reaching the unlovable
The Third Sunday in Trinity
Jeremiah 31:1-14, Psalm 145, 1 St. Peter 5:5b-11, St. Luke 15:1-10
With Hands Outstretched
When I was a lad, back in the old, old days when pasta was called spaghetti, I did much of my growing up around people who were less than enlightened in their attitudes toward those of another color. To put the matter more bluntly, they were racists.
I remember the four water fountains in the Weingarten’s Grocery, marked “white men” and “white women,” “colored men” and “colored women.” I remember separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored.” And, yes, I remember separate seating: the main floor of the Showboat movie theater reserved for whites and the balcony for blacks.
These attitudes gushed out in a vulgar vocabulary that, like all such crude inventions, sought to elevate the status of the speaker by degrading the targets of his slurs.
But that’s not all I remember. I noted a dichotomy in those down-home attitudes toward blacks. This was Texas, and our schools were still segregated in those days, and so our football teams were as well. We had a professional team, however, and nothing promotes meritocracy like the profit motive.
Our pro team had black players and even as a lad I could not miss the disconnect between white attitudes toward blacks in general and black athletes. It was as great as the chasm that separated the rich man from Lazarus.
The star running back who scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter might as well have won the Medal of Honor and cured cancer on the same day. And white folks venerated not only his exploits but his person.
Any who found themselves near him would fawn over him and ask for his autograph. And just to think, if he’d been a field hand or janitor instead of a football star he’d have been a “jungle bunny” – or worse.
And so, unlike some highly credentialed theologians, I have no trouble at all grasping the schizophrenic view the scribes and Pharisees of the first century took toward shepherds. Why love ‘em or hate ‘em when you can love ‘em and hate ‘em?
The 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel opens with an accusation. The tax collectors – called “publicans” in some translations — and sinners have gathered round to attend Jesus’ words. The Pharisees and scribes bristle:
“This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Here is the refrain we find over and again in the gospels. This wildly popular itinerant preacher, believed by many to be a great prophet, prefers the company not of the rabbis but of the rabble.
“We name you for a fraud,” the Pharisees and scribes bellow. “You consort with outcasts and sinners.”
And the King of all creation answers, “Well, duh.”
Yes, He makes His point with a bit more eloquence. He spins out His reply in three parables that take up the remainder of ch 15. We have before us today the first two of those, the story of the lost sheep and then that of the lost coin, which drives home the same point. The third, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we will take up down the line.
These stories make up the Lord Jesus’ response to the charge His adversaries level against Him, that He not only compromises Himself but also contaminates Himself by the crude company He keeps. Would God do that?
Maybe so. Mark Twain said, “Having spent considerable time with good people, I can understand why Jesus liked to be with tax-collectors and sinners.”
To grasp the Lord’s answer we must understand the accusation in the fullness of its venom. We must not glide over this word “receives.”
To eat with sinners is bad enough. The “righteous” would have nothing to do with them because they would be tainted by their company. Table fellowship encompassed a great deal more than gulping down some rubber chicken.
To join others at table was to signal fraternity and community. To receive others into one’s home or company meant even more, warm approval and affection for them. One popular modern English translation goes a step further and translates the Greek word here as “welcomes.” Others stick with the more literal “receives.” Either way, it speaks volumes.
We still use it on occasion in much the same way. We receive into our homes our family and friends and neighbors, those whom we value. We do not normally receive those who would disturb the peace of our homes.
When I was a lad – way, way back when “stay-at-home moms” were known as “housewives” — salesman hawked their wares door-to-door. As I recall, vacuum cleaners topped the list. Garbage disposals were the hot new thing. Encyclopedias were popular, too – but they cost a fortune and we were broke.
One day, my mother, a housewife, received a salesman and bought the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, about a thousand volumes, it seemed to me. And when Dad got home, oh my, what a scene.
So this is the crux of the charge against Jesus. Taking His three parables together, we can summarize His reply as a counter-accusation. It begins with the story of the lost sheep.
“You accuse Me,” He tells the Pharisees and scribes, “of mingling with the lowly and despised, and in this you could not be more correct. Now, let me pose a question to you: Did God not appoint the leaders of Israel as the shepherds of His flock?
“How could God’s sheep grow in righteousness when you, the teachers, would not sit with them even to teach them the law? You hold yourselves above them in knowledge and virtue when you have kept them in ignorance and squalor. Hypocrites!
“I plead guilty. I came to seek and save the lost. How do you plead?”
This broadside is even more damning than it sounds to modern ears. “What man of you,” Jesus begins, and He goes on to describe a shepherd seeking a sheep that strayed. Shepherds were among those for whom the high and mighty reserved their greatest bile. They were as lowly as any of the tax collectors and sinners who thronged around Jesus.
Crude men who tended filthy animals, they had a reputation for putting their sheep out to graze on land that belonged to others. To call a Pharisee a shepherd was as good as spitting in his face.
But here the Lord leaves them flummoxed once again, as conflicted as the rednecks at the football game. The Pharisees and scribes know the law and the prophets, and they know the high esteem in which the Scriptures hold shepherds. Moses their greatest prophet and David their greatest king had been shepherds.
Through His prophet Ezekiel, God refers to the leaders of Israel of an earlier day as shepherds, condemning them for their failure in tending and guiding their flock. In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we heard the Father Himself referred to as the Shepherd of Israel His flock.
And how could the Pharisees forget Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd”?
We must understand the vocabulary as our Lord’s first-century listeners did. A “sinner” was not necessarily one who had suffered a moral lapse but one the rulers held in contempt. Jewish tax collectors worked for the hated Roman overlords and extorted as much as they could for themselves. They were so despised they were not allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court.
The ceremonially unclean, and any the privileged considered so, were lumped into this class also. The shepherds fit into this group. The “righteous” – the word used to describe the 99 sheep the shepherd left to search for the lost one – might or might not have been morally upright. They were righteous in a legal sense. In other words, they were Pharisees.
If we listen to the text closely we will discern another condemnation the Lord leveled against the rulers of the Jews. St. Luke closes chapter 14 quoting the Lord saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
In the first verse of chapter 15, the apostle reports that the sinners “drew near to (Jesus) to hear Him.”
These lowly ones in desperate need of the more abundant life Jesus holds out have come, some traveling great distances, to hear the One whose words are life. The high and mighty cannot hear Him over the noise of their grumbling and accusations. It is the poor in spirit who will receive the true treasures of the kingdom.
The Pharisees would not so much as fulfill their assigned role under the covenant of law. They would not teach the people who dwelt in their midst the statutes that could not save them but pointed to the life of sacrifice and obedience that would make them clean in God’s eyes.
Jesus who is the Christ has come to confer the riches of the covenant of grace on His sheep, and not merely the ones who flock to Him. He walks the rocky paths from Galilee to Jerusalem and back to seek and save the lost. The law wheezes while grace takes flight.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep tells us a good deal more about the shepherd than the sheep. Going to seek the one member of the flock who wandered off into a gully or collapsed with fatigue, the shepherd finds him and lays him gently across his shoulders.
He does not punish him or even rebuke him but treats him tenderly, so jubilant is he to have found the one who strayed. He carries him back to the village and calls out to one and all, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.”
The sheep was under the shepherd’s care but was not necessarily his property. One or more shepherds tended the sheep of many owners in the village. The tribal life is a communal life. When one suffers loss, others lose; when one regains what was lost, others gain.
Should this not be the way of our church? Should not our deepest yearnings be for the good of every member, and especially for those who have strayed?
Jesus likens the recovered sheep to a sinner who repents. But the sheep does not repent as soon as he is found. The shepherd’s hard work is still to come. When the shepherd lovingly bears him home, the sheep comes home to his faith. The shepherd seeks him out before he repents — but the sinner must repent.
When he does, the heavens rejoice. St. Bernard said the tears of repentance are the wine of angels.
The sheep across his shoulders is the shepherd’s burden; the restoration of the lost one is his joy. Our Lord is making His way toward Golgotha, where He will bear His cross on His shoulders, carrying many sinners to salvation. We are the burden that is His joy.
I can take the story of the racism I observed as a youngster one more step.
When I was a lad, way, way back when “sexual addiction” was called “lust,” my father served in the Navy and we moved from base to base, living in the enlisted men’s housing projects. Whites and blacks lived cheek-by-jowl, sometimes separated by no more than a hallway.
We kids all played together, never giving a thought to our difference of color. I don’t recall any parents making an issue of it. But when my family went home to redneck country, we observed a different code. If we did not go so far as to put on the attitude of our family and friends, we made sure to hold our tongues. We were Pharisees.
Some in our crowd would say, “I got nothing against ‘em but I’m not gonna have one of ‘em in my home.” We would not receive those who were different – unless they scored touchdowns.
The Pharisees of the gospels accord the highest esteem to Moses and David and – oh, yes – God. It is shepherds, who are poor in spirit, they revile.
So let us ask ourselves: How do I treat those who are not like me? As you know, I returned to the auld sod for the last couple of weeks. Racial attitudes have changed remarkably in my lifetime but we’ll never run out of folks who are not like us.
I got together with an old friend named Bill, who’s a Christian. He told a story on himself. Bill works in a nuclear power plant. He said there’s another employee there – we’ll call him Joe – who is an atheist and an altogether prickly sort of fellow. Bill said he didn’t like Joe and he reacted by keeping as much distance as he could between himself and Joe.
But Bill has a Christian friend at work named Steve, and Steve took a different tack. He engaged with Joe whenever he could. One day, Steve was copying a picture of a Bible scene for his wife to use in the kids’ Sunday school class she teaches.
Joe saw the pictures and growled that he thought it was wrong to indoctrinate kids, including one’s own kids, with religious teachings. The kids ought to be left alone to make up their minds for themselves.
Steve answered that his Lord Jesus had done such wondrous, life-changing things for him that he could not possibly withhold such a gift from his own children. He must share it with them to the fullest.
That response stopped Joe in his tracks. He didn’t attempt a comeback. He seemed to be pondering. Steve planted a seed. We don’t know if he will water it or another will come along after him and take up that work. We don’t know if the seed will grow.
We do know that Steve reached out in the love of Christ to one who is not like him, to a lost sheep who is not even of the same flock. And so must we.
Before heading down to my old stomping grounds I attended General Council. Our presiding bishop taught on evangelism and, as always, his teaching was thoughtful and even profound.
Bp. Sutton said he doesn’t have the gift of evangelism himself and he knows many of the rest of us don’t, either. But that’s no reason for us not to be witnesses for our Lord. We are not required to try to out-Baptist the Baptists – to press for on-the-spot decisions for Christ. He called this approach “decisionalism.”
And he pointed to a couple of examples of believers who came to faith by fits and starts, kicking and screaming and flailing and failing along the way. The first is St. Peter. The second is C. S. Lewis. We need not demand decisions of anyone.
We can engage winsomely with those who are not like us and be ready, as Steve was, with a word fitly spoken when the opportunity presents itself. We can tell them of the wondrous things our Lord Jesus has done for us.
Bp. Sutton calls this approach “front-porch” evangelism; you’ll be hearing more about it as part of his plan to move our church out of maintenance mode and into missional mode. Amen.