Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, 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.
"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15)
Those who have been following my antics this week - my brief appearances on various TV news programs and my statements that have appeared in The Australian as well as some local newspapers, all focusing on my support for our local Islamic cleric, Sheikh Mansour - will not be surprised to hear that I have had my share, this week, of abusive phone calls and nasty emails.
You idiot!,What do you think you are doing?, Have you got any idea of who and what you are dealing with?, Why don't we deport you back to Iran?, etc., etc. The basic message is always that I have disgraced myself by associating with this guy, and its never clear whether that's because he's believed to be a terrorist or simply because he is Muslim or even just because they see him as an Arab (which, ironically, he technically is not).
Either way, I confess that I found it rather comforting when I read the Gospel reading for this week and was reminded of the fact that the biggest criticism Jesus used to face was for the company He chose to keep. And just as my most vocal critic this week was a retired clergy-person, so I note that it was the religious leaders of Jesus day that made the most fuss about His poor taste in friends. They shook their heads and grumbled, This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!
And I've always believed that it is the second part of that statement that generated the most offence - not so much that He welcomed sinners, but that He ate with them!
For almost anybody can give you a warm welcome. Think about it: who are the most warm and welcoming people you deal with on a day-to-day basis? I think the answer has to be spruikers.
Is that the right term? I m not thinking so much of the guys who stand outside the strip joints in Kings Cross, trying to encourage you to come in (and believe me - wearing a clergy collar does not discourage them from trying). I m thinking of those extremely warm and welcoming characters who greet you as you go through a shopping mall, generally because they want to give you a new credit card or perhaps sign you up for a monthly contribution to some great cause.
And these people are generally savvy-looking well-dressed men or perky young girls who smile at you and grab you and look you in the eye and say, I'd really like to talk to you for a few minutes. Would that be ok? And suckers like me blush and say, What you really want to talk to me? Shucks!, and then we realise that they're just trying to sell us something.
And for a lot of people their experience of church is like that too. The place is warm and welcoming and full of happy, smiley faces, but in the end we're just trying to sell you something - our own particular religious package (for which we ultimately expect our 10% too!). Kierkegaard used to say that the church and the theatre were very similar, except that in the theatre there would be a sign on the door telling you exactly how much it was going to cost you to get in. Kierkegaard said that he could never find a church that will be that honest with him!
At any rate, there is a big difference between welcoming people and eating with them. For when you eat with someone you come on to the same level with them. You do something characteristically human with them, and so you have to drop the pitch, and relate more as equal human beings.
Very pertinently, many of you will appreciate that the real break-through that we made in building a bridge of friendship to the Islamic community in this area came not when we formally dialogued or debated together, but rather when we sat down and shared a meal together! That was when fears and preconceptions started to give way to relationships of trust and mutual respect - when we sat and ate together.
As I say, eating together is a very human activity, and its possibly the next best thing after boxing and wrestling someone, in terms of it being a great way of getting to know them. And Jesus used to eat with these people. He didn't just welcome them in, sit them in the corner and preach to them. He sat down and ate with them, and drank with them, and laughed with them, to the point where He was evidently giving the synagogue (and religious people in general) a bad name.
Dirty people, greedy people, people whose breath reeked of alcohol, people whose morality and social standing were highly questionable, people who you wouldn't trust around your children, people who you do not want to let in to your house when they come knocking at the front door.
And why couldn't Jesus have just done His bit by scooping them out a bowl full of gruel at the soup kitchen and then removing Himself to a safe spot from where He could preach at these people and tell them to REPENT!
But He doesn't do that. He gets down with these people and he eats with them, and He drinks with them, and he laughs with them, and He dialogues with them, and the religious people ask WHY because they cannot make sense of Him!
And so Jesus tells them a story - in fact He tells them three stories about three very strange parties:
"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' (Luke 15:4-6)
What man amongst you, having a hundred sheep, would not behave like that if he lost one sheep?
Now I know we tend to treat this as a rhetorical question, but I tend to think its a very good question. What man amongst you would behave like that with his sheep? I think the obvious answer is that not a single one of us would behave like that - walking up hill and down dale searching, while simultaneously leaving 99% of our flock open and exposed - all for the sake of one sheep. No one in their right mind would behave like that, surely, let alone hold a party for the sheep when they find it!
My kids went to a Butterscotch's birthday party yesterday. Yes, it was a birthday party for a dog! I won't tell you my initial reaction when I first realised we'd turned up at a dog party but, on reflection, the concept has a solid Biblical precedent!
"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'(Luke 15:8-9)
What woman amongst you wouldn't behave like that? Well in my experience the only women that behave like that are crazy old women who have dozens of cats living with them and are no longer able to manage their own hygiene properly!
Well-balanced people do not get that obsessed - spending night and day turning their house upside-down in order to locate one small coin that they have dropped, let alone organising a party once they find it - a party that is surely going to cost more than one silver coin to host!
Or what father of you, having two sons, if one son takes his inheritance and runs, wouldn't wait at the gate, night and day, hoping that he'll return home?
OK, I m paraphrasing, but I think you know the story as well as I do. And of course the strength of this story is that it starts to make the other two stories seem a little more comprehensible, as it seems now that we've been talking about a relationship between a parent and a child the whole time, and we parents know full well how crazy and obsessive we can be when it comes to our own children!
What sort of crazy father would behave like that?, Jesus asks.
OK. I hear you, Jesus! I respect the crazy father. I am there with the crazy father! I know what its like to go crazy with worry over your children, and I understand that there is nothing that they can do - no insult so brazen, no action so hurtful and no sin so terrible that you still don't love them to death and just yearn for the day when they will turn back from the pigsty and head home!
And, as I say, the strength of the third story that culminates in the third party is that it starts to make the other stories look sensible. The shepherd, the woman and the father - they are each obsessive in their love, they are each extravagant in their giving, and their passion makes them do some crazy things, and yet the joy of the prodigal coming home would make sense of the whole passage ... except for one thing - the fact that Jesus not only welcomed sinners but ate with them!
For if the story hadn't started that way, with the criticism of the religious people about the company Jesus kept, we might have been forgiven for assuming that Jesus had been partying with former addicts, former prostitutes, one-time tax-collectors and once-upon-a-time sinners. But if that were the case, the religious establishment would never have had a problem!
If Jesus had only been spruiking people into the synagogue and then preaching to them; holding an altar call and praying, teaching and (ultimately) partying with those who responded - those who changed their lives, gave up the drink, amended their ways, left their jobs with the taxation office and/or sex industry and got respectable jobs in a bank - the Pharisees would not have had a problem with Jesus!
The problem was that Jesus didn't just welcome these people. He ate with them and drank with them! And He didn't just eat and drink with these prodigals when they returned home. He ate and drank with them when they were still very much sinners!
And whether Jesus did this in the hope that by showing them love and grace they might find their way home to their Heavenly Father, or whether Jesus considered their eating and drinking with Him to constitute a home-coming of sorts in itself, it remains the fact that Jesus did not party with them after they got their act together. He partied first! He partied anyway! And I'd like to believe that He partied hard!
And so the shepherd seems a little crazy, getting so worked up over his one lost sheep, and the woman seems even more crazy, totally obsessed by her one missing coin. and the father is, of course, totally irrational in his refusal to give up hope for his prodigal son, and yet it is Jesus who is the most crazy of all, passionately reaching out in love to everybody - disregarding his own safety and reputation, eating, drinking, welcoming and partying with lost sheep, prodigal sons, wayward daughters, people with reputations and people without reputations, persons who had overcome their addictions and persons who had not, the sick and the well, the rich and the poor, the repentant and the unrepentant.
He welcomed them all, and he ate with them! And we who would follow Him must both welcome and eat with them too.