones would have agreed with the ‘good son’ that all his good behavior now seemed like a waste of time.

So what Jesus was saying in this parable was that those despicable friends of his - the tax collectors, prostititutes and lowlifes,…..

were going to receive God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness,… as much as the highly religious and holy Pharisees.

And for many,…. THAT was not right, nor was it what they believed God would (or should) do!

For the good religious people, this story was an attack on them and how they saw their relationship to God.

They spent much of their time following religious laws, expecting that they would be blessed in return.

Believing that, if you were good enough,…..and gave enough,….and observed rituals enough,….you could earn God’s good graces.

Then your life would be that much better, since God would duly reward you for your religious faithfulness.

Likewise, they believed that poor behavior would (and should) be punished by God.

They even thought lepers and disabled people (or their ancestors) must have sinned and were punished by God with their afflictions.

Sounds crazy to us,…but that’s because  we know that Jesus blew up those kinds of ideas about God;…..didn’t he?

That was just crazy thinking of religious zealots long ago,…right?

We don’t think like that today do we?….cause, as we said, Jesus eradicated those kinds of ideas about God?

We need to always be careful if we begin to think these bible passages are just outdated stories or for someone else.

Truth is,… this isn’t just how Pharisees and scribes thought back then.

This is often how we STILL think about God’s ways today.

We still,…in our heart of hearts,… believe (and even like to think) that God works the way the world does in terms of rewards and fairness.

Everything around us;…our jobs,…education,….business and politics, rewards obedience to rules and good works, and admonishes the bad.

So, since that’s the way the world works,… then that’s the way we tend to want to think how God works.

That’s why when bad stuff happens to us, the first thing we say to God is;… ‘What’s the deal?   I’ve been good and don’t deserve this!”

We look around and see other “sinners” doing much worse than us who aren’t afflicted and say;… ‘Hey,…what about them?!?’

You ever say, or think, that?

I know I think and feel that way a lot of the time - we all do!

We don’t think employees who are always late to work should be rewarded the same way as punctual and reliable workers.

The teacher doesn’t the hard working student and the one who skips school all the time, both  and ‘A’ on their report card.

And so, when it comes to how God works,…we hope that pay back for what is earned rules the day.

Well,…unfortunately, there are two problems with this kind of thought.

First is the fact that we are all not as good as we’d like to think.

Oh,…we may do less wrong or more right than an awful lot of people.

But do you remember Jesus saying stuff like,… 

let those without sin cast the first stone”…. or

anyone who has lusted in their heart has committed adultery’?

If we go back and check our own ledgers of behavior,…thoughts,…and good deeds not done,….. we may look better than the next guy.

But God’s standard is not what to compare us with what the other chump did, or didn’t do and none of us are ‘A’ students.

The second problem thinking God works like Santa Claus, rewarding the good boys and girls and not the bad,….

ends up making God no better than humans (and of course, God is better than that!)

But Jesus’ death on the cross blew up the punishment/reward system and replaced it with the idea of unmerited forgiveness.

As we said,…this story went so against the grain of what many, including the most pious and educated religious people thought,….

that it was another charge in the indictment against Jesus that helped sentence him to death that Friday in Jerusalem.

He got, in a sense, what he deserved according to societal rules,….however,….that turned out to be a happy ending.

If you never remember any other story in the bible, remember this one because at some point,… we’ve all been, or will be,…the ‘bad son’.

In fact, don’t just recall it, let’s try to live it and even tell it to someone else sometime.

When we see someone being judgmental about others, it would be good to remind them of how God pardons even the worst sinners.

But don’t be afraid to tell this story,….even though it did get Jesus in trouble and helped lead to his being killed.

Because through Jesus’ death, God made this fable,….come true!

God made that event mean there IS grace and mercy and forgiveness 

For you, and me, and for all who choose to believe in it !