Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. These sermons will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.
And so, having welcomed his son, the father throws a feast. Although the meal is the central feature of this gathering, there's a lot more to it than we might think of if we were trying to picture this event happening today.
First off, this whole fatted calf business is a really big deal -- doctors today of course recommend we don't eat that much fat and we usually trim it off the cuts of meat that we do eat, simply because we have so much of it in our modern diets. First century middle eastern diets, on the other hand, didn't always include meat and when they did, that meat was probably a little bit tougher than what we're used to. Since cattle, sheep and goats were sources of many things other than just meat, they weren't raised to be eaten and the ones that usually made it to the table were the ones that had died of natural causes. If your burgers came only from old cows, you'd probably be pretty excited over the chance to eat one made from a fatted calf, raised for the slaughter.
Second, this was not simply a feast for the household, but for the whole village. A fatted calf was going to provide a lot of meat, and the overjoyed father wants to include everyone in the party. Usually these kinds of things were reserved for festivals or harvest celebrations, so an unexpected feast would be a great time for everyone. And we see that, with music and dancing singled out as the older son's clues that something is going on at home. People who live in smaller towns that still have a focus on agriculture might understand this sort of feast a little better, thinking of it as something like a 4th of July picnic -- a great meal, but not only a meal as there are a whole lot of other things going on during the day as well.
All three of the parables Jesus tells in this setting have celebrations at the end. The shepherd found his sheep and the woman found her coin, and here the father has his son returned to him. And all of them call their friends together to share their joy.
Remember, Jesus wants his listeners to understand the heavenly response to the recovery of one who was thought to be lost. "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance," he says. Yes, he wants the legalists and the religious leaders to understand that their pride in their own righteousness and their disdain for those who don't share it is wrong, but he also wants the tax collectors and sinners to hear a call to come home, and a promise of a joy-filled return that waits for them.
In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller suggests that we, as followers of Christ, have been given a preview of the feast or a hint of it. Through communion with God in prayer and in feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have had a touch of the wonder that is to come when we are in the presence of the Lord face to face for all eternity.
So shouldn't we be changed by that taste, he asks? Shouldn't we, knowing what is to come, feel secure in the knowledge that God loves us and welcomes us? And shouldn't that change show up in the way we live our lives? Who, knowing that the great feast awaits us at the end, could feel like his world has ended when the stock market takes a hit? Who, knowing the welcome in the household of God that awaits us at the end, could feel like her world has ended because people have said untrue and unkind things about her?
We can follow that up just a little, too. Remember how the older brother wouldn't come in to the feast? If he'd really been the righteous son he claimed to be, if he'd really been right in relationship with his father, would he have passed up a chance to help his father celebrate the return of a lost son? Jesus seems to want to tell his non-tax-collector listeners that their strict adherence to propriety and the letter of every last law is not the sign of their righteousness. The sign of their righteousness would be their rejoicing at the welcoming of those who have gone away!
In that culture, the oldest son helped the father look out for, protect and care for the family. The first two parables have the shepherd search for his sheep and the woman hunt for her coin, and the the third should have had the oldest son go to retrieve his brother. according to what a truly righteous son would do. But he didn't. And, Jesus seems to say to the scribes and Pharisees, neither do you.
But we have an older brother in Jesus who does seek us out when we have wandered, and does try to persuade us to return home. And in communion, he gave us a reminder of the feast that is to come, a feast he himself prepares and serves so we can respond with joy and join him in seeking out the lost who have wandered. Not to condemn, not to scorn -- but to persuade to come join us in the feast of the Lord.