Prodigal Rabbi

Prodigal Rabbi

A couple of weeks ago, Trevor and I were at a workshop about how we change our thinking in the church from membership to discipleship.

We talk a lot about membership. We are preparing our confirmation students to become members. We are about to have a new member class. And it’s almost like once you cross that magical membership threshold, then that’s it. You’ve done it. You have reached the peak of your faith journey.

And that’s because we don’t have a process in place to help all of us continue to grow in our faith beyond that point.

So in this workshop, we talked about making the shift to discipleship as our primary focus. A life-long journey of following Jesus.


But what does it really mean to be a disciple?


Rob Bell shares in his video series Nooma what it really meant to be a disciple in Jesus’ time.

He describes how most little Jewish boys and girls would have been instructed in the Torah – the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And by the age of 10, they would have memorized the Torah. They would know it by heart.

When they got to about 10, many of these boys and girls would then go and learn their family trade, but the best of the group would continue to the second level – where they would spend four or five years learning and memorizing the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Joshua through Malachai.

And at the age of 14- or 15, many more of these students would learn the trade of their families, but the best of the best would try to continue on and would seek out a rabbi and apply to be one of their disciples. “A disciple just doesn’t want to know what the rabbi knows. A disciple wants to be like the rabbi and wants to learn to do what the rabbi does.”

When you went to seek out one of these rabbis, they would grill you and find out what you knew because the rabbi wants to know if you had what it takes to follow them, to be like them. And many would be turned down. Only the best of the best of the best were invited to come and follow that rabbi. And you would leave EVERYTHING behind – your family, their trade, your home and village – and you would devote your entire life to being like your rabbi, learning to do what your rabbi does. This is what it means to be a disciple.


But, something shifts when Jesus comes around.

In Luke’s gospel, he goes out and calls his first disciples and they aren’t the best of the best of the best.

They are fishermen.

They are young men who went back home to practice the family trade after the first or second level of education.

Jesus isn’t seeking the best of the best of the best.

Jesus doesn’t think that you have to be the smartest or wisest or most clever person in order to follow him and be his disciple.

He thinks that Simon Peter and James and John and Levi and all of those ordinary people have what it takes to be his disciple… to learn from him… to know what he knows… to do what he does.


I think it starts to make a whole lot more sense for me, knowing this, why the Pharisees were so mad at Jesus.

Because many of those Pharisees were rabbis; those who accepted the best of the best of the best to be their disciples.

And they looked around and saw Jesus hanging out with the riff-raff. With the not-good-enoughs. With the nobodies. And in that sense, Jesus was giving their profession a bad name!

They saw him taking his gifts and his knowledge and wasting them by giving them to just anybody. Instead of calling the best of the best of the best, Jesus was calling the least and the last and the lost. They thought he was recklessly wasteful and extravagantly generous.


I used those words when I first arrived at Immanuel to describe Jesus.

It was a sermon on the parable of the sower – who scattered seed wherever he went, without regard for whether or not it would grow. I remember some of you gasped in shock as I started throwing sunflower seeds all over the front of the chancel area!

And that day, I used the word “prodigal” to describe that sower. Because to be “prodigal” means to be recklessly wasteful and extravagantly generous.


It is the same word used in our gospel lesson for this morning.

The prodigal son is recklessly wasteful and throws away his father’s fortune … but that same word can also be used to describe the father who welcomes him back home. If we continued just a few verses in the story, the older son is upset at the prodigal nature of his father’s love for this lost and useless brother.

The dad in this story is filled with compassion when his boy returns home. He runs out and surrounds him with love. He gives the boy the best of what he has. He kills the fatted calf. He is extravagantly generous, pouring out love and grace and forgiveness in his rejoicing.


In fact, all three of these parables about the lost things – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son – are reminders about the lengths God will go in order to demonstrate love for us.

They are reminders about the extravagant, reckless, wasteful, abundant grace and mercy of our God.

A God who loves us so much, we were given the Torah, the law, the teaching to guide our way.

A God who loves us so much, the prophets were sent to call us back into relationship with God – over and over and over again.

A God who loves us so much, that God became one of us, walked among us, taught us, and called us to follow.


Our God doesn’t care if you are the best of the best. Our God doesn’t care about your background or age. Our God doesn’t care about your skills.

Our God looks at you and sees infinite worth and potential.

Our Jesus, our Prodigal Savior, looks at you and is willing to give up everything to seek you out and find you.

Our Rabbi looks at you and thinks – you can do what I can do… you can be like me.


And so Jesus invited those disciples… and now us… to follow in his footsteps… to be covered in the dust of our rabbi… to set everything aside and become like Jesus.

As Michael Slaughter puts it in chapter 3 of Renegade Gospel:

“When I confess that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, I commit to follow Jesus in a lifestyle of sacrificial service, walking in the dust of my Rabbi. Whatever my Rabbi values, I value. Whatever my Rabbi thinks about God, I think about God. Whatever my Rabbi thinks about people, I think about people… I act like my Rabbi, talk like my Rabbi, love like my Rabbi, and give my life away for my Rabbi’s mission.”


You may have noticed around this building the signs for this “Renegade Gospel” study we are doing, and it includes the quote – Jesus didn’t come to start a religion.

Well, I think today, we are reminded that Jesus didn’t come to make members of Immanuel United Methodist Church.

In fact, our mission as a church has nothing to do with membership… we have said clearly that we are called to “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.”

Jesus came to invite people like you and me – ordinary, everyday people – to come and follow him.

Jesus came to invite the least and the last and the lost into a lifelong relationship with him.

Jesus came to invite us to grow more like him every day.

To love more like him every day.

To forgive more like him every day.

To turn this world upside down and transform it with God’s power every day.

And we are empowered to keep working toward the day when we don’t simply know what Jesus knows, but we do what he does.

That’s what this place is for. We are a community of disciples, trying to be more like Jesus every single day.

We are a community of disciples, gathered to be re-energized and strengthened to go out into the world, and live, in Christ, a life of love, service, and prayer. Amen.

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