Parties or church?

Why did people invite Jesus to parties? It’s been a question I’ve wrestled with for awhile (even here), ever since I stopped to think about how often Jesus was at parties.

His first miracle was at a wedding. Matthew gets invited to be a follower and throws a party, complete with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is inside, the religious people are outside, looking through the window and scolding.  In fact, one day the super-religious leaders were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And it wasn’t, I don’t think, that Jesus went to the meal and didn’t talk. In fact, I’m pretty sure he was talking to the people around the table. I’m guessing that he was doing a lot of listening and then asking a pointed question or two. I’m guessing that he was showing compassion for the difficulties that took people away from the religious system. I’m guessing that lots of people changed their behavior, thinking “I don’t like religion, but Jesus? He’s great. I think I could follow him.”

That thought is at the core of the latest book by Tim Keller: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. In fact, Keller says it better than I:

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to  think. 15-16.

When he speaks of the elder brother, Keller is referring to a character in a story Jesus told, a story known most often as “The Prodigal Son.”

You may know it. A kid asks for his share of the family estate early, leaves home, spends it all. He has no more friends. He’s feeding pigs. He decides to go back home asking to be a servant. Instead, the father welcomes him home as a son, throwing a huge party.

We talk about prodigal children, about people who have left home, have left “the faith.” This is the story they are talking about.

But Keller makes us look at the whole story.

Earlier I talked about the religious leaders muttering about Jesus. This story, the one about the son, is one of three stories Jesus told in response to their muttering. He talked about the younger son coming home, Jesus did. But then he talked about the older son, the one who had never left. This son, Jesus says, doesn’t come to the party for the younger son. When the father goes to talk with him, the older son complains that he has always been good, that he has always done everything exactly right, and what has the father ever done for him?

Keller talks about the moralistic pride of the older brother. “I’m better than my brother, so you should love me more,” is the older brother’s philosophy. The way to be loved is to be good. The way to get stuff is to be good. And so, there are many younger brothers who stay away for fear of not measuring up to the standards of the older brother. And there are many people who stay away from church, who stay away from religion because they think that church is about being perfect.

But the point of the parable is that being at the feast isn’t about being perfect. Being with Jesus often meant, in the first century, not being with the perfect people. Jesus was at the parties, walking along the road, sitting on a hillside. He was helping people see that they can’t fix themselves, whether they are younger or older.


So how do I end this post?

  • It’s sort of a review of a book, sort of a response to how a book resonates with questions I wrestle with. And part of me wants to just end like a book review on “Reading Rainbow”: If you ever wondered why some Christians seem so stuffy, this is the book for you.
  • And part of me knows that writing about books is something I want to work on as a way of helping you see what is shaping my heart. Because the sermon that this book grew out of has been shaping my heart since I first heard it a couple of years ago.
  • And part of me wants to pose some wonderful, thoughtful question.
  • And part of me wants to say, “I get older brothers. I see one in the mirror every morning. I get younger brothers. I see one in the mirror every evening.”
  • And part of me wants to figure out which party Jesus is at today and go listen. Or maybe I should just throw my own and invite him.

So pick your own ending.


Tim Keller
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Dutton, 2008. 140 pages

Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in new York City


12 responses to “Parties or church?

  1. I like your open ended review. It’s a good way to do justice to someone else’s work without closing off and packaging up the ideas and questions that it generated.

  2. So, I’m not Christian, but I’d say go with, “Throw a party and invite Jesus in.” And here’s my Jewish answer why:

    There are many legends in the Talmud that fill in the back stories behind what you read in the Bible. One of those legends about Abraham and Sarah says that they had a tent which was open on four sides. This was so that they could see strangers come from any direction and invite them in for food and drink. They would provide for their guests basic needs and they would talk to them. In this way, many people came to know about Abraham’s and Sarah’s relationship to their God and what God meant to them. Some of those visitors took the message onward with them on their travels. Others decided to stay with Abraham and Sarah and build a life close to these people so that they could learn more.

    Now, when we imagine this story today, we tend to think of inviting guests over on Friday night or Saturday afternoon for a Shabbat meal. This is a time when we share food, wine, songs and we spend at least a little while studying the week’s Torah portion in some way. As one friend of mine put it, “It’s a dinner party every week!”

    And it’s fun!

  3. Lisha – I love that answer. And I love that picture of the two of them. It fits so well with how we see them when we read Genesis.

    And I just realized that that’s why we are starting a Saturday evening soup gathering. Hmm.

    Thank you.

  4. Joanna – I love the open-ended idea. That helps me think about how to do reviews.

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  6. Perhaps the challenge is not with the church assembled but with the church scattered. It seems that people invited Jesus to their parties because they saw Him as a friend. I wonder how many outside of the church see believers as friends that they would invite to their parties. How many of us would go? I like the picture of Abraham and Sarah. I think Jesus would be pleased if we spent as much time with people showing His love as we do assembled listening to a sermon.

  7. I love that you imagined people at the party with Jesus thinking this: “I don’t like religion, but Jesus? He’s great. I think I could follow him.”

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot, lately. In fact, just today, someone on Twitter said to me that most people (ie: non-believers) don’t have a problem with Jesus, they have a problem with his followers. In one sense, that’s really sad, and I’d like to do whatever I can to change that. In another way, though, it’s very freeing to know how irresistible and full of love and truth Jesus is. We don’t have to work to “sell” people on Jesus. We have other work to do, but not that.

    Thanks for this post. (And btw, I like the first and last ending choices, best!)

  8. Good questions, Tom. And you are right. It’s not about the perfect sermon,
    or church service.

  9. yep, Kristin, It isn”t about selling.

  10. I’m hoping for the day that the two can become one. Church should be a party.

    I hope that people see Jesus when they look at me, but all too often I get in the way. He is much more worth seeing than me.

    Thanks for your challenging and thought provoking posts. Have a coffee and keep up the good work!

  11. I was visiting a guy Monday who has cancer and was lamenting that he was feeling guilty because now he was asking God for a big favor when earlier in his life he’d never even invited God to sit down for a cup of coffee. So we talked about God throwing a party for him instead of asking where he’d been. God uses you, Jon. Thanks.

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