The Invitation to Celebrate
"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends."
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 25, 2022, Words By: Kate Davis, Image By: Romare Howard Bearden (Return of the Prodigal Son)
The gospel text this week begins with a group of religious folk — “Pharisees and scribes,” but feel free to insert titles from your denomination — complaining about Jesus’ habit of welcoming and eating with “sinners.” In his very rabbinic way, Jesus doesn’t address the accusation head-on, but begins to tell a series of stories, culminating with the one that has come to be known as the “Prodigal Son.”
First, he tells the parable about a shepherd leaving the flock to find the lost sheep, and inviting his friends to celebrate when he does. Then, a story of a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins, who invites her friends to celebrate when it is found.
Already, we might notice that both these stories end with an invitation for others to join in celebration of what has been found. The celebration seems to be even more of a focus than the finding.
The parable of the lost son comes third. A son asks for his inheritance early (rude), spends it, and returns home hoping to be hired as a servant in his father’s home. Upon his return, his father identifies him as one who “was lost and is found.” It should be no surprise to us, having heard the first stories, that the father invites others to celebrate the return.
The nine coins didn’t have any concern about the found one’s celebration, and the feelings of the 99 sheep weren’t considered. But here, the other son has his own experience: the resentment of his years of labor, as he watches his father’s celebration of the one who hasn’t labored at all.
It’s here that we begin to wonder which son is the lost one — the one who had left and returned (“the prodigal”), or the one who is present but unable to celebrate? One was temporarily lost to pursuing his own pleasure; the other is lost to his own righteousness and resentment.
I’m tempted to ask, What do the religious folk — the ones who criticized Jesus and prompted these stories — make of this story? Do they recognize their inability to celebrate? Do they recognize themselves as the one who is lost to his righteousness and resentment?
But I come back to myself: I am religious folk. Like many Christian leaders, I work to serve the trinitarian God and the coming of the Kingdom. I do my best to not disobey the command to love God and neighbor, especially those neighbors who are vulnerable. It could be my mouth that laments: Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command — where is my celebration?
In my role at the Center for Transforming Engagement, I often work with ministry leaders and helping professionals working to join God’s work in their local contexts. I know both personally and from conversations with these leaders and helpers that most of us work for some type of reward. In this field, that reward is rarely monetary or material — we’re not looking for “a young goat,” as the son in Jesus’s parable is.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for some kind of reward: perhaps the satisfaction of having been the one that saves the project, that fixes the problem, that makes the essential improvement to the organization. Perhaps it’s to be recognized as the one with the brilliant idea, the perfect restructure — rewards of recognition and praise. Or perhaps, as we put in extra unpaid hours, the perverse satisfaction of righteousness in which we know that we sacrificed more than others did — what Pascal Bruckner calls “western masochism,” and it can become morally intoxicating.
Too often, ministry leaders buy into a religious system that demands sacrifice. Recently I looked up a book on “sacrificial leadership” and was horrified to notice the second search result: a book with the same title, but on clergy suicide. I can’t deny that these two works are connected — sacrificial leadership too often leads to burnout, which can have dire, even mortal, consequences. If we believe we’re expected to always give more, it will never be enough. We run the risk of becoming resentful like the older brother — or worse.
The parables Jesus tells do not ask us to sacrifice. When he gets to Jerusalem, he will fulfill the sacrifice for us. God does not desire your sacrifice, does not want burnout for you, does not need you to give to the point of hurt. Instead, Jesus invites us, even implores us, to celebrate — to invite the neighbors, to rejoice, to make a big deal over even small wins. In his stories, he applauds those who celebrate small wins. One sheep of a flock of 100 is, of course, just 1% of the shepherd’s wealth. It’s not even new wealth, but existing wealth that has been retained! And still, Jesus invites us to rejoice in recognition of the gift that is already present, that is already ours.
Through the voice of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus invites us to hear the divine parent: All that is mine is yours. Everything I have, I have already given to you.
Dwelling Among Us
For those of us who have built our careers — and our identities — on helping others, the message of abundance can be a hard word to receive. Can we really believe that God is generous? Can we accept that there is no competition to be “best,” but only peacemaking to be “with” our brothers and sisters — no matter the work they have done or avoided? Can we take in that the abundance of God is already available to us? What would life look like if we did?
If God said to you, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” what would you stop needing to do? What would you be freed up to pursue instead? How would it change your emotional experience of your labor today?