Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”
We wouldn’t have grumbled, would we?
We who know how Jesus operated – how He had a soft heart for people that society rejected, how He welcomed children into His company, how He engaged with women as if they were His equals, and how He allowed thieves and collaborators and all sorts of persons of ill-repute into his midst – we would not have grumbled.
We would have said “isn’t it lovely how He welcomes these no-hopers” … unless of course we had them marked as paedophiles or something like that! If He welcomed them we would say something: “Jesus, have you any idea who these people are?” (which was exactly the sort of question people did ask of Jesus all the time)
I mean … the weak and the sinful is one thing, isn’t it, but dirty, rotten scoundrels is another category altogether? We want to be sympathetic with people who are weak, but only so long as those weaknesses don’t cross certain red lines!
I’m sure we all heard how the Pope this year, instead of doing his ritual foot-washing of the Cardinals, went to a prison and washed the feet of prisoners, and I suspect that we were all rather impressed with that. And then I discovered that he hadn’t just washed the feet of any prisoners but of some Muslim women! Hang on a second … isn’t he supposed to be a Christian, and isn’t he supposed to be celibate?
We all have red lines that we draw. Sometimes, I appreciate, certain groups of people are excluded from polite society for reasons of pure prejudice, but there are other times when discrimination has a rationale behind it that is hard to argue with!
I have a friend who emails me regularly, warning me that I shouldn’t trust Muslims or Syrians (and especially Muslim Syrians). It’s easy for me to say that he shouldn’t discriminate. I haven’t had members of my family killed in sectarian violence!
That friend is a Lebanese Christian who would like to see the US intervene in Syria and Bashar Al-Assad get what is coming to him. I have other friends who come from the opposite side of that divide and speak to me in very similar terms about the Syrian rebels: “these people aren’t human, Dave! You can’t reason with them. You have to treat them like vermin and exterminate them!”
So [Jesus] told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:3-4)
I often wonder what impact Jesus expected that story to have on his hearers, most of whom would have had some familiarity with the economics of the pastoral industry.
Perhaps there were some shepherds in His audience that day? The way He introduces the story suggests that some of His hearers must have known first-hand what He was talking about, but it really doesn’t matter too much. Even twenty centuries later a guy like me who has never worked the land a day in his life can see that any shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his one hundred sheep in the wilderness while he goes looking for the one that wandered off is an idiot!
We call it ‘duty of care’ in the pastoral work I am familiar with. If you’re looking after a youth centre with one hundred kids in it and one wanders off to God-knows-where, what do you do? You stay with the ninety-nine and say a prayer for the other guy!
Certainly if you take that group into ‘the wilderness’ (which is the sort of thing we do do, of course) you don’t abandon ninety-nine per cent of your group and leave them to the mercy of the wild boars and the drop-bears while you wander off looking for some character that got himself lost! That would be a crazy thing to do!
Some academics will tell you that the parables of Jesus, as we have them, were doubtless rewritten somewhat to fit in with the pastoral situation of the early church. If that were the case, can you imagine a church that functioned along these lines?
As someone who pastors a church of around a hundred people, I can tell you that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to completely neglect the needs of the ninety-nine for the sake of the one mentally disabled guy who lives in a boarding house at the bottom of Wardell Road!
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” (Luke 15:8-9)
It was the previous parable that got me thinking about the mentally disabled guy who lives at the bottom of Wardell road but, lo and behold, here he is in the second story!
This is exactly the sort of behaviour we might expect from someone who has a very serious obsessive compulsive disorder or some similar form of mental illness. God knows no sane person would behave like this – sweeping their house from top to bottom, looking for one stray coin!
I’m sure most of you know at least some of the colourful characters within this community who struggle with mental illnesses. I often invite them to church, and I suspect the main reason they don’t make it here is probably because they forget.
There’s one particularly colourful character around here who I bump into almost every day. I won’t mention his name but I will tell you that I was a little concerned when, a few weeks ago, he started asking me to find him a pair of boxing gloves!
I’ve handed over plenty of other things to him over the last few years – money, food, a Bible – but I was a little more concerned about what he was going to do with the boxing gloves. I tried to put him off, telling him that I’d have a look, and that he should get back to me later. I was hoping that he’d forget about his request and move on to other things, but it was a bit like the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). He kept coming to me at odd times, and appearing at all sorts of locations, crying out “have you got those boxing gloves for me yet, Father Dave?”
In the end (true to the parable) I handed a pair over to him and he was very happy. I’m glad to say I haven’t seen those gloves since but I can imagine that if he lost one, he is the sort of guy who might stay up all night, lamp lit, sweeping the house and rearranging furniture until eventually he remembers that he left it in his pillow case!
“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
‘What woman indeed?’ we might ask! A not-very-rational woman, to say the least!
People come to religion looking for explanations to life. They want rational answers to life’s mysteries, and they will often go to a priest, hoping that he will provide them with those rational answers that they’re looking for. I must confess that Jesus does not make that job very easy! The God Jesus presents us with is not very rational!
I appreciate that this statement may sound immediately offensive to some of us, as we in the Protestant tradition especially, I think, pride ourselves on having a rational and coherent theology.
When I attended seminary at Moore College we were given a definition of the work of theology as ‘thinking the thoughts of God after Him’, and it’s a definition that defines God as fundamentally being a ‘thinking thing’.
God is the ‘great mind’, the ‘great truth’ – that which makes sense of everything that doesn’t seem to make sense …
No wonder St Paul spoke of the Christian Gospel as ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks’ – that is, foolishness to the philosophers of this world (1 Corinthians 1:23). For the God that Jesus depicts in these parables is one who makes decisions, not so much on the basis of logic and rationality but on the basis of impulse and passion!
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:11-24)
I have known fathers like this! Dare I say that within our very congregation I have known both fathers and mothers who have displayed just this sort of stupidity! Indeed, I’d like to think that I could number myself amongst that group of irrational, stupid parents who are so besotted with their children that they would lay down their lives for their little ones, regardless of what they have done and regardless of what common sense dictates!
My friend Sheikh Mansour has suggested to me that Islam is a more rational religion than Christianity, and I have told him that I think he may be right. Jesus was not much as a purveyor of ‘good sense’ in any worldly sense of the word, and the God Jesus presents to us is not one who bares much resemblance to the God presented to us either by philosophy or by traditional religions.
If there is a great unmoved mover – omniscient and omnipotent, watching over the world from the distance of Heaven, acting like a great law-giver and accountant who makes a record of every law that is broken and meticulously tallies up everybody’s score so that the world can be neatly divided between goodies and baddies …
If there is such a god in existence, it is NOT the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
The God that Jesus points us to is not so much an accountant as a parent, not so much a lawyer as a lover!
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a shepherd who risks everything for the sake of His little one. This God is like an obsessive, half-crazed woman who just can’t bring herself to give up on the one she lost. This God is our father, our mother, our lover and our friend, bound to us by passion, and not only to us, but equally bound to all those wayward souls that we grumble about!
Yes, it’s hard to live in a world where, in the end, there are no goodies and baddies. It is hard to live in a world where there are no lost souls, ultimately, but only those who have not yet been found!
“But we had to celebrate and be glad”, says the father, “because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:32)
And therein lies the challenge with Jesus puts to us, and on which these stories end.
The challenge is not keep the law (though that is a great thing to do), just as the challenge is not even to love those whom Jesus loves (though that is ultimately where Jesus wants to take us). The initial challenge though, and our proper starting point, is simply to celebrate the love and grace of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who both loves us and who reaches past us and loves beyond us – loving those we do not love and those we are not able to love.
It’s a choice between grumbling and celebrating, between law and grace, between death and life! I choose life!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 22nd of September.
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