|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 12, 2016 at 10:10 AM|
As Alex and I were getting ready for our Tuesday night dinner discussion, I asked her the question that we would ask our students later- what’s the first thing that came to mind about what Jesus did on earth. And she asked, “Is it bad that the first thing I think about is that he ate with prostitutes?”
It didn’t seem to be a bad thing for Jesus- he was known for hanging out with tax collectors (known for cheating people and for working with the ruling Roman powers) and sinners, which included women with a reputation. He was known for hanging out with the folks who were considered unacceptable because of who they were or what they had done. All of these folks had been hearing Jesus’ gracious words, they’d been seeing his miracles. They’d been noticing that he didn’t mind being around people like themselves and they started to come closer to hear what he had to say. And Jesus was thrilled to share a meal with them. And share life with them.
And of course, the religious folk weren’t happy. That’s how it tends to go in Scripture. And this evening it’s the Pharisees. These were folks who spent their lives trying to follow God’s rules. And presumably this was out of an actual holy desire to be in relationship with God. They weren’t jerks. They were good folks who were irritated that this good Jewish teacher was spending time with these folks who weren’t living right. Because one of God’s holy rules was to keep ourselves separate from outsiders and sinners. It was how God was going to protect us and our short attention spans from getting pulled away from God’s will. And there’s some truth in that- removing temptation is helpful!
So we often make those Pharisees out to be bad people for grumbling and complaining, but they’re just trying to make sure that their religion still matters. That doing good stuff that God tells us to is still important to others. Because following these rules are the way they know to be in relationship with God. So if this Jewish teacher throws all that out by welcoming just anyone, regardless of if they are following the rules, then what do the rules even matter anymore? Is everything suddenly ok and God’s will for us can be ignored?
But Jesus isn’t known to answer our grumblings directly, regardless of how justified they might be. He tends to answer by telling a story. So when Jesus hears their grumbling, Jesus looks right at the Pharisees and tells them about a sheep who is lost. And he tells the story in the presence of the tax collectors and sinners who’d been crowding in to see him.
And this sheep had been separated from the other 99 and was on his own without any help. The sheep was in danger of starving without someone to lead it to food and water and was in danger of being attacked by wolves. And he says that this lost sheep is so utterly important to the shepherd that he will leave behind 99- 99 sheep that are his livelihood, sheep that are known for doing stupid stuff like getting themselves stuck in streams and being led away by sheep stealers. The shepherd will leave them all behind in order to rescue the one who is lost. We’ve gotten used to hearing this parable, but I assure you that this is a rather stupid move to make. Rationality does not do something like this- only love does.
And not only does the shepherd go out to rescue the sheep who wandered away, then he calls all his neighbors and friends to rejoice with him over this sheep. They are expected to be as happy as the shepherd is over its return. Because there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s plain, 100% not fair. Ok- so you like to look for lost folks, God. That’s fine. But we have to rejoice with you about finding each one while the 99 good folks who follow the rules don’t get anything? Why in the world would we do that? And why in the world don’t we get anything better for following? I had a student text me one summer after reading this passage and ask me why Jesus was being so mean to the good people. Because rejoicing even more in the folks who have messed up is terrible news for those of us who have done a decent job in following.
And I imagine at that point Jesus probably looked up a little and turned his eyes over to the tax collectors and sinners and tried to get the Pharisees to look at them too. Because I can’t imagine what it felt like to be a tax collector and to sit and hear that God utterly delights in what you can become. That the only way your past can define you in God’s eyes is to make you more worthy of rejoicing over. That God’s willing to leave these good folks on their own to call out to you in welcome and in rescue.
Because what would it be like to this said publicly to defend your right to be right where you are, right next to Jesus- even as the powerful people were complaining? What would be it like to have Jesus publicly say that you could live a future completely different than your past and not have the crap you did in the past follow you around anymore? And not only that, you are told that there is joy in heaven over you. God dances when you take hold of the love he has for you.
He looks square at the Pharisees and says, “Our God goes after the ones who find themselves lost. Because they need to be found. That’s what mercy does. Over and over. Look at your brothers and sisters right here at the table and know how much they need that word. And nothing- not your self-righteousness or your holiness or your jealousness- should get in the way of bringing that word and rejoicing when others hear it. Because the word about my love IS THAT GOOD! It’s ALWAYS that good. And if all this that I’m saying pisses you off, then maybe you don’t understand the love of God well enough.
Yes, my rules still matter, Jesus probably told them. I did just finish telling everyone that you need to give up the hold you have on your family, your life and your possessions to follow me. I’m not really watering anything down. But first things first. Some of my friends here have not heard the word of love you already know. So at this moment, at this table, the only words that need to be spoken are about mercy for those that are far from God’s love. There will be time for other words that challenge and teach us all to live differently. But when you are lost in the wilderness, the only words you really want to hear are, “Someone is looking for you and they will find you.”
“So let your brothers and sisters hear my word to them and listen in- because you need to hear these words, too. Know that I love you. I have so much hope for you. I refuse to be done with you, even though at times it may seem like the intelligent option. Whatever you have done in life is not stronger than what I can love into being through you. My love and mercy is better and bigger and stronger than your mistakes, your missteps and your failings.”
I want you to know this in your heart and I want you to celebrate that this is who I am. I want you to celebrate that this is how my love works. AND I want you to celebrate these beloved ones who you call outcasts. These ones who have now felt this love of mine and made it their home.
I want you to celebrate them and I want you to keep noticing them and welcoming them. You know, not like second class citizens, but as people as beloved as you are. Reflect my love and be people who rejoice in restoration and return. Who rejoice EVERY SINGLE TIME a child of God comes to find their life and their hope in God again.
And welcome them back into God’s love without shaming or scolding. Now, that doesn’t mean we need to lie. We can be honest about sin and evil. When others are hurting their brothers or sisters or are trapped by greed or addiction, we need to speak up. We may need to work together to restore trust or repair relationships. And we might even need some holy anger like God had in that first lesson when the people started worshipping a golden calf. But those might not be your first words. Because when someone is lost in the wilderness and in pain, “God delights in you and I welcome you” are the words we need to lead with.
So we are called to be people of mercy. Not because we always like it, but because our God chooses to, over and over again, be a God of senseless mercy. Overreaching love. And foolish welcome. For people who mess up. For people like us.