You Asked For A Sermon On
 "You can always tell a man by the company he keeps." Can you? Always? "Yes", said the people with venomous hearts who watched Jesus, "You can always tell a man by the company he keeps."
Jesus kept company with people whom many didn't care for, such as lepers. Now in first-century Palestine lepers were viewed with horror and loathing. They had to announce themselves as they moved about, crying out, "Unclean! Unclean!". In this way everyone could scamper out of their way and avoid contamination. When we read that Jesus consorted with lepers we must understand that he deliberately befriended those who were most vehemently despised and rejected. What he did here, of course, prefigured what he was to do for all of us on the cross.
There were others, also despised and rejected, whom our Lord befriended, such as the irreligious. The people who were indifferent to religious observance, even contemptuous of it, he went out of his way to find.
Also among the despised and rejected were the Gentiles. Jewish people customarily looked upon Gentiles as spiritually bereft and ethically benighted, utterly beyond the pale. Jesus welcomed them, commended them, irked Jewish listeners when he insisted that the Roman Centurion, for instance, a Gentile, exemplified greater faith than any Israelite he had met. Jesus welcomed all such people. He dignified them: the rejected, the poor, the irreligious, those who were regarded as inferior for any reason, those relegated to the fringes of the society.
Yet there was one thing Jesus didn't do to them; he didn't romanticize them. Because sentimentality outweighs mental acuity in so many of us, we romanticize these people; like the poor, for instance, especially at Christmas time, when Christmas sentiment speaks of them as "the humble poor." Jesus never romanticized poverty. He knew that poverty is degrading and dehumanizing, evil. He never pretended that poverty invariably renders people humble; he knew it more often renders people bitter and apathetic.
We romanticize sickness. Last century Victorian novelists romanticized those with tuberculosis. Today we romanticize those with AIDS. Think of the spate of books holding up the AIDS sufferer as someone extraordinarily victimized and therefore the extraordinary incarnation of courage and fortitude and resilience. The mythology surrounding AIDS even suggests that AIDS sufferers are somehow a collective force for redeeming the world. So far from romanticizing sickness of any kind, Jesus looked upon sickness as something to be eradicated.
We romanticize criminality. Bonnie and Clyde. Al Capone. Billy the Kid. The Great Train Robbery. What was great about it? Surely the perpetrators are as detestable as the stocking-masked coward who shoves a pistol in the face of the Korean clerk in the corner store.
Jesus romanticized nothing: not poverty, not sickness, not criminality, certainly not sin or sinners. Nevertheless, he always welcomed sinners. He neither congratulated sin romantically nor condoned sin as inconsequential. At the same time, however, he always received sinners as the people for whom he had been sent.
Jesus approached all kinds of people. He pardoned them when their mess was their own fault; when their mess wasn't their fault (the sick, the poor, the outcast) he gave them hope and energy even as he delivered them from bitterness. They loved him for it. Apart from him the attention they had customarily received was contempt followed by rejection. In his presence they thought better of themselves and could do better themselves just because their intimacy with him mysteriously lent them a transformation they couldn't deny and others couldn't duplicate.
Most profoundly, in meeting Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, they had met the one in whose company they had encountered the holy one of Israel himself. They now stepped forth on a joyful life in God, freed from the clutches and conventions of a society that had condemned them. They rejoiced in it and loved him for it.
They rejoiced; that is, the immediate beneficiaries of Christ's embrace rejoiced. But not everyone rejoiced. Superior, disdainful people became nervous when they saw the freedom and high spirits and happiness of Jesus and his friends. They envied what they saw; they resented seeing in others what they lacked themselves; they objected that anyone else should have it at all. In no time they were accusing Jesus of befriending those whom respectable people know enough to ignore. The accusation stung. Jesus smarted under it. He responded to the accusation, "Do you object to what I'm doing? Do you resent my friends? Then let me tell you a story." The parable of the two sons is our Lord's defense of himself in the face of accusation.
 We often call the story "the parable of the prodigal son."
(i) Home is dull beyond telling. Father is thought to have the personality of a dial-tone. Excitement is needed. "So give me now what's going to be mine in any case when you die", the younger son says to his father; "I need money for a good time. You might as well give it to me now as make me wait until you keel over and the coroner signs the certificate." What the son thinks to be the soul of common sense in fact is a not-so-secret desire to have his dad dead; the young man is a murderer at heart while thinking himself to be virtuous. (We should note in passing that Martin Luther, with more than a little insight, insisted that unregenerate, impenitent men and women chafe under the claim and authority of God, and wish God dead. In other words, deicide lurks in every impenitent heart.)
(ii) The son sets out for the "far country", so far out, compared to home, that it couldn't be farther. There was a different woman every night (as the elder brother was soon to remind everyone); there was no lack of opportunity to fritter away a fortune. In the far country there were no restraints at all.
(iii) Money is soon used up, someone is now hungry and getting hungrier every day. He goes to the employment office and is assigned to work for -- a Gentile! There was nothing more humiliating for a Jew than to have to work for a Gentile. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which was the conviction that Gentiles were ignorant pagans with the morals of an alley cat. An exaggeration? The apostle Paul didn't think so. When he writes to the church in Ephesus he speaks of the Gentile world he knows, and speaks of it in a way that Jewish people would find no exaggeration at all. Says the apostle concerning the Gentiles of his era,
"Their wits are beclouded; they are strangers to the life that is in God, because ignorance prevails among them and their minds have grown hard as stone. Dead to all feeling, they have abandoned themselves to vice, and stop at nothing to satisfy their foul desires." (Eph.4:17-19)
There wasn't a Jew who wouldn't agree with this description of the Gentile world.
How would any of us feel if were reduced to penury (itself humiliation enough), then had to work for starvation wages (another humiliation), as well as work for an employer whom everyone knew to be a person of beclouded wits, Godless, a numbskull, insensitive, vicious, and a dirty old man? And to have to fawn over and flatter this "creep" every day?
Not only did the young man have to work for a Gentile; he had to work with pigs, the symbol of uncleanness for Jews. And not only did he have to work with pigs; he became so hungry that even pig food smelled good -- yet his Gentile boss would rather see him starve than share a little pig food with him.
The fellow has sunk so low that he knows things can't get worse. He has made a dreadful mess of himself. He doesn't pretend he's possessed of a new-found love for his father; he doesn't pretend he has suddenly recognized the truth about himself and his father. He's simply desperate. Since he can't be any more degraded than he is right now, he might as well go home. Matters there can't be worse, may even be better, and who knows: perhaps his dad will let him earn his keep by cleaning out the septic tank.
It's no wonder he's flabbergasted at the reception his father accords him. Not a word is said about where he's been and what he's been doing. No attempt is made to rub his face in his mess and humiliate him publicly. Instead he's welcomed without qualification or hesitation or reservation. His father cuts short the young man's breastbeating and gives him robe, shoes and ring.
Robe: For the Hebrew mind, clothing is the sign of belonging. Everyone knows now that the son is fully integrated into the family. He belongs, and belongs as son.
Shoes: Slaves went barefoot. But those who are in bondage to no one and nothing; those who relish their freedom and glory in it: they wear shoes.
Ring: It was a signet ring, used to make an impression on sealing wax. Today the signet ring has been replaced by signing authority, signing authority on someone else's bank account. The son can henceforth draw on all his father's resources.
And then the partying began.
 Jesus told this parable to defend himself against the accusation that it was inappropriate for him to welcome so-called inferiors. "Inappropriate!", Jesus gasps, dumbfounded, "What could be more appropriate? Look at the transformation my welcome has accorded these people! They have come to belong to the family of God; they know it, are grateful for it, and glory in it. They have been freed from the tyranny of their own sin and from bitterness over the sin of others. They now call upon God daily, their daily experience confirming their conviction that God wants only to share his riches with them. Why do you fault me for this?"
Silence. Dead silence. Our Lord's opponents have nothing to say. Jesus lets them squirm in the silence they undoubtedly find difficult, and then finally he speaks. "Since you mean-spirited vipers can't tell me or won't tell me why you fault me, I'm going to tell you why you carp at me and fault me and sneer at me whenever you see me coming down the road with my ragged rejects. I shall tell you."
 And so begins the second half of the parable, the story of the elder brother. The elder brother is the person of any era who hangs around the house of God but has never become part of the family of God; the person who works diligently for the church but has never become acquainted with Jesus Christ; contributes a little money for church-upkeep (after all, every village should have a church) but has never discovered what Paul speaks of as "the riches of God's grace" or "the unsearchable riches of Christ" or "the riches of his glory." The elder brother has confused proximity to the church-premises with personal acquaintance with him whose church it is.
We can't fail to notice how frequently such a confusion occurs in the realm of the Spirit compared to how infrequently it occurs anywhere else in life. People who sit among the spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens never think that sitting there makes them an NHL hockey player. Those who study the pitching technique of Roger Clemens never assume that they are then major league pitchers. Where knowing Jesus Christ is concerned, however, knowing him, loving him, obeying him, following him, the situation changes. This is why we frequently see the person who was baptized at fifteen months, was confirmed at fifteen years, drifts away for the next fifteen years but comes back when he has children of his own and worries about getting them past adolescence undrugged and unpregnant (but doesn't worry about their unbelief); some time after this he disappears for good, telling us, if we make any enquiries, that he "no longer sees any point to religion." He's right about one thing: there is no point to religion. Every believer is aware of this. Every believer knows too that religion has nothing whatever to do with "the unsearchable riches of Christ."
The elder brother rails against his father, "All these years I have laboured for you, and what do I get?" Clearly he thinks that his situation with his father is meant to be that of servant to master, or slave to owner, or employee to boss. He expects compensation for his toil. All the while his father has wanted a son, not an employee; a relationship, not a labour contract. When the elder brother, now embittered, speaks of the younger brother he hisses to his father, "This son of yours"; not, "my brother", but "this son of yours." The contempt is undeniable. His contempt discloses his acidulated heart.
"All these years I have laboured for you, and what do I get?" What does the elder brother expect to get? Something? Some thing? He doesn't understand that where personal intimacy is concerned there is no "thing" to be offered or had as the reward or outcome of the intimacy; the intimacy itself is the reality, and the only outcome or "reward" there can ever be is the same reality, the singular intimacy, intensified. There is nothing beyond the relationship; there can't be reward or outcome to a relationship when a relationship of utmost intimacy is the profoundest reality. As I know my wife, as I love her and trust her and find her love for me coursing back along all the beams of my love for her, the relationship is the reality. What could there ever be beyond this? How could there ever be reward for it? If after 29 years of marriage I said to my wife, "I have been your devoted, non-philandering, money-making, ever-respectable husband for lo these many years. Now what do I get for it?"; if I were to say this she'd know immediately that I had never loved her. The younger brother came to know gloriously what it is to be cherished as a son of the father; the elder brother knew only what it is to be a frustrated employee.
There are many varieties of "elder brotherism." When I have preached on the dying terrorist on Good Friday who had five minutes to live and who cried to Jesus, "Lord, remember me!", I have heard "elder brothers" complain, "But it's not fair! Why should any `thug', however, repentant, be granted exactly what is granted the saint who has served sacrificially for fifty years?" "Elder brothers" are often heard whining, "I've kept on the straight and narrow all my life. I had plenty of chances to have my `fling'; I had plenty of chances to make financial short-cuts, but I kept on the straight and narrow. And what did it get me? Other people now have more money and more glamorous company."
Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order; Loyola could promise young recruits to the order only lifelong hardship in the service of Jesus Christ; Loyola prayed, "Teach us, O Lord, to serve and not to count the cost, to suffer and not to heed the wounds, to labour and not to ask for any reward, save the reward of knowing that we do your will." Loyola always knew that the most glorious "reward" of any profound relationship is simply the intensification of the relationship itself. The younger brother came to see this; the elder brother never did. Insisting on a tit-for-tat transaction, he passed up everything that his younger brother came to know and relish.
 The sermon today has been about two brothers. Today is also Palm Sunday. Five days later, on Friday, Jesus found himself in the company of two criminals. In two respects at least the two criminals resembled the two brothers of the parable. Both criminals were like both brothers: their inheritance was the inheritance Paul describes in his Roman letter: "They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs,... the Christ." The inheritance is the same for all. One criminal, like one brother, remained unrepentant, sunk in resentment and bitterness and hostility. The other criminal, like the other brother, came to his senses, knew he was in the far country, knew how bleak and degrading it was there, and wanted only to go home. To this fellow Jesus said, "Today you will find yourself in my Father's house, your home now too, and this for ever and ever."
And that, my friends, is what our Lord longs to say to every one of you.
Victor Shepherd April 1998