open book on a table

“Our Problem”

A sermon drawn from Luke 15:1-10

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Perhaps surprisingly, after Jesus’ words last week telling people they can’t be his disciples, come the stories Jesus tells here, about the lost sheep and the lost coin.

And as we probably know, these two stories are followed immediately by the famous story of the lost son, the “prodigal” son. Now Jesus seems to be saying the opposite of what he was saying a few verses ago. Then it seemed like heroic effort, at the very least, was demanded of people who wanted to follow him. Now he seems to be saying that heaven is happily wide open to just anyone! Even to the tax collectors and sinners who are “coming near” to listen to him, and whom Jesus is welcoming as eagerly as if he had been waiting just for them to “get this party started.” They seem to be companions, or even hosts, at whatever meals folks are sharing on their journey to Jerusalem.

This indiscriminate welcome is drawing “grumbling” comment from “the Pharisees and scribes.” We can’t tell from the text whether these Pharisees and scribes are among those who are travelling with Jesus, or just happen to be looking on from a distance, because they are going the same way. That second option might feel more true-to-life to us, given our usual mental images of the Pharisees et al.

Either way, Jesus’ storytelling is VERY familiar to us; these are stories we’ve no doubt heard in church many times. And the point of all these stories probably seems very clear to us. At least, it has always seemed clear to me that Jesus disapproves of how the Pharisees and scribes are looking down on these tax collectors and sinners, who we understand – we assume – are “the lost” in the parable. Jesus is clearly telling them they need to rejoice over them the way heaven does. …?

Because don’t we know that the Pharisees scorn those lost tax collectors and sinners? Are doing their grumbling with an air of distaste and moral superiority? I think we do in fact know that tax collectors were despised by everyone, for collaborating with the Romans and for getting rich off of that collaboration, and for cheating decent people who could likely ill-afford it in the process.

And as for the people in that vague category called “sinners” … it’s actually unclear what precisely that term “sinners” means. But I myself have always had the impression that it was all the same people the Pharisees always seem to be looking down on and disapproving of in other stories in the gospels. People we probably don’t think of as doing anything terribly bad. Working or “working” on the Sabbath. Eating the wrong food. Maybe even eating with Gentiles. Not washing their hands properly and using good manners. People a lot like us.

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So it has always SEEMED clear – at least to me – that the reason Jesus tells this story is to get the Pharisees and scribes to appreciate these “lost” people – because, again, we seem to know the tax collectors and sinners are the “lost” ones here. We think the Pharisees and the scribes do not think of themselves as lost. And Jesus is trying to get them to appreciate these lost people getting found the way heaven would appreciate that: exuberantly.

The Pharisees and the scribes need to change their minds about “the lost.” Literally, they need to “repent,” the way the sinners need to change their minds about … whatever they’re doing that makes them sinners … and, be found. WE should be happy about that, too – happy about the lost being found.

That’s what I had always thought this story was about. And that message seems to be made even clearer in the story of the prodigal son, the next story Jesus tells. The grumpy older brother should be glad his reprobate brother has returned, he should rejoice the way the father does. And the way the coin-finding woman does. And the way the sheep-finding shepherd does. And the way the angels in heaven do. It seems pretty clear he doesn’t love his brother the way he’s supposed to … as himself.

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But this week, I have been forced to wonder whether there’s not even more going on in this story than I used to think.

First, there was a remark by Rob Myallis, in his discussion of this text [at Lectionary Greek], pointing out that it’s the shepherd who loses the sheep, not the sheep who simply gets lost. Same with the woman and her coin: she actively does the losing.

We would say the same thing about ourselves losing our wallet with our credit cards, or heaven forbid one of the children on a school field trip we were chaperoning. Even the worst troublemaker needs to be on that bus for home. That is exactly why we take extra-special precautions; why we check and re-check our pockets; why we count and re-count heads on those field trips. Because our job is precisely NOT to lose the precious things, or even more the precious people, in our charge.

Losing them is the very thing we know we mustn’t do.

And this is the very reason the seekers in these stories are so desperate – because we can see they must be desperate. When we pause to think about it for a moment, when we look at what they do – they’re obviously desperate to track down what they’ve lost. Presumably because the consequences of losing what they’ve lost may be dire. That shepherd might lose more than a few days’ wages for losing a valuable animal, especially depending on which particular animal it was. That woman might be catastrophically short of her full payment of a tax bill or a debt coming due, and we might be able to imagine the ruin she faces if that happens.

Losing things can wreck us.

We know this! How many of us have ever sorted through trash to find that piece of mail that should never have been thrown out? Or retraced our steps looking for that wallet or those car keys we should have ALWAYS put back in our purse or our pocket instead of … wherever we must have set them without noticing … ?

Once I began remembering some of the things I’ve lost myself over the years, from cats to credit cards to that cardigan that was supposed to have been a birthday present that got left behind on the el before it was mailed … [Someone actually mailed the enclosed photograph to its intended recipient. After they found the discarded packaging on the train. Or so they said. A little gesture of human kindness.]

I realized we could probably trade stories of desperate losses for hours, and could all understand personally, in the pits of our stomachs, why these seekers, Jesus included, would greet the return of the lost with such overjoyed relief and pleasure!

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Which then raises the question: why don’t the Pharisees and scribes share in this rejoicing? What is their problem? Why don’t they have the same investment in this search and rescue mission that Jesus seems to have? Or that we would have if we knew we’d lost something or someone we were supposed to be taking care of?

Because aren’t they the religious “leaders” of the day? Doesn’t that make them at least a little … responsible … here?

[These people have gotten lost, as we might say, “on their watch.” Shouldn’t they be a little more concerned about that?]

Or do they not see the distance of the tax collectors and the sinners from respectable society and from religious fellowship as “their problem”? Do they not see it as their responsibility in any way? Do they, perhaps, even prefer “those” folks to keep their distance?

That distance keeps the Pharisees and scribes from having to confront the frankly difficult problem of how to be OK with any kind of closeness with those kind of people; how to communicate with them across their differences; how to strike the right balance of delight in finding the lost with discomfort at actually being with them. Because we can tell they are very different from one another. The problem is all the more difficult because, if the Pharisees and scribes are going to hold fast to their principles, they will need to keep insisting to these sinners that some things about them will have to change. [That doesn’t feel very welcoming.]

How to welcome sinners with real enthusiasm IS a frankly difficult problem, that we don’t want to minimize, because as we surely know, some “sinners” really hurt people.

When we paint the mental picture of Jesus welcoming those tax collectors and sinners and eating with them, I wonder how many of us include in that picture the first century equivalent of those folks who make their living hanging out at the subway station waiting to lift someone’s wallet out of their purse or pocket, actively not caring that the mark might have to travel on business the next day and will need that id and that cash, actively telling themselves that whoever they’re stealing from can easily survive the loss, a lot better than the pick-pocket can.

Or include the kind of people who would smash someone’s passenger side car window and pull their radio out of the dashboard, never giving a second thought to what that car owner will do the next morning to get to work, or how they’ll afford the repairs.

Or the kind of people who would hack someone’s email, and abuse a bunch of strangers’ trust, and make the world a little more hostile and suspicious, just to get a few hundred dollars from a few inattentive, overly-trusting people.

Or the kind of people who would cook methamphetamine in their mom’s spare trailer, and when it catches on fire not report it, because it would be evidence of a crime.

Or any of the kind of people we – I’m guessing – would think of as “bad influences” on our kids, the kind of people we would find it difficult to associate with much in ordinary daily life, because they have gone a really different way in life, a way we ourselves don’t want to go and don’t think people should go and don’t think is a good way for anyone to go. People from whom keeping our distance seems like the prudent course of action – less risky, less likely to get hurt or taken for a ride.

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I cannot honestly say that my own mind has changed enough about “those” people to feel really comfortable including them in my picture of Jesus welcoming these tax collectors and sinners. I have a hard time imagining Jesus hanging out and partying with those people, that is, with real criminals; seeing their perspective, looking for their good sides, their potential, their possibilities.

I have a hard time wanting to imagine Jesus seeing anything positive or charming or delightful or heartbreaking in those people. Even if I imagine his conversations with them do encourage them to change their minds about things, to change how they are living their lives, even if only to hold back on their next criminal scheme.

I still don’t like that mental picture of Jesus welcoming … SINNERS.

I want Jesus to be on the side of the good people, on the side of righteousness and justice. On the side that keeps a safe distance from … all that other. And I really struggle with the idea that I myself might need to think of those people – those disagreeable, disreputable, distressing, despicable people – as “the lost,” the ones that heaven rejoices over when redemption comes.

Nor do I like noticing this idea, that I seem to have in common with the Pharisees and the scribes: this idea that “those” people are not my problem. This idea that none of “those” people are in any way my job to … seek out, to feel any urgent need to “find,” to feel desperation for.

Although now that I have noticed it, it is also difficult to ignore.

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There’s a story of a monastery in the Egyptian desert, in the 2nd or 3rd century, when Christians had first taken up monastic practice. What happens is, a new brother joins the community, and pretty soon the other brothers start to notice things are going lost. Brother Anthony’s little prayer bracelet. Brother John’s codex of Luke’s gospel. That nice bowl and spoon from the kitchen, along with a half a loaf of bread! That kind of thing. So the brothers get together, share their suspicions, and then decide to search the new brother’s room; sure enough, there’s the loot. So they drag him to the abbott, in spite of his cursing and protesting and making excuses, and they demand that the abbott expel him from the community. To which the abbott says: “My brothers, you are all free to go, if you wish. And since you are all clearly far advanced in spiritual practice, you don’t need me to teach you anything. But I can’t leave, especially now, that I know this poor brother doesn’t even know right from wrong. Obviously, my place is here with him.”

When it comes to personal responsibility, and what Christian commitment means for that, everything seems simpler in the Egyptian desert. Certainly, more radical.

Because the problem of our own concrete relationship to … let’s call them “evildoers,” which is how that word “sinners” often gets translated in the Psalms … assuming we don’t see ourselves as those, or when it comes to our relationship to wrong-thinking, broken-moral-compass kinds of people, in our own, complex, twenty-first century world … that problem, of what we are supposed to do, in our real practical lives, is not that simple or easily solved. Libraries of ethics books attest to that.

It’s hard for us to know precisely what we ourselves need to do, in our own concrete contexts, to act on Jesus’ surprisingly complex message in this story – this message about who is lost, who has lost whom, who is precious, who desperately needs to be found and brought back to humanity’s rendezvous point. How do we balance welcome and invitation with moral conviction, justice, well-being for all? How do we learn to see all of the many different ways human beings write one another off as “not our problem” as symptoms of human lostness?

Symptoms of our distance from the God who doesn’t write anyone off, and who is willing to go to unsafe extremes to bring people back.

These questions are hard to answer, which is exactly why we keep looking to Jesus for guidance on how to appeal and relate to people whose minds need changing and whose practices need reforming and who need to learn to care about people and to learn how to care for the people they’ve written off as “not our problem.” People like those tax collectors, or those unspecified sinners.

But also, people like those Pharisees and scribes.

Because in every case, we are talking about people we are supposed to care about, and to want to find, the way we would care about every one of those sheep, or every one of those coins, or every one of those beloved children on the field trip, who need to be on that bus heading for home.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Lost wallet,” Martin Cooper, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to ““Our Problem””

  1. Sweet! I approve.

    Sometimes I get quite annoyed with the tale of the Prodigal son and see a lot of injustice there. What can I say, you stay home, do what’s right, and nobody throws you a party. Even in modern times we seem to reward the recovering addict, the paroled criminal, the come back kid.

    I suspect I would have had an issue with the Apostle Paul, too. One day he’s stoning Christians and the next day he’s in charge of a movement.

    I’ll let you know if I ever figure it all out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL – of course there is a lot of injustice – and as an eldest, I feel it quite keenly in that parable! But then again, when the injustice favors me, I either don’t notice it, or am able to overcome whatever guilt I feel about benefitting, so … no real virtue to be had here.

      As a wise old Hebrew teacher once told us – passing it on from someone who’d passed it on to him – “the gospel is the good news that God loves you; and the bad news that God loves everyone else.” I really think that’s one of the best summations ever. 😉

      Thanks for reading, Friend!


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