Arguing for Sinners

I like it when either story comes up in class. Whether it is Jonah or the Prodigal Son, we end in the same place talking about how both stories make the same points. God delights to forgive repentant sinners, so we should be the type of people who share that delight and not those who begrudge his grace.

They usually get at least part of that message with the Prodigal Son, but hardly anyone thinks of this as the message of Jonah. It’s satisfying to see how multiple plot lines all tie together and stories intertwine, and it’s a special joy to share those things with students.

Luke 15

This morning, I saw for what seemed like the first time a couple other stories that mesh with the Prodigal Son. Luke 15 sets the scene with Jesus surrounded by, essentially, two types of people: on one side there are tax collectors and sinners; on the other, there’s Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1–2).

One comment — “This man hangs out with sinners and eats with them!” — leads to three stories. It struck me this morning that each story makes the same point and each story builds to the climactic confrontation between the father and the older brother, the “additional scene” in the Prodigal Son.

  1. A shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one lost sheep (15:3–7)
  2. A lady who sweeps the house to find the lost coin (15:8–10)
  3. The father who rejoices when he gets back his lost son plus one more scene (15:11–32)

Many can relate to losing a piece of livestock and finding it again. Many more can connect emotionally to losing and finding money. At the end of both of these stories Jesus looks up and makes the point explicitly: The same sort of joy is found in heaven when sinners repent (15:7, 10). The argument builds until finally the third story about losing and regaining a child.

The Prodigal Son is by far the longest and most poignant of the three stories. It makes the same point as the first two, but then it lands the right hook. This time, after the lost son is found, Jesus doesn’t stop and say, “The same sort of joy is found in heaven …” The story keeps going. The heavenly rejoicing is actually portrayed in an unexpected scene.

The Additional Scene

“It isn’t fair! You can’t treat him that way because he is a sinner!” Now, we are back to where we started in the second verse of the chapter, where they said the same thing about Jesus. And just like at end of Jonah, where God argues with the angry prophet on behalf of sinners, here the father argues with his angry son about the same thing.

The party and the dancing and the rejoicing take the reader to heaven — or maybe just outside it. The reader stands outside the party and watches through the eyes of the older brother. When the Father comes out, he looks into the eyes of the reader, and he himself says directly to us, “We had to” (NIV). The party is not extravagant. The feasting is not excess. It isn’t a waste. It is necessary. He doesn’t berate the older son, but he argues on behalf of the rebelious one. He affirms his love for the embittered son, while at the same time arguing the party is a must. It’s just how that world works. That’s how it works in heaven, and as long as you are in Jesus’ presence, that’s how it works on earth, too.

εὐφρανθῆναι δὲ καὶ χαρῆναι ἔδει, ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν, καὶ ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη — Luke 15:32

It was necessary to be glad and throw a party beceause your brother was dead and came back to life. He was lost and found.