I bet that Jesus often encountered people who were not happy with the company he kept. Pharisees and religious leaders, mostly, but others, too, I suspect, who felt that Jesus, as a godly person, should be spending his time with those they judged to be equally as godly. Certainly not “those people,” sinners, “tax collectors” and the like. It seems like “tax collector” was a catch all for just the worst or the worst people.
But Jesus would try to point out that those are precisely the people he came for: the ones in need of love and grace, the marginalized, the de-humanized, and most certainly people who were judged by others to be “those people.” We’re all children of God, all in need of grace and love.
In the gospel of Luke, he responds to this criticism by taking the time to tell three stories about being lost and found, three stories about the radical, expansive, life-giving power of grace.
All are pretty familiar, I think: the story of the shepherd who leaves all his sheep to look for a single one that is lost and then celebrates its return; a woman who loses one of ten coins and won’t rest till she finds it, celebrating when she does; and a story of a parent with a problem child.
That last one we’ve traditionally referred to it as the parable of the Prodigal Son. But it's not just about the one son. It's also about the father and it’s also about his other son. It could also be about the mother we don't hear about, possibly the rest of the family, if there is more, and certainly about the community in which they live, who witnessed the story, but Jesus keeps it focused on the four main characters.
It's also not just about the "prodigal" behaviour of the youngest son. Prodigal simply means to be rash and recklessly extravagant. The young son was certainly that. His brother - and others - might argue that the father behaved in a similar way by giving him his inheritance when he did. It certainly violated the common code of the day.
One could make a good case for saying the older brother was "prodigal" too, in that he gave his entire life over to being a "slave" for his father. Or so he says. His anger certainly suggests that he thinks he's wasted his life and is now envious of his brother.
But the prodigal nature of their behaviour isn't even the heart of the story. Each of them has been lost, in their own way. The young son lost in the life he thought he could have by himself. The father sadly lost in a life without his son. The older brother bitterly lost in the life he got which was not the one he wanted.
I think the heart of the story is something so big, so alive, so life-giving, that it’s become a character itself in the story, a larger than life one, even. It’s grace.
The young son finds grace for himself enough to return home where his father offers him grace in welcome. They are found. But, rather than a happy-ever-after for all, Jesus leaves us with the father's explanation to the older son, without indicating that the son accepts it. I can imagine the father continuing on from "this brother of yours was dead and has come to life" with "and I, too, have found new life and you also can find new life in grace. Will you embrace it and live it?" Maybe that question’s for us, too.