Will We Join God's Party?
Text: Luke 15
Who would not want to party with God? Can we even imagine a scenario in which we would turn down a party invitation from God?
One of my favorite expressions in Scripture describes how God delights in his people and rejoices over his people (e.g., Zephaniah 3:17). This unveils the heart of God who yearns to share life with his people and enjoy them forever. God wants us more than we want him, and to love him creates such joy in his heart that God sings over his people. God enjoys a party.
Surely one of his favorite moments is when a sinner repents and returns home, and yet this is the moment that often creates tension within the church, especially if they are not one of us—one of our kind, one of our people, one of the respectable types.
It is in the face of this tension that Jesus tells three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. But his point is not so much about lostness as it is an invitation to rejoice in their being found. It is an invitation to rejoice with Jesus, to rejoice with the Father, over the retrieval of one of God’s people.
Jesus felt the tension between his ministry and those contemporary religious leaders. They mocked his proactive seeking and fellowship with tax collectors and “sinners” (read “prostitutes”). “This man welcomes sinners,” they complained, “and eats with them”! They were scandalized by Jesus’ welcoming relationship with sinners.
I’m reminded of a church whose leaders suggested that a converted prostitute attend another church in town. I’m reminded of a church where a leader asked an impoverished couple who attended with me one Sunday morning whether they had any better clothing to wear to the sacred assembly. I’m reminded of an elder’s wife who remarked to me that though she would support the new evangelistic effort among African-Americans in her south Alabama town she would not have “them” over to her house to eat at her table.
So, Jesus tells three parables….three parables the church needs to hear over and over again because we still miss the point and fail to practice the kingdom of God.
In the first two, the owners proactively seek what is lost. He finds the lost sheep and she lost coin, and they are estatic. They rejoice over their finds (“joyfully puts it on his shoulders”), and invites others to share the joy. “Rejoice with me” is the invitation…what has been lost is found! The invitations in Luke 15:6, 9 are followed by similar sayings that describe the joy of heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). The invitation to rejoice over partying with sinners is an invitation to join the party in heaven.
The lost son, as we all know, returns home. He finds a father who welcomes him and throws a party. He welcomes the sinner and eats with him. The father invites everyone to rejoice with him. His rationale is simple and jubilant: “this son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
The parable could have ended there with a recounting of the joy of heaven. The previous parables did. But Jesus is focused—he wants to bring the point home. Indeed, he wants to specify the invitation. Just as Jesus welcomes sinners like the lost son, so he also invites the religious leaders to the party—the father invites the elder brother.
The older brother is angry; he will not attend the party. It does not matter if he hurts the father whom he loves, he is too angry with his brother and more so with his father. Indeed, he is angry because the father is fundamentally unfair. He coddles his younger son and undermines faithfulness. He, the elder brother, is the standard of faithfulness and the younger brother does not measure up.
But, the father pleads, “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” The rationale is repeated again from the father’s earlier invitation to his household (just as the joy of heaven was repeated in the earlier parables). The rationale should be sufficient—we should rejoice over the return of one who was lost more than we value our own faithfulness. We should party with the prodigal rather than sulk over our—perhaps more pointedly, take pride in—our own faithfulness.
The father invites his elder son and humbles himself as he pleads with his elder son: we have to celebrate and rejoice. (And here Luke combines two words he has used previously but separately in the narrative.) We must party—there is something to celebrate. The joy of heaven is awakened and we must join the party. We must celebrate with God—and we will if we have the heart of God and his mission is our mission.
We too easily dismiss this application of this parable. We prefer to see ourselves as the prodigal—there is a happy ending to that story. But we fail to see that we “religious people” are more probably the elder brother.
And more remarkably we are actually called to imitate the father in this parable. We are called to compassionately receive the prodigal—to welcome the sinner, and we are called to invite the elder brothers in our midst to the celebration. We seek the lost and invite the saved to rejoice with us. In this way, we party with God and share the joy of heaven.
The mission of God is to welcome sinners and eat with them. And so the church eats every Sunday and invites sinners to the party.