“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (from Luke 15:1-10; Proper 19, Year C). That’s what the Pharisees and scribes said about Jesus. So how does that strike you? What do you hear in those words? Are they words of complaint and disagreement or ones of hope and invitation?
At one level the words of the Pharisees and scribes are simply a statement of fact. That’s what Jesus did. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. Not only does Luke tell us this but so do Matthew and Mark. At another level they are an accusation, an indictment, and a judgment. In the eyes and words of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus is guilty of violating the law and social norms of the day. At the deepest level, however, their words are, ironically enough, a statement of the gospel. They have just spoken the good news. Jesus not only welcomes the sinners, he eats with them. Eating with them means there is relationship and acceptance. Jesus has aligned himself with them. He is on their side.
Throughout the gospel stories Jesus chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people. That’s why in today’s gospel the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. He offered them something no one else could or would. That’s also why the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling. Jesus was breaking the law, crossing lines, and making God just a little too easily available.
I wonder if the fact that Jesus chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people is why we might not hear these words of the Pharisees and scribes, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” as good news. The difficulty for most of us is 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. Sure there are times when we do and say the wrong things. Sometimes we are guilty. Generally, however, we behave and do what’s right, or at least we try to. We look, speak, and act the part expected of us. We love our spouse and children. We are honest in our business dealings. We are kind and friendly to each other. We work hard, provide for our families, and help our friends. We support our troops and pledge our allegiance to the flag. We go to church and say our prayers. We care about the poor. We donate time, money, food, and clothes to those in need.
I’m not suggesting we need to make ourselves into the wrong kind of people, whatever that might be. I’m 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 gets a dinner invitation. For Jesus, everyone is already in. Everyone is invited. The first question and primary concern is one of presence. Have we shown up or are we lost and missing?
It seems that for many, maybe most, sin is a legal category that is primarily restricted to and declarative of physical behaviors rather than descriptive of conditions and relationships. It’s seen as a judgment rather than a diagnosis. 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 often don’t think sin is about us. Compared to “those kind of people” we think we look pretty good. So did the Pharisees and scribes. For Jesus, however, the defining characteristic of sin is not misbehavior but being lost.
Notice the parables Jesus offers. They’re not about being wrong. They are about being lost. A sheep is lost. A coin is lost. There is nothing about culpability, blame, or finding fault. That doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ concern. His concern is for the one that is lost, missing, absent. Jesus doesn’t explain how the lost one become lost. He doesn’t blame or judge. That’s not the issue. The issue for Jesus is recovering and reclaiming the lost.
No doubt we can be lost in the darkness of evil. We can and have throughout human history done terrible things to one another. But here’s the deal. We can also be really good and really lost 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 holding it all together and still be lost in the depths of grief or despair. 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 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 has enlarged the definition of sin. He has expanded the purview of grace. The Pharisees and scribes want to make it about the character of sinners and tax collectors. That happens whenever sin is defined as only a legal category of failed or aberrant behavior. Jesus, however, makes it about God’s character. That’s the point of these two parable. They reveal God’s character, God’s grace, God’s way of being toward us revealed in and through Jesus.
That grace and character are revealed in Jesus’ searching, finding, and rejoicing. Those are not three different things, three separate actions or moments in time, but three manifestations of God’s one grace. 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 differently, as searching, finding, or rejoicing. Ultimately, it means there is a place set for each one of at the table. We matter. We are desired by and important to God. This fellow who welcomes sinners and eats with them is constantly searching for us, finding us, and rejoicing over our presence at his table.