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.”
One of the things that strikes me is that our culture and our politics are designed to make us miserable, to actually make us grumble. On our TV and everywhere else we are confronted, surrounded by a continuous torrent of advertising. This advertising is designed to sell things. But the underlying message of it all is: What you have isn’t good enough, you need to get something different. Your TV isn’t big enough. Your car isn’t stylish enough. Your sofa isn’t comfy enough. Your washing powder doesn’t clean effectively enough. It goes on and on. We live in a culture determined to make us dissatisfied with everything we already have.
And politics is the same. Nothing works. Education is broken. The healthy service is sick. Crime is out of control. Our place in the world is under threat. And the current bunch who are supposed to be in control of these things isn’t doing a nearly good enough job. At the earliest opportunity we need to boot them out because the other lot have a better idea. But the complaining never ceases. The problems are still the fault of the last lot. The new lot are not making anything better. The only thing that politicians every do is tell nothing is as good as it should be. No wonder we’re miserable.
Sometimes I feel that being in Church is hardly better. I find myself thinking, every time there is some pronouncement on some significant subject by a senior Christian figure, every time I think “just for once I would like us to be in favour
of something.” We are opposed to so many things. And very often rightly so. But wouldn’t it be good if just for once our Good News actually led as to say something was good. Couldn’t we just for once swim against the tide of everyone else’s carping and grumbling and celebrate and be in favour of something?
The Pharisees and scribes are good at grumbling. There is always something that Jesus is doing that is irritating them. His followers don’t wash there hand properly. He doesn’t respect the Sabbath. And worst of all, as the tax collectors and sinners gather close to Jesus to hear what he is saying:
This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
The Pharisees and the scribes get a very harsh press from the Gospels. But perhaps we can muster some sympathy for them. They loved God. Their whole lives revolved around trying to do what they thought God wanted them to do. They lived in hope of the coming Messiah who would restore Israel. And they tried their very best to fulfil a role in that coming. They studied the Law and attempt to apply all its requirements to pave the way for the coming of God’s chosen one. Then Jesus turns up. “You wait hundreds and hundreds of years for the Messiah to come, and when he finally shows up… What’s he like? He’s not in the least bit interested in the people of have waited faithfully for him. He spends no time with those who have prepared so carefully for his coming. Instead he focuses all of his attention on those who had actually abandoned the wait and the preparation in the interests of the here and now. He goes to the tax collectors and sinners who focused on their own self interest rather than on his coming!” No wonder they were resentful! No wonder they grumbled! Like the ninety nine sheep left alone on the hillside, vulnerable without a shepherd, wondering where he has got to looking for that one foolish sheep that wandered off and no doubt got itself into trouble, bringing disaster on itself and risking disaster for all the rest whilst the shepherd was off
looking for it.
This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
I can almost hear Jesus turning to the Pharisees and the scribes and saying to them: “And you say that like it’s a bad thing!” And then Jesus teases them with some his parables. To the Pharisees list of unaccpetables that Jesus’ associates himself with, tax collectors and sinners, Jesus in his story telling associates himself with shepherds (a quite disreputable group) and women! What the Pharisees and the scribes don’t seem to see in the mission of Jesus is the
repentance that they would agree is necessary for the restoration of Israel (as they would put it) or for the establishment of the Kingdom of God (as Jesus and we might put it). They don’t see how the found sheep and the found coin relate to the sinners who ate with Jesus. They have not understood how Jesus defines and creates repentance. Just before he encountered the current grumble of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus had concluded his last lesson with his often repeated declaration:
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
The very next thing which Luke reports to us, at the beginning of our story is:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
That is the repentance that sets heaven rejoicing. Repentance is both coming near to listen, and it is being found by the one who searches. Repentance despite what the Pharisees and the scribes might think, and here they are
representatives of religious people more generally, despite what they might think repentance is not something we accomplish, to our own credit. Rather repentance is what happen to us when we come close enough to listen. The great contrast in the Gospel, and here in this particular incident, is between the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes and all of Jesus’ opponents and the rejoicing that he points to that exists under the rule of God in the kingdom of heaven. A contrast which in our circumstances and culture we should be more acutely aware of. In the face of everything that tries to make us miserable, Christianity is Good News. It is a source of rejoicing. What is easily overlooked in both the parables here is that they are parables of hope! The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes in search of the one. And he keeps searching until he finds it! The woman in her home who has lost one of her ten silver coins, lights her lamps, opens the windows and doors, sweeps all the floors, searches in all the nooks and crannies,
until she finds it! We might be tempted to think that 99 out of 100 is enough. Or even nine out of ten isn’t bad. But that sort of calculation isn’t how God operates. The reality is that God’s search will ultimately be fruitful. God will find and restore what God seeks to find and restore. There is no calculation of the value of what is lost. There is only God’s unrelenting search. That is the measure of lost sinners. And no effort of God’s part is too great on our behalf, to make us hear and to have us found. Jesus is at table as the shepherd who was welcoming the lost, and as the woman delighted to find her coin. Jesus is the one who identifies with the lost, the tax collectors and sinners and other of no account like shepherds and women, and who recalls that we all are of infinite worth to God.
We tend to make these parables into a condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes. We readily accuse them of self-righteousness and exclusivity, and fail to sympathise with a frustration that we ourselves sometimes share. William Temple said: “The church is the only organisation that exists entirely for the fraternity and well being
of its non-members.” And it is hard to a member of the church when the church’s focus should be on everyone
else. It is hard to be one of the 99 sheep. But purpose of these parables is not condemn the Pharisees and scribes,
but to invite them to the celebration. Jesus’ parables invite religious folk to identify with the lost by putting themselves in the sandals of a shepherd or a woman’s frantic search. There is a third parable in this sequence, which we haven’t read today. That is the parable of the prodigal and his brother, at the conclusion of which is the same challenge. The older (righteous) brother is left with the challenge; to choose to go into the celebration for his “found” brother or cut himself off from the joy of his father. Jesus’ challenge is to join in his search for the lost, to accept the hopeful promise which Jesus offers that the lost will be found and all will be restored, and more especially to share his joy in finding them. Grumbling is not really part of Christian character. There is plenty to grumble about, the world is not right, but we are invited into the celebration. The sheep and the coin will be found. God’s kingdom will come.
This Fellow Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0