You Can’t Celebrate the Party with One Guest Missing

God’s plan aims for inclusion, not exclusion.

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Jesus as the good shepherd. A mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century A.D. Photo credit: Peter Milošević. Used under Creative Commons license.

Luke 15 recounts three of Jesus’ most famous parables: the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each story, one member of a group goes missing. It/he is the lost one.

In the story of the lost sheep, a single sheep wanders off from the flock. The shepherd leaves his flock to search for the lost sheep and return it to the flock. In the second story, one coin in a collection of ten coins is lost. A housewife thoroughly scours her house until she finds it and restores it to the collection.

The third story of the lost son has a bit of a twist. A man’s young son demands his portion of his father’s inheritance. He then travels to a far country where he squanders that inheritance in undisciplined living. When he sinks into destitution, he comes to his senses. He returns home to ask forgiveness and encounters his father running down the road to joyfully embrace and welcome him home.

What is striking about all three stories is that the shepherd, the housewife, and the father all celebrate the recovery of the lost one by throwing a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which is lost,” says the shepherd to his neighbors. Merrymaking is a repeated note in all three stories.

The parties don’t come until the lost one has been restored. What strikes me about this fact is the thought that the parties cannot begin until their one missing guest is present. The merrymaking cannot be full until that missing guest has been ushered in.

That is what makes the ending of the third story so poignant. Even though the lost younger son has been restored to the family–and to the party–there is still one guest missing. That guest is the elder son who has been working in his father’s fields.

He resents his father’s extravagance on behalf of his errant younger brother. He will have nothing to do with the party celebrating his brother’s return. When the story ends, we are left with the question: Will the elder son spoil the party by becoming the next missing guest?

Jesus tells the three stories in response to grumbling by Pharisees and scribes that Jesus has been socializing with tax collectors and sinners. In their view, God’s party must shut out those missing guests. The party is all about exclusivity, not inclusion.

But Jesus responds by telling these three stories. In throwing his party, God is all about inclusivity, not exclusivity. In fact, the hint is that the party cannot begin until every one of the missing guests has been found and brought in on the celebration.

Now the point of these stories, I think, goes beyond just concerns about the pastoral approach of churches in their dealings with social, economic, ethnic, or moral outsiders. I find myself wondering if it does not point as well to universal salvation when the kingdom of God is ushered in at the end of history.

This is not to deny the theme of judgment that we find in Scripture. Mercy can never sweep sin and evil under the spiritual rug. We must take with great seriousness the notes of warning that are scattered throughout Scripture.

But I also contend we must always balance out that theme of judgment with the equally strong theme of the overflowing mercy and love of God for all his creation. And these three parables suggest that there are no limits on how far God will go to restore those missing ones to his party. He will scour the universe until each lost one has been brought in.

That also raises a question I have to take personally. Will I be the elder son who, by my insistence on the exclusivity of God’s intentions, become the next missing guest at the party?

Note to Reader:

I want to acknowledge that my thoughts in this posting were triggered by an insight into these three parables written by Amy-Jill Levine. A friend recently sent her piece to me. Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Just as Christians have long commented on the Hebrew Bible, so Levine is an example of how this process is going the other way as well. I welcome that for the new insights that Jewish interaction with the New Testament can bring me.

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