From Offense to Joy

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So your pastor throws a party. Is the party at your pastor's house or at some other location? That doesn't matter. What matters is that your pastor is the host. Your pastor is the one who is throwing the party and receiving the guests.

You hear about the party, and probably without even knowing it, you assume a couple of things. First of all, you assume that your pastor knows the difference between right and wrong. I mean, whatever they teach in seminary, surely, they must teach that. Secondly, you assume that you'll be on the guest list because you know what they say about birds of a feather, and you figure that you'll be flocking together with your pastor and all your church friends when the roll for the party is called.

Well, the day of the party arrives, though you don't really know that since you have yet to receive an invitation. You go down to the grocery story to pick up a few things, and standing right there in the middle of the produce section, you run into a few of your church friends. While you're all squeezing melons and gathering greens, you're chatting about the state of affairs in town. Much to your surprise, you hear from one of your friends who lives near the pastor that the party is already underway at your pastor's house, and there you all stand ? church people all dressed up with no place to go ? because none of you has been invited.

Hmm, you think to yourself. And truth be known since you and a couple of your church friends are a tad nosy, you concoct the bright idea of driving by your pastor's house. If you aren't on the guest list, you certainly want to know who is, so off you go. As you drive slowly by, you notice a party taking place on the deck in the back of your pastor's house, and you notice that the atmosphere is particularly festive. People are having fun! It's what we in Augusta, Ga., used to call a "throw-down." This is a party that is characterized by joy, unfettered, unvarnished, unmistakable joy.

Well, you're envious. Go ahead and tell the truth. You're envious. But your envy is joined by blood-boiling anger when you begin to recognize some of the people on the deck. You know them, and they do not go to church. They are some of the most disreputable and unsavory people in town, a real assortment of lawbreakers and violators corrupt to the core. These are bad people, and now you're in a full-blown state of ecclesiastical heartburn. What kind of pastor is this who welcomes sinners and even eats with them?

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15, along with the parable of the loving father, are all about God's concern for what's lost. The two parables we deal with today both contain notes of delicious joy, a heavenly celebration occasioned by a successful search. But you know as well as I do that joy in heaven has not always meant peace on earth.

It's easy to jump right into these parables without noticing the important verses that introduce them and provide their context. Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him, and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." And so in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the Scribes, Jesus tells three parables, the first two of which we deal with today. And while it's neither here nor there, I bet you the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling more after Jesus told these parables than they were before. But in any event, taken in this context of grumbling, these parables are something other than sweet, innocuous, "isn't God good?" kind of stories. Like most of what Jesus said, these parables pierce. They call into question some of our assumptions, some of our ways of doing business. They call into question the boundaries that we erect and by which we try to separate and categorize people.

When as a child I used to sing the old gospel hymn about the good shepherd who leaves "the ninety and nine" to go in search of the one lost sheep, no one told me that some people took offense at a shepherd like that.

What are the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling at?

First of all, Jesus is clearly hanging out with the wrong crowd, tax collectors and sinners. If you'll permit, a brief history lesson is in order here. People in Jesus' day were all subjected to paying taxes to the Roman Empire, and there were lots of taxes. There were poll taxes, road tolls, bridge tolls, taxes on merchandise, property taxes. Most of the time, the job of collecting these taxes was given to some wealthy and powerful person in the local area. In turn, that person would divide the area into tax districts, each of which had a chief collector, and that chief collector appointed local residents to do the actual collecting.

The kicker is this: The system also allowed for extra taxes to be collected above the amount that was to be sent to Rome. This extra money just went into the pockets of the collectors, and so tax collectors were despised, because they were corrupt and oppressive. They stuck it to the people on a frequent basis. They were ritually unclean because of their contact with Gentiles, and they were treasonous as well, since they were working for foreigners against their own people. Bad guys.

As for the sinners, this designation is not some generic term for folks who have all fallen short of the glory of God. These were people whose violations of the law of Moses were well known and documented, either formally or informally in the community. And because of their sins, they had been separated from the community and excluded from participating in the synagogue. Of course, the violations could run the gamut, but suffice it to say, that like the tax collectors, these aren't your upstanding, civic club members neither. The Pharisees and the scribes are pierced because Jesus is including those who have been rightly excluded. And that's why we can't fairly get on a high horse and berate the Pharisees and the scribes for the self-righteousness for which they're sometimes known and of which they are often guilty.

In this case, their grumbling is well founded. Their position echoes warnings found throughout the Old Testament about associating with evil persons, and even Paul warns the church at Corinth not to be mismatched with unbelievers. The Pharisees and the scribes are pierced by the crowd Jesus is hanging around with, not because the Pharisees and scribes are self-righteous, but because they're correct. Hasn't Jesus read the Bible? Didn't he learn the difference between right and wrong in rabbinical school? Doesn't he know that you're not supposed to hang around with the wrong crowd? Surely, Mary tried to teach him that when he was growing up. His failure to make and to observe appropriate distinctions would be destructive to the moral fiber of the community. This guy is radical. Just remember your feeling when you drove by your pastor's house. You'd be grumbling too.

They're also pierced because he's not only hanging around with them. God forbid, he's eating with them, and quite possibly is doing so at his initiative. The word translates as "welcomes." This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them -- can mean that Jesus is actually hosting this meal, not simply eating with them at someone else's house; but, nonetheless, they are eating together and that is a piercing big deal.

You know as well as I that meeting someone around the table at the point of our basic need for food is one of the most intimate experiences of human life, and the fellowship that Jesus and this motley crew experience as they eat together connotes full acceptance and close community. Not a good thing to hang around and eat with bona fide bad guys.

I bet that the Pharisees and the scribes are pierced by the parable of the lost coin too. The shepherd? No problem. Even if the shepherd is out searching for the wrong crowd, at least there's precedent. Both Ezekiel and Isaiah implore the image of a good shepherd to proclaim the love of God for the lost sheep. But a woman? Many times before, Luke has introduced us to his desire for inclusiveness, and employing a feminine image for a searching God would certainly have awakened the notice of the Pharisees and the scribes. Both Jesus and Luke seem completely disinterested in separation, in boundaries, in lists of who's in and who's out. They both seemed, instead, intently focused on the God who will not be contained by our sense of rightness or correctness or propriety. They both seem intently focused on the God who will not be bound by social status or gender or any other of our beloved considerations, for that matter.

And if I'm a Pharisee or a scribe, I'm also darned pierced by the mention of repentance in these passages because, I guess you noticed, that neither the sheep nor the coin does any repenting at all. If I'm a Pharisee or a scribe, neither a sheep nor a coin seems to me to be an obvious or helpful image for repentant sinners. Both Jesus and Luke seem to value repentance as something other than merely based in human effort. Is it possible that for Jesus and for Luke repentance is a gift, more the experience of being found by a concerned seeker than the product of human effort? And while I'm at it, we Pharisees and scribes aren't too impressed with all this rejoicing either. Heaven seems to be breaking out in joy at the repentance of one lost sinner while scores of righteous people go unnoticed. How about somebody bragging on me? Like the elder brother in the parable that follows, I'm more than a little miffed that you seem to be glossing over the bad behavior of irresponsible people and ignoring the fact that I've been doing right all along. The suggestion that the return of that one sinner evokes more joy in heaven than my own habitual righteousness grates on my last nerve.

You bet these parables are piercing. In the heavenly economy that Jesus brings to earth, they just don't look at things the way we do down here. As one person has put it, "Finding and restoring the lost gives pleasure to God as well as to all who are about God's business, but this joy is also the offense of the Gospel."

So, what's a person to do? I'd suggest we give up our self-righteous objections and use that energy instead to throw a party of our own. Why else do you really think Luke includes this material in his Gospel?

Luke shares these texts with the community to which he is writing at least two or three generations after Jesus' life not just to hearken back to the good ole' days when Jesus gave the Pharisees and the scribes what for. This is more than a history lesson about the way things used to be. These texts address a church dealing with the same problems that characterized the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees and the scribes. Those Pharisees and scribes are not the only ones who believe that religious people ought not to hang out with the wrong crowd. There were people in Luke's church who thought that. That's why Luke includes this material, and I bet there are people in your church and in mine who think that, too.

But that wrong crowd is the very crowd Jesus loves. It's not that he doesn't love the other crowd. One of the things that makes him God is that he genuinely loves everyone. But he has a particular fondness for, a particular interest in, that wrong crowd because he wants them to know the joy of a life lived in God. He invites us all to join him in hanging around with those who need what only God can provide.

Truth be known, we'd better hope that Jesus is willing to hang around and eat with the wrong crowd because we're all tax collectors and sinners, every one of us. And if Jesus will break bread with you, if Jesus will break bread with me, he'll break bread with anyone.

Since he has invited the likes of you and me to party with him, it really does seem the least that we can do to have a "throw-down" for others. It really does seem the least that we can do to join him in the search until the good shepherd brings all the sheep into the fold, until every lost coin is safely tucked away in the purse of God, the careful woman.

Spiritually speaking, it will be infinitely better for each of us if we drop the mask of the offended Pharisee and scribe and see ourselves for who we really are: tax collectors and sinners who've been given a party and who need to learn to joyfully throw one.

Let us pray.

God, the Good Shepherd, God the carefully seeking woman, help us individually and corporately to joyfully participate in your love for all people. Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

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