Dinner with Sinners, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.]
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jill Levine, in her volume, The Jewish Annotated Notes of the New Testament, says simply of ‘Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners,’ that “it suggests he approves of them.” He approves of them! Or as Eugene Peterson says, “he treats them as old friends!”
No wonder they’re coming near to listen to him, and sitting down to have dinner with Jesus. They were lost, outcast, and now they are found!
Jesus is directing these two parables from our Reading today – not to the tax collectors and sinners – but he’s telling it to the righteous ones who were grumbling about Jesus’ behavior.
‘I know you’d have compassion and go and look for them,’ Jesus tells the righteous ones, ‘if you were to lose even just one out of a hundred sheep. I know that you’d go search for it diligently until you recovered it!’ Of course, they weren’t Shepherds. Whether they would, go searching, or not, is hard to tell. Everyone knew the terrain in Israel for sheep herders was notoriously hilly, full of crags and ravines, trees and bushes. Lost sheep could easily disappear. And leaving the 99 behind, might expose all the rest of them to foxes and wolves, and the prospect of losing even more.
But, in this parable, the Shepherd is the allegorical stand-in for God. And God searches diligently – searches for us, around every bush and ravine, whatever it takes, until we are found. And ‘when he has found the lost sheep,’ says Luke, ‘the Shepherd lays it on his shoulders and rejoices,’ and gathers all his friends to join in a party of celebration too! For Jesus, it’s all about the searching God does for us, and then the abandon, and over the top celebrating, for returning what was lost.
This image of, laying the sheep on his shoulders, is one of the most frequently found on the walls of the Catacombs that the early Christians drew. The Icon we use in the Prayer Area is a re-creation of that. Jesus the Good Shepherd! Jesus the Shepherd who searches diligently for us until we are found! Jesus, like the Shepherd-boy Moses, who became the Shepherd who rescued his people Israel, freeing them from slavery in Egypt, and bringing them into the promised land.
God is relentless! God never wearies of the search for us!
But you know what?! Sometimes we don’t want to be found! Sometimes we like where we’re at! Like the Pharisees and Scribes, who were profiting off the way the system was. It was working for them. They were able to define what was righteous, partly just by demonizing who was socially unacceptable and lost. Which is why they grumbled and weren’t pleased with Jesus ‘turning the tables.’
So for them, it wasn’t good news really, that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons” like them, “who need no repentance!” The same was true for the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son, which is the Reading that comes right after these two parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin. It’s sometimes called the Parable of the Lost Son, the one the ‘gracious father’ throws a party for. But the other son, the son who stayed home and did the right thing, the older son, is like the Pharisees and the scribes, and maybe like us too – the ones who are not lost, the ones who have found a worshiping community, who have found love and acceptance. But instead of grumbling, says Jesus of the older son in the parable, we should come into the Banquet and join the celebration for the one who was lost!
But of course, that’s only half the truth too! If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Or as Martin Luther liked to say, even in our baptism, we are always, saints and sinners at the same time! We can learn to trust God’s loving grace and forgiveness, but we are not perfect, and are terribly caught up in the structures of sin, like racism and sexism and capitalism, and need to be found, need to be rescued, over and over again! We need to return to God with all our heart, to turn around and go in a new direction, which is literally what repentance means.
And I think we can even dig a little deeper into our hearts, yet! So, I’ll speak for myself. I know I didn’t want to be found for a long time. I thought ‘I’ had to find myself, that it was all up to me, that I had to do this good-work, when all the while I was really just pushing God away from finding me! Probably because I wasn’t sure I was ready for what God was calling me to do. And for me, I wasn’t confident I had the right skills for ordained ministry. And when my pastor told me I did, it filled me with both gratitude, but also with trepidation! How could I be worthy?! ‘I’m just a boy,’ as the prophet Jeremiah said. I was filled with doubts, and didn’t know how to let myself be found, even though it’s all I could think about!
But God desires to find the lost, and never wearies of the search to bring them into the fold. No one is worthy on their own. But in the community of faith, we experience how God makes us worthy. We’re all sinners and saints together. We all feel unworthy and not totally up to the job, until we’re supported and accepted in faithfulness, together. This ambivalence, is actually a healthy feeling, as opposed to a Messiah, or dictator-like, complex!
But this both/and, sinner & saint, can be even more complicated in the real world, as I’m sure you probably know. This week for example, I glimpsed it in the story of a 16 year old from Sweden. You may have heard of her, Greta Thunberg, who’s tenaciously pushing us to ‘do something’ about the climate crisis! She’s been visiting the United States the last couple of weeks. And some people clearly don’t like her and what she’s been up to. In fact, Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada, who knows Greta has autism, never-the-less Tweeted that she’s “clearly mentally unstable, and a pawn of the climate movement.”
After a major backlash on behalf of her supporters, Mr. Bernier has apologized – well, sort of! But Greta is actually one of the most clear-thinking among us – and no one’s pawn – and her autism, as she says herself, has actually enhanced her tremendous rise to leadership in this movement.
It was at age 15 that she decided to stop doing the one thing all kids are supposed to do to fulfill their righteousness: go to school. Every Friday, she skipped classes to stand outside Sweden’s Parliament with her handmade sign that said simply: “School Strike For the Climate.”
She left the ranks of the “righteous,” as Jesus called it, and became a target, an outcast, one of the lost sinners. But to Thunberg, the question was, “Why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?”
Who needs the repenting, the turning around more, I wonder? Greta, who skipped school? Or us, who even if we are afraid of climate change and how fast it’s coming, continue on with our lives – maybe even doing good, and responsible, and righteous things – but without acting on our imperiled future?
Karoline Lewis says: “These [2 parables of Jesus] elicit rather interesting adjectives [for] God, perhaps ones we do not use as often as we should – [God is] relentless, stubborn, insistent, tireless. After all, some of us would rather stay hidden, even wish to be lost or left alone, if not forever, at least for the time being, at least longer than a short-term stint. A kind of ‘lost-ness’ that is even a mode of self-protection. ‘Just leave me alone. Let me be. I’m fine.’”
But Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has been bringing the lost into the fold for a long time now. God does not let us wander alone, un-counted! God finds us and enlivens us, again and again! God won’t let our self-doubt and ambivalence undo us!
Jesus the Good Shepherd, lifts us up and carries us on his shoulders – brings us in to the banquet of celebration – where all the ‘lost and found’ are rejoicing together. Only God can make us righteous. Let us, once we are found, become searchers too, and bring everyone into the never-ending Banqueting Table of the Lord!