Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
It was a tense time in the little community in which I grew up and which my father served as pastor. There was conflict at church and church was the center of that little community. The actual material of the conflict was somewhat trivial. But as is often the case, people rarely fight about what is really bothering them. I don’t know if it is because they realize that their anger is irrational or something else causes this to be the case. In my experience, however, it is almost always true. One must dig down to discover the real reason for the conflict.
The parish was fighting about whether to adopt a new hymnal, but that wasn’t what some folks were truly mad about. It got so tense at one point that a parishioner called my father to warn him that another and particularly volatile member of the parish had threatened his life. “He said he was gonna kill you, Pastor! I’ve known him a long time. You shouldn’t just blow this off. I think he’s capable of doing it.”
What caused this rage and spite? It was complex, but over a hundred years prior to my father’s ministry, during the American Civil War, the Germans had largely been abolitionist and unionist in their leanings. That part of Missouri, however, had been a center of confederate sympathizers, called Bushwhackers, who had terrorized the German community and murdered scores of people. The end of the war had not ended the intimidation. It remained a sharply divided community for generations. My father, oblivious to these tensions, had reached out, baptized, and admitted the descendants of the Bushwhackers into the German Lutheran congregation. I believe this was the reason the passions ran so deeply in those days of conflict in my youth. I remain proud of my father’s work and amazed by his bravery in continuing to serve in the face of that threat.
Jesus’ love is scandalous. He does not love the people I approve of. He loves all people, including my enemies, the people I am afraid of, even those who persecute and abuse me. My father understood he loved the descendants of Bushwhackers and the fellow who was so angry as to threaten his life. Today, as always, our Lord stands outside that cheerful home and invites every faithful human being into the party called heaven. He invites you too.