CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Being Called “Sinners…”
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout 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 to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then 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 slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
- Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Quick, get to the good part of this story. You know, where the younger son, who wasted his entire inheritance, finally returns home. He still reeks of the pig sties he worked in to survive on nothing, and he is trying to find the words to ask his father for forgiveness and to please take him back. You can almost hear the swelling music, as the father, who has grieved the loss of his child, sees him approaching from a distance and runs to embrace him. The rush to forgive and the call for celebration demonstrates a kind of grace that we long for, even if we don’t fully understand it. It is so tempting to get to the happy ending, but this is Lent, and so we have pause when we sense temptation pulling on us.
Let’s step back a little bit, not to the beginning of the parable Jesus tells, or even the other two parables, where Jesus talks about the shepherd who leaves the flock to find one lost sheep, or the woman who sweeps the entire house to find a valuable coin she lost. In all three stories, there is great rejoicing when what was lost is found. “Even so” Jesus reminds us in the gospel of Luke, “all the angels in heaven rejoice when even one sinner returns to God.” No, let’s go to the beginning, the setting, where Jesus and his disciples are at dinner with crowds of people.
We are not given a description of the event or the reason for the gathering. The small clues invite us to use our imagination. They gather in a public space, large enough to seat dozens of people or more to gather together and share a meal. Was Jesus invited? Or did he and his disciples put together a meal for the community? And there is space for those who are not a part of the feast, those who stand on the sidelines and judge the occasion and those attending. They grumble at Jesus, saying, “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them.” You have to wonder, how do they know these people are “sinners”? Do they know each of them personally? Can they recount the things they have done or not done. Or is it the clothes they wear? Maybe there is a badge for sinners. Or is it guilt by association--there are tax collectors there, so the others may also be equally detestable.
They must have made their comment loud enough to be heard, for Jesus responds to their accusation. He does not do so directly because the very act of judging these people as sinners leads you into a defensive posture. Jesus does not share their judgement of these people, and he does not give in to the temptation to enter their debate. Instead, he tells three stories, three illustrations that cast these people in a different light.
Look at the words Jesus uses in these stories. He describes these people as a sheep who is part of a large flock, or as a treasure, or as a beloved child. They are not categorically bad or intrinsically evil. Rather, they are beloved, and they are lost. And on the other side of the stories, there is a shepherd who is willing to risk all to rescue the lost sheep, there is the woman who throws all her plans aside to find the lost coin, and there is a father who longs for his child to return and be restored to the family. Those lost are not condemned; they are restored, and there is celebration.
To those who stand on the sidelines and judge people as sinners, “sin” is a measurable fact. The things you do or do not do are held against you, and they accumulate like a debt to be paid. They apply the word “sinner” like a label. But this label, like many others, does not tell you the true nature of a soul or the disposition of one’s heart. Calling a person a sinner makes it easy to condemn them and to treat them as less than what they are and what they are created to be. It dehumanizes them. The stories Jesus tells in response to their accusation indicate that Jesus, and God and the heavenly host, do not see it the same way. At all.
Sin is not about a list of offenses. It is about relationship. It is about the things we do to others, and to ourselves, which turn us away from the deep truth that we are made in the image of God, that God created us and this world for good. When we hurt others, even our enemies, we hurt ourselves, and we lose sight of God who is present in and between us. Sin is an act of turning away. The word repent simply means to turn. When a person repents, they turn back towards the presence of God, and, as we see in these stories, that presence is filled with grace and is cause for rejoicing.
Historically, there have always been many groups of people who are identified as sinners. I won’t name them here because that only perpetuates the damage done to them by society’s harsh judgement and cruel measures. You can probably list a few. You may have been included on these lists. What happens to this judgement when we realize God views these persons, for each is a person, as part of the flock, as a treasure to behold and as a beloved child who God waits to embrace?
God sees those we identify as sinners in a very different light.
I want to go back to the story.
In rushing to the sweet spot of the parable of the lost son, that moment when the father embraces the son who once was lost but now is found, we neglect the older brother, the one who had faithfully remained, who fulfilled his obligations and expectations as a member of the family. Like the ones who stand on the sidelines or who stand on their own sense of righteousness, the older brother feels resentment at this extravagant show of grace and mercy, this celebration. Why haven’t I had a feast held for me? It’s not fair. In this story, Jesus invites us to identify with him as well. The father reassures him that “All that I have is yours.” He points to the reality that it is not about the possessions. It never was. It is about the relationship. That is what matters, and that is what is restored.
The question remains, for those who stood on the sidelines questioning Jesus’s motives for eating with people they deemed to be sinners: What do they take away from these stories? Do they hear his answer? Do they take offense? Or do they find an invitation, in the end, to join him at this table? Or even to celebrate God doing something generous, a true act of love?
The Rev. Canon Earnest Graham is a canon for regional ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus