In just the first few words of this Gospel passage, we are shown something extraordinary, even miraculous, about Jesus. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” This seems to be setting the scene where Jesus will tell the parables of the lost sheep and coin, but it is, in fact, a sign and a wonder on par with the feeding of 5,000 or the wedding at Cana.
Tax collectors, a thoroughly despised profession in Jesus’s day, and people doing public penitence for their sins are drawing near to Jesus to hear what he has to say. These are people who were actively avoided by their neighbours. The kind of people you’d cross the street to avoid. The kind of people who, if you saw them in the shelter at the bus stop, you’d stand in the rain rather than share space with them. The kind of people who made other people ask Jesus questions like “But who is my neighbour?” and “What do I really have to do to be your disciple?”
Tax collectors and known sinners were people who were risky for others to engage with. There was the chance that, depending on the sin involved, you might become ritually unclean and be prohibited from participating in worship. This is a serious problem for a first century citizen of Judea. But less concrete than that possibility was all of the social nuance that comes with contacting a visible pariah. In some cases, sinners are so cut off from their neighbours that they are unable to use public services, like baths. They appear dirty and smell like sweat and dirt or worse. In other cases, if one is seen speaking to a known sinner, rumours and gossip will quickly begin to fly about the association. Is one who speaks with an adulterer another potential consort? Is a thief’s conversation partner also a partner in crime? These sorts of social risks we’re all familiar with and navigate in our own lives.
What is miraculous about the scene where these people are gathering around Jesus to hear what he has to say, is that they are doing so willingly and on their own. Jesus is certainly not speaking to an empty square. His followers and disciples are there, as are the Pharisees, a Sadducee or two, and all sorts of other people interested in seeing what the commotion is about. This is a crowd of precisely the people who go to lengths in their day-to-day lives to avoid tax collectors and sinners. Yet, those outcasts and social pariahs are inviting themselves into the circle to hear Jesus teaching. This is the bullied, nerdy kid walking up to a circle of hockey players in the hallway, claiming a space, and listening to what’s being shared. Not easy and quite possibly dangerous.
Jesus, in word and deed, has made it clear that in spaces where he is leading, where he is respected, that all are welcome to come exactly as they are. The gate is open and all are welcome to join, whether pious Pharisee or outcast sinner. Those who come with sincerity and a desire to meet God are welcome. And for those who are outcast, ignored, and derided by everyone else in their lives, the opportunity to be welcomed as they are is worth the risk of pushing through that mob of disdainful, hostile neighbours.
When Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he is speaking to both parts of the crowd before him. To those who live as outcasts and those who do the casting out. In both parables the focus is on the hard work of the one who goes searching for what has been lost and the rejoicing that takes place when it is found.
In the case of both the sheep and the coin, there is no interrogation when they are found. No demand that they prove they are worthy of being readmitted to their previous places in their community. No lecture about how foolish they were to get lost in the first place. Only a firm, guiding hand back to where they belong and joy and relief at the restoration of the whole to its complete state. There is no judgement about the poor choices the sheep or coin made that landed them where they didn’t belong. No criticism that if they’d just helped themselves, thought forward, or pulled themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps that they wouldn’t have needed finding but could have returned home themselves. The only response to something lost in Jesus’s parables is concern for its well being and joy when it is found.
For the crowd gathered around Jesus, this is certainly a departure from the social and religious norms they know. Theirs is a world, just like ours, of shut gates, each with their keepers. To pass through the gate, you need to prove your worth and, once on the other side, continue demonstrating your worth to remain there. A constant demand that you demonstrate your worth or face being cast out with the gate locked behind you. Jesus presents another option, where the one who keeps the gate chooses to hold it open and who will selflessly go forth to find those who are lost and guide them back to the safety inside.
Jesus makes and holds space for those in whom others see little value and worth. He gives of himself, his own reputation, social status, and ritual cleanliness to draw in those people who others would keep out. We know that Jesus was questioned by his detractors for his willingness to be seen with outcasts, to break bread with sinners, to heal the undeserving and, ultimately, to give his entire life on a cross to usher the lost to their proper places in God’s kingdom.
We Christians are reminded of our own roles as those who carry the light of Christ in the world. We are meant to follow this example of self-sacrifice and to give of ourselves to break down barriers, open doors, fling wide the gates, find the lost, and usher them in. We are called to give of ourselves in time, talent, and treasure to make places for those who our society would rather leave on the margins. We are called to speak good news to those with little hope, to break bread with the hungry, to heal the sick, and comfort the dying.
We know this call and when we respond with the confidence of those who live and walk with Christ, the result is no less miraculous than what we have heard in the Gospel today. When we fail and cross the street or stand in the rain rather than cross paths with the tax collector or sinner, not only have we failed our neighbour, but we have failed ourselves. We have become the wayward sheep, trapped in a canyon out of sight of our shepherd, disconnected from the flock where we belong. Not only have we not aided the one we saw who was lost, but we now need the shepherd’s help to return to where we belong.
What a blessing it is, then, that our God loves us enough to come looking for us time and again. To find us when we are lost and, with a firm and guiding hand, return us to where we belong. Even if we are just one more lost sheep on the way to the other side of the street or the inside of the bus stop shelter. God’s love and blessing are more than enough to restore us to our proper places whence we might go once more into the world to love and serve as we ought.
Photo by cottonbro