15 September 2019 Proper 19, Year C / Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Ps 14;1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s what the Pharisees and scribes say about Jesus.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Now, I ask you: how does that phrase strike you? What do you hear in those words? Are they words of complaint and disagreement; or words of hope and invitation?
On one level, the words of the Pharisees and scribes are simply a statement of fact. After all, that’s what Jesus did. He broke bread and hoisted a pint with sinners - tax collectors, prostitutes, and other unsavory characters. It’s simply the truth. And a well-documented truth since not only does Luke tell us this, but so do Matthew and Mark.
On another level, the Pharisees’ and scribes’ words are an accusation, an indictment, and a judgment. In the eyes of the religious authorities, Jesus is guilty of violating both the Law of Moses and the social norms of the day.
At the deepest level, however, their words are, ironically enough – and they would be surprised to hear this! – their statement is a proclamation of the Christian Gospel. Unbeknownst to them, they have just spoken the Good News of Christ. Jesus not only welcomes sinners, he shares meals with them. Breaking bread with sinners, joining with them at the table, means there is relationship and acceptance. And that is not just Good News, but Great News! Repeatedly, Jesus aligns himself not with the insiders, with the right kinds of people, but with the outcasts and outsiders. Which leads to the righteous anger of the Pharisees and scribes. To the religious authorities, Jesus is once again on the wrong side, with the wrong set of friends.
Throughout these Gospel stories, Jesus repeatedly chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people. And that’s exactly why, in today’s Gospel, the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. They came because he offered them something no one else could or would: he joined with them, became one of them. That’s also why the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling. Jesus was breaking the law, crossing well-established cultural lines, and making God just a bit too easily available to the unworthy, the undeserving, the riff-raff of society.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” I wonder if the fact that Jesus chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people is why we – like the Hebrew authorities of Jesus’ day - might not hear these words as radically explosive Good News. The difficulty for most of us lies in the fact that we don’t see ourselves as the wrong kind of people. To the contrary, we try really hard to be the right kind of people. Certainly, there are times when we will admit to doing and saying the wrong things. All of us, sometimes, are guilty of unkind words and actions that lack compassion. We are – most of us – human, after all.
Generally, however, we behave and do what’s right, or at least we try to. For the most part, we look, speak, and act the part expected of us. We love our spouse, and our children, and our parents. We are honest in our business dealings. We are kind and friendly to each other. We work hard, provide for our families, help our friends. We support our troops, pledge allegiance to the flag, pay our taxes. We go to church and say our prayers. We care about the poor and the lonely. We donate time, money, food, and clothes to those in need. All of that contributes to our sense that we are solid and good – in other words, the right kind of people. And that may prove to be a hindrance to our hearing the Good News of this Gospel.
Now, I’m not suggesting we need to abandon all these good actions and positive attitudes and transform ourselves into the wrong kind of people - whatever that might be – in order to more fully understand and relate to the Gospel message. But I am suggesting that we need a different starting point, not only for ourselves, but also for each other.
The starting point for Jesus is grace: searching, not blaming; finding, not punishing; rejoicing, not condemning. The first question for Jesus is not one of sin, who’s in and who’s out, or who is worthy and deserving of a dinner invitation. For Jesus, everyone is already in. As a child of God, everyone is worthy. As a child of God, everyone is deserving. As a child of God, everyone is invited to feast at God’s table. For Jesus, the first question and primary concern is one of presence. Have we shown up for the feast, or are we among the lost and missing? Have we, like the tax collectors and other sinners at the opening of the Gospel story, “come near to listen to Jesus”?
It seems that for many, maybe most, sin is a kind of legal category that is primarily restricted and defined by certain behaviors and attitudes, rather than descriptive of conditions and relationships. It’s seen as a judgment, rather than a diagnosis. Sin is seen as a choice one makes, rather than just being part of our human condition. And it’s usually viewed as a condition that others may be permanently caught in, but not ourselves. At best, our sin is only temporary, fleeting. That’s why it’s often hard for us to hear this Good News, and to rejoice at the meals Christ offers and shares with the sinners and tax collectors. We rarely think sin is about us. Compared to “them,” “those other kinds of people,” we, like the Pharisees and the scribes, think we look pretty darn good. For Jesus, however, the defining characteristic of sin is not misbehavior, or bad choices, or unkind words, or illegal activity, but merely being lost.
We know this from the parables Jesus offers. They’re not about being wrong or acting sinfully. They are just about being lost: a sheep is lost; a coin is lost. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching about culpability, blame, or finding fault. That doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ concern. His concern is strictly for whatever is lost, missing, absent. Jesus doesn’t explain - or really seem to care – about how the lost one became lost. He doesn’t blame or judge. That’s not the issue. The issue for Jesus is only about recovering and reclaiming that which is lost; bringing the lost back into the fold, into community, into an embrace of love.
No doubt, we can certainly become lost in the darkness of evil. Humans can and have, throughout human history, done terrible things to one another. Those situations - evil people involved in evil deeds - are easy to point out, and rarely involve us.
But here’s the deal. We can also be really good - and really lost – both at the same time. Think about it. We can be good, hard working, and successful in our career - and still feel lost, without a true sense of direction or meaning. We can be looking good on the outside, holding it all together on the surface - and still be lost in the depths of grief or despair or depression. We can be a good spouse, doing all the right things, giving all the right appearances - and still be lost in a loveless marriage. We can have a good reputation - and be lost in questions of our own identity and purpose. We can be so busy and productive that we are lost to the wonder, beauty, and mystery of life. We can be financially secure - and still be lost in anxiety and fear. We can say and do all the right things - and be lost in a secret life that is self-destructive and hurts others.
Jesus comes into the world and enlarges the definition of human sin. But at the same time, he expands the understanding of divine grace. The Pharisees and scribes want to make it all about the shady character and loose morals and questionable ethics of sinners. That can happen whenever sin is defined as only a technical category of failed or detestable behavior. Jesus, however, makes the Good News of the Gospel not dependent on our actions and character, but reflective of God’s actions and character. That’s the point of these two parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. They reveal God’s character, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s invitation, God’s way of being toward us revealed in and through the gift of His Son, Jesus.
Like the shepherd and the woman in the parables, God’s grace and character are revealed in Jesus’ continued searching for us, finding us, and rejoicing in us.
God’s grace. God’s mercy. God’s love. These are not three different things, three separate actions or moments in time, but three manifestations of God’s character. They are the ongoing presence of God in Christ in each one of our lives. Depending on the circumstances of our lives we experience that grace and mercy and love differently. Ultimately, however, it means there is a place set for each one of us at the table. We matter. We are desired by, and reclaimed, and important to God. “This fellow (who) welcomes sinners and eats with them” is constantly searching for us, finding us, welcoming us, inviting us, and rejoicing over our presence at his table. THAT is Good News! . . . No, I take that back: THAT is GREAT News!