What If We Welcomed Them?

(Luke 15:1-10)

The spring semester of my senior year in high school I suffered a really bad bout of depression. Looking back, it’s clear I had difficulty trying to make sense of a world that seemed to be bearing down on me at breakneck speed.

I’d skip class, drive to the beach, and listen to sad songs all afternoon, pondering what it would be like to walk into Lake Michigan, start swimming, and never come back. I felt this huge gaping hole in the center of the fabric of my life.

During this time I was working at McDonalds. My dad was of the opinion that life revolved largely around work, and that you were never too young to learn that lesson. That particular ethic was pointedly shared with me when I turned sixteen. I was expected to have a job. And McDonalds didn’t seem like such a bad option.

Of course that was before I actually worked at McDonalds. I was terrible. McDonalds wants quickness and efficiency. They want people capable of moving fast. Unfortunately for me, dopey and lethargic isn’t deemed a desirable skill set in a McDonalds employee.

At first they put me on the cash register … until the supper rush. I wasn’t filling orders fast enough, so they put me on fry-duty: “Hey you, mouth-breather, why don’t you go make some fries or something—get out of everybody’s way for a while?”

Even something as simple as making french fries wasn’t apparently in my vocational wheelhouse, because I got behind on that too. So, they sent me out to clean up the dining room. Surely, he can’t screw that up. All he has to do is clear the trays off the tables and dig mashed french fries out of the grout on the tile floor.

I didn’t see the point of always trying to look busy—especially when there wasn’t really anybody in the restaurant; so I probably did some standing around, looking goofy and oblivious—a posture, my wife would probably tell you, that I have crafted into an art form.

I don’t blame the managers; I think they tried to be nice to me. But they weren’t getting paid to babysit, and they eventually just grew weary of me.

My depression didn’t help me move “faster” either. It felt like I was trying to run underwater dressed in a parka and steel-toed boots. So the people I worked with always seemed annoyed with me. Again, I can’t blame them, but their disappointment and opprobrium made going to work just that much more difficult.

Finally, my mom—worried about me—said, “Why don’t you just quit?”

Now, while that sounded like the best idea ever, I was pretty sure my dad thought I should be sticking it out: You don’t quit a job until you have another one lined up. I briefly thought the whole thing might be some elaborate parental trap, but I was so miserable, I grabbed onto that suggestion like it was my last five bucks till payday.

So, my mom rode with me to McDonalds for moral support; and I went in and told the manager I was quitting. You could see the look on my manager’s face, you know that look where you’re supposed to be disappointed, but you can’t quite work up the enthusiasm necessary for that fiction to seem real—like when you’re in a group of people and you say, “Hey, let’s all go over to my house,” and the one really obnoxious twit whom you don’t especially care for, but whom you also don’t want to look like a jerk for not inviting, pipes up and says, “Awww, I’m sorry. I can’t go. I need to go home and polish my dog and rearrange my cat’s Halloween costumes.” Yeah, that look—the look of polite disappointment that masks a Cinco de Mayo fiesta on the inside.

So, I went back to the car, and my mom said, “Well, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘I need to offer my resignation.’”

“What excuse did you give her?”

“I didn’t give her an excuse. I told her that I was suffering from mental illness, and I couldn’t handle working at McDonalds even one more day.”

And I could see my mom wince. I didn’t quite understand. I’d been raised to tell the truth, and that’s just what I did.

My mom began, with hesitation, “You told her you were mentally ill?”

“Yep.”

“Listen, honey. It’s probably best not to broadcast those kinds of things. People in our culture don’t really understand, and that kind of honesty could come back to bite you later.”

I’m guessing that’s how those folks who had Jesus’ best interests in mind must have felt after he has another run-in with the religious big shots. Jesus has been hanging out with the wrong folks again, and the Pharisees and the scribes are fit to be tied.

Tax collectors and sinners. And really, if you’ve said the former, haven’t already said the latter?

But I’m not going to skate past this one with only a wisecrack. Because tax collectors were a certain kind of sinner. They were homegrown collaborators, sellouts to the Romans. These were folks who ought to know better, but who were willing to stick it to their friends and neighbors anyway.

We know a thing or two about that kind of traitorous behavior, don’t we? We raise them, educate them, give them HBO and Doritos, and when they grow up they run off and join the Alt-right. How do you expect us to feel about those kinds of people?

Makes your blood boil just a little, doesn’t it?

But that’s who Jesus is apparently palling around with. And the folks at the top of the religious hierarchy don’t like it one bit. Luke says they’re “grumbling.”

Yeah, I’ll bet they’re grumbling, all right. All these unsavory characters Jesus wants to play Pinochle with? What are the religious folks supposed to do?

Look the other way? Not say anything?

Thing is, though, it’s not like Jesus accidentally fell in with these reprobates. It’s not like he looked up one day and had an epiphany: Hey! These are really bad people. What was I thinking?

No. Turns out, Jesus seems to prefer hanging out with the folks you wouldn’t be caught dead with when the Rotary Club meeting lets out.

No accounting for taste, to be sure. But that’s the way Jesus prefers to manage his affairs.

In fact, when Jesus hears the religious bigwigs grumbling, he takes the time to address their concerns by way of a few parables. And you can imagine Jesus’ followers cringing. They know how he is. Always seems to be inviting criticism. If he’d just keep his mouth shut, he’d be better off. It’s probably best not to broadcast those kinds of things. Rome and its minions don’t really understand, and it could come back to bite you later.

But there he goes: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? … Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

Why can’t he just leave well enough alone? I mean, this could go on his permanent record.

Then Jesus makes the money play: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance … I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Haha! Get it? Jesus just posterized the Pharisees and scribes. You don’t like these tax collectors and sinners, but God wants them. And when they repent, heaven throws a party.

Fine. But let me ask you something: What does Jesus mean by repentance here?

Well, you know, feeling sorry about doing the wrong thing and then promising to do the right thing.

That sound familiar? That’s the traditional understanding of repentance. You do something wrong; you feel bad; and then you promise not to do it again. Right?

But here’s what I want to know: Where does the repentance in these short parables come from?

I mean, Jesus is telling a story about a sheep and a coin. If they’re supposed to represent lost sinners, how can either a sheep or a coin muster up the sincere contrition and will to reform … that a traditional definition of repentance requires?

See what I’m saying? Sheep and coins can’t repent in the way we’ve tended to think is necessary for repentance.

So, apparently Luke means something different by repentance. The word Luke uses here for repentance means a changing of one’s mind, a turning around, a literal reorientation toward reality. In effect, at least in the way Luke has Jesus use it, repentance means something like restoration to community (in the case of the sheep) and return to wholeness (in the case of the coin).

In this case the sheep and the coin don’t find the moral regret for getting lost, and then repent of their errant ways … because, how could they, right? In fact, instead of focusing on the sheep or the coin, Luke wants to draw attention to the one who searches so tirelessly for a sheep and a coin that would have been much easier to write off.

In economics the Law of Diminishing Returns suggests that there comes a point in some business situations where the benefits gained are less than the amount of money or energy invested.

Colloquially, we talk about it as “throwing good money after bad.”

Think about it, how’re you going to leave 99 perfectly good sheep alone in the desert … to go searching after one crazy, direction-challenged sheep?

Why would you spend more time looking for a coin than it cost for you to earn it in the first place?

So, in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin Jesus makes the point that the search could potentially wind up costing more than what was lost—but both the shepherd and the woman searched anyway. Though it was a waste of time and energy, they searched anyway.

Now, hearing this must have outraged the Pharisees and scribes even more than they were before. Jesus has been eating with tax collectors and sinners, for crying out loud. And in the ancient Near East, eating with someone was more than just a casual burrito down at Chipotle. To eat with someone was to make a public statement that the person with whom you were eating brought you honor. Consequently, you only ever ate with people whose presence could shine a favorable light on you—which is to say, not tax collectors and sinners.

So, the Pharisees and scribes are really ticked, because Jesus also eats with them—which means that Jesus makes the implicit claim that the tax collectors and sinners are the equal of the Pharisees and scribes.

Boy howdy! If you want to make somebody really angry, just tell them that people they’ve always felt comfortable despising are now their equals. Just tell folks that God loves the people they disdain as much as God loves them, and you’ll see people’s heads explode.

Jesus is being awfully politically indelicate here. He’d better watch out or the people in the “Make Judea Great Again” hats are going to come looking for him.

But that’s Jesus, that’s 2,000 years ago. What about us? What do these parables have to say to us?

Jesus tells us in these parables that God is adamant about finding the folks everybody else thinks are a waste of time. God loves not even those people whom everyone else thinks are disposable … but especially those people everyone else thinks are disposable.

What these parables ultimately ask us, I’m convinced, is: Which forgotten and despised people are we loving so much that it makes the Pharisees and scribes nervous? Which folks do we invite to come sit around this table to eat with us, folks, who if word got out we were sharing the Lord’s Supper with would cause Al Mohler to write another blog about us?

And this is an especially important question to ask after just commemorating the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Somewhere over the past eighteen years, an awful lot of our neighbors have gotten the message that it’s okay to be afraid of Muslims, that it’s okay to hate people they don’t even know—just because those people happen to go to a mosque to worship God, or because they happen to be refugees, trying to escape horror and death in their home countries.

Who are we making angry because we love the wrong people?

This is a question we need to have an answer to right now as transgender people are being harassed because they want to use a bathroom one of the morality hall monitors doesn’t approve of, and LGBTQ kids are being bullied—to death, in many cases—because they happen to be attracted to people the religious big wheels don’t endorse.

How exactly do we love the people some of our fellow citizens are comfortable putting in cages?

Which people do we care about so much that we’re willing to risk the wrath of the folks in charge just to welcome them, to have a meal with them, to call them our family—event though they were born someplace else?

We need to be acutely aware of the implications of this question in a world in which some of our fellow travelers have to point out to the rest of us that—given the suffering they’ve historically endured—and endure to this day—their lives matter too.

It may make the people who love us cringe, but the radical welcome Jesus asks us to embrace means seeking out and loving the folks who not only get regularly left behind, but whose very presence makes the religious types nervous.

We always have to be more worried about leaving somebody out than about letting somebody in.

—Amen.

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