In the Name...
Before a trial, the judge explained to the defendant, “You can let me try your case, or you can choose to have a jury of your peers.” The man thought for a moment. “What are peers?” he asked. “They’re people just like you - your equals.” “Forget it,” retorted the defendant. “I don’t want to be tried by a bunch of crooks.”
So often we judge a person by the company he or she keeps. It's only natural to do so. We look at the crowd that participates in a certain activity or that wears certain clothes or that lives in a certain place and we make judgments. Those are the fill-in-the-blanks, whatever they are. Birds of a feather, as the saying goes. And in this morning's Gospel we find people are making such an observation about Jesus. "This fellow welcomes sinners - and eats with them." Yuck.
So, Jesus responds with two short and now-famous parables - those of the lost sheep and the lost coin. But we really can't do justice to understanding these unless we first understand why they were told. Why they were told.
As Christians, we take it as an article of faith that God is prepared to seek out all who need him and answer their prayers. But that wasn't the case for the scribes and Pharisees. As far as they were concerned, God was an angry judge who rewarded the virtuous and cursed the rest. He had better things to do than worry about sinners.
And so, to the first parable. The first thing we need to realize is that Jesus’ audience would have thought he was nuts. No shepherd in his right mind would leave ninety-nine sheep just to chase a stray. It’s hard on the frontier. Casualties are part of life. What a ridiculous parable. Completely unrealistic.
And what about all that joy in Heaven on behalf of one repentant sinner and not for the ninety-nine just persons that need no repentance? Worse than ridiculous, worse than unrealistic, this is offensive.
What kind of teaching is this? That God treats good people with contempt? And, that is a question which has perplexed a lot of folks from the Pharisees on down to today. But it's the wrong question because it is rooted in a mistake which Jesus was trying to show that we humans make all the time. We assume that there are righteous people who need no repentance and Jesus is saying that they don't exist. There is not one person who is in a state of spiritual, moral, or ethical perfection. There is nobody who cannot improve their relationship with God and neighbour.
In fact, we are here in church, not because we think we're perfect but because we know we're not and we're not afraid to admit it publically. Just think about the words we say in our Confession. It’s actually the perfect people who don't go to church because they don't need to, or so they think.
We're also here to thank God for seeking us out which brings us to the second parable about the lost coin. This is also aimed at all those perfect people. Behind this is an old rabbinic teaching that men should study the Law of Moses as diligently as a woman looks for a coin. I know, that's not very p.c. today but the point is that Jesus took something well-known and turned it on its head. The way Jesus tells it, God seeks out sinners with the zeal of the woman seeking something precious. This is shocking in two ways. First, his male audience would be shocked to hear God described as a woman and, second, his self-righteous audience would be shocked to hear sinners described as precious.
Indeed, the passage said, “all the tax collectors were coming to listen to Jesus.” Tax collectors were regarded as the worst of sinners because they were more than immoral. They were Jews who had joined the Romans to oppress their fellow Jews. They were traitors, informers, collaborators, profiteers, and righteous Jews hated them with a vengeance.
That's why the Pharisees couldn't understand how Jesus could claim to teach the word of God - a word which says that each and every person has to live a holy life - and yet socialize with the most unholy sinners on earth. They couldn't understand why Jesus didn't preach hellfire and brimstone, why he didn't berate them and call down curses on their heads. Instead, he told them not to lose hope and be less angry and hard-hearted. He told them that God loved them. He even told them - horror of horrors - that it was all right to be a tax-collector and work for the Romans as long as they didn't misuse their position to cheat or extort.
For the Pharisees, all this was distressing, to say the least, because the Pharisees practiced holiness by separation. They avoided contact with the ungodly and looked down upon them. The name "Pharisee" even means "the separated ones." Jesus, on the other hand, practiced holiness by encounter. He brought God to where He was needed most. He even marched into Hell itself for a heavenly cause.
Separation is the fruit of anger. Encounter is the fruit of love. And that was a message Jesus taught which was hard for Pharisees to swallow. They didn't believe God loved people. They believed you could work hard and earn God's approval purely in a transactional way. So much praying buys so much blessing.
And St. Paul, when he was a Pharisee, believed that. But as we heard in the letter to Timothy, he came to realize how wrong he was. "I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence", he says, "But I received mercy...and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me."
St. Paul was not a tax-collector, nor an adulterer, nor a thief, nor any of a thousand and one other things people call sins. But he was self-righteous and judgmental and he had once considered those virtues, not vices. Only after his encounter with the Risen Christ did he realize that those were sins as great as any for which he had condemned others and he never forgot the fact that the Lord did not strike him dead, but sought him out and gave him a mission.
This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. These words were intended as a slur against Jesus' character, but they have become words of comfort to us as they were to St. Paul who wrote, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
We are more lovable than sheep; we are more valuable than coins. We are the people of God. And there is no length to which he will not go to bring us home to him. What a wonderful message we have to share. This man, this God, welcomes us as we are, and eats with us, so that we may be more like him.
In the Name...