How many of you have heard someone say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat?” It’s one of those weird proverbs that has morphed over the years. It’s origins are somewhat vague, and thankfully it is not really about skinning cats.
I remember my mom saying this proverb when I was a kid. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I remember I was feline hopeless.. Something wasn’t working and in my frustration, I couldn’t see that there was any other way to do it. But my mom could, and my young self was amazed at my mom’s wisdom and inventiveness. She explained how she solved it by saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
We see in our scripture reading today from Luke 15 that there’s more than one way to respond. One son is happy, the other is angry. The reason for that is that we’re all different in a billion different ways, but the bottom line is that God loves us all the same.
This parable is one of three stories that Jesus is telling in response to some people who are grumbling about Jesus spending time with tax collectors and sinners. We often see tax collectors named as their own special category of undesirable. They worked for the Romans, so to those in Palestine tax collectors were traitors working for the enemy. The way a tax collector got paid was to keep anything extra that they were able to collect. They get called out here because they’re the easy target, the universal enemy.
If someone were to grumble about who we’re hanging out with today, what categories do you think would cause the most grumbling? What kind of people are outside of our circles today?
In response to the grumbling, Jesus tells three stories – about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and the one we read today about a lost son. All three stories have the same ending – a party. (Woohoo!) Great rejoicing over finding the sheep, the coin, and the son.
Why is Jesus telling these stories?
- So that those grumbling can see why Jesus is spending time with outcasts.
In the story about the two sons, we might say there is a good one and a bad one. The older one follows the rules, always obeys his father, never refusing to do what his father asks (Luke 15:29). The younger one asks to have his inheritance early, his first deviation, and then abandons his family by going off to a far country and squandering his inheritance. One son follows the rules, the other one bends them.
Where do you fall on the spectrum between rule follower and rule breaker?
Some of us find it easier to follow the rules, and some of us don’t. Sometimes that’s because the rules favor certain types of people and certain situations. In the case of inheriting, the rules favor the older son. Under Jewish law, the first-born son receives a double share of his parents’ property.
Deuteronomy 21:17 says: “But he shall acknowledge the first-born … by giving him a double portion of all that he has...”
The older son benefits the most from following the rules, so it’s probably easier for him to be motivated to follow them.
Does the father love one son more than the other? We might expect the father would favor the older one, but the father throws the party for the younger one, because the father loves them both.
God doesn’t love us more if we’re following the rules. And if we put following the rules ahead of love, we might have made being right or proper into an idol. Sometimes we don’t realize who gets the short end of the stick because of our rules and norms.
In the book Good Enough, Kate and Jessica tell about a woman:
“who, at seventeen, found out she was pregnant. She decided to keep her baby, but the decision meant she was an outsider. She didn’t fit in with her school friends anymore, and the local moms’ group was not a welcoming place for her either. The moms used the weekly gathering as a playdate and to gab about growth charts, humblebrag about which Montessori they got into, and complain about husbands who wouldn’t change diapers.
“Meanwhile, she was trying to figure out if she could afford formula and how to finish high school with a newborn. She needed help learning how to parent a child, as a child. Plus, she couldn’t afford the fee to join the moms’ group anyway.
“She raised her beautiful daughter mostly on her own.
“Then, at twenty-seven, she realized she wanted to make a space for teenage moms so they wouldn’t feel so alone. She launched a nonconventional moms’ group at church that now serves people in between traditional definitions—teen moms, adoptive moms, foster moms, single moms. . . The place that once made her feel like an outsider has now become a welcome mat to other moms like her.”
Our traditional definitions inevitably work well for some and exclude others. But whether you feel like an outsider or an insider, God loves us just the same. As Kate and Jessica put it, “Just because we are not always wanted doesn’t mean we don’t belong.”
It’s not that God loves us if we turn to him. It’s that when we turn, we find that God’s love has been there for us all along. Romans 5 tells us that before we knew anything about God’s love, before we were even born, Jesus died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)
That’s why Jesus is spending time with tax collectors and sinners.
Another reason Jesus is telling this story is 2) so that we can see God’s extravagant love in action.
The younger son’s homecoming is filled with this extravagance:
- The father is very excited. He runs to the son, embraces him and kisses him.
- Gives him the finest robe, a ring and sandals. He didn’t flip flop about it.
- Fires up the BBQ for a special feast and throws a party with music and dancing.
Who in your life would be the one running to you, hugging you to death and kissing you? We might think this is quite out of character for a father, and for many fathers it is. But Jesus is giving us a picture of God who is our perfect father and mother and friend, who loves us more than we will ever fully comprehend.
Pete Grieg, in his book How to Pray, says, “The way we view God affects everything about everything,” Jesus taught us to pray starting with the words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” a salutation that is about knowing God’s infinite love and God’s ultimate greatness.
Grieg is of the opinion that most people’s biggest problem with prayer is their view of God. They imagine him scowling, perpetually disapproving, disappointed. If that’s how we picture God, we’d probably rather hide from him. But Jesus says something completely different. He makes it clear, in today’s parable, “that the God to whom we pray is extravagantly kind, a father who comes running toward us with arms flung wide, whenever we approach him, wherever we’ve been, and whatever we’ve done. He assures us that God—…is … on our side.”
When we say that God is on our side, it’s not that we’re saying we’re always right or perfect. We’re saying that God always loves us.
One of our confessions, the Declaration of Faith (10.5) says: “Constrained by God’s love in Christ, we have good hope for all people, not exempting the most unlikely from the promises. Judgment belongs to God and not to us. We are sure that God’s future for every person will be both merciful and just.”
We’re not supposed to judge. Judgment belongs to God, who loves us more than we can imagine.
In the TV series Downton Abbey, we see this tension between love and judgment being worked out in many different situations. One of my favorites is when Cora, the duchess of the abbey, finds out that her ladies maid Mrs. Baxter has spent time in jail. Baxter expects to be dismissed immediately, but to her surprise Cora isn’t ready to do that. Cora admits to Baxter that she probably should fire her, but Cora gives Baxter grace.
Jesus tells this parable so that we can see that God’s love is for all people, both insiders and outsiders, and that God’s love is full of grace and extravagance. I think Jesus is also telling this as a way of inviting us all to be a part of God’s mission.
3) So that we can participate in God’s mission of love
In the parable, the older son is angry when he comes home from working in the fields and finds his father has thrown a big party for his brother.
“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends.” (Luke 15:29)
He seems to feel like he’s been taken for granted. Maybe some of us relate to this brother. “What about me? I was the good one!”
The father’s responds, “Everything I have is yours,” which gives us a clue that the older son might be exaggerating a bit. The older son could have thrown himself a party if he’d wanted. They’re working together to run the family business that the older son is inheriting. The older son is kind of missing the point. So the father explains:
“Your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” (Luke 15:32)
A resurrection has happened. A miracle. They thought they’d never see the younger brother again, but he has come home. Why isn’t the older son celebrating? Maybe he will, once he gets his rant out of his system.
The point is that Jesus is going outside the usual inner circle to tell and show everyone that God loves us all. Jesus is on a mission from God, and we’re invited to be a part of that mission. Those people who were grumbling at Jesus were also being invited to be a part of that mission.
We aren’t supposed to be the judges of who is “in” or “out” with God. Our one clear responsibility is to tell everyone the Good News that God wants us all to be saved from the internal and external forces that cut us off from God, from one another, and from our being true to ourselves. “Why should we tell them? Not so that God may come to love them if they believe and obey, but so that they may hear and believe that God already loves them.”
In the 1970’s there was a sitcom called Good Times about a black family living in an apartment in inner-city Chicago. The father, James, worked various manual labor jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table and provide for the mom, Florida, and their three kids, J.J., Thelma, and Michael. In one episode, J.J. decides he wants to marry his prom date Diana, and they run off to elope, much to the dismay of the rest of the family. But when J.J. and Diana are settled into their hotel, things fall apart and Diana runs away, leaving J.J. feeling humiliated and lost. Out of desperation, J.J. calls his parents, expecting them to be angry. But despite all the stress and worry he has put them through, the parents beg him to come home.
“Like the father of the prodigal son, James and Florida rejoiced when J.J. called. They accepted his collect call and welcomed him back. They weren’t concerned about where he was or what he was doing. They simply wanted him to come home.”
That’s what God wants for us all – to know God’s love and enjoy God’s presence in our lives.
We’re all different in a billion different ways, but God loves us all the same. Jesus tells this parable so that we can see God’s extravagant love in action, know that this love is for all of us, and so that we can join him in his mission to help everyone know God’s love and grace.
There are a billion different ways we can do this, but I hope none of them involves skinning a cat.
 Bowler, Kate; Richie, Jessica. Good Enough (pp. 80-81). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid. p.82.
 Greig, Pete. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (p. 52). The Navigators. Kindle Edition.
 Greig, Pete. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (p. 53). The Navigators. Kindle Edition.
 Guthrie Jr., Shirley C.; Guthrie Jr., Shirley C.. Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (p. 135). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Good Times (1976), Season 3, Episodes 17-18.
 Blount, Brian K. True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Fortress Press, 2008, p175.