I was recently arrested by the line that is so often repeated through the gospels, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” This morning you can hear it read in church, if you go to an Anglican one, but I had it reverberate through my mind a few weeks ago, in the days surrounding all the news about Jeffrey Epstein. Mr. Epstein was in jail awaiting trial, there had been that first “suicide attempt,” and in Bible Study, Matt was describing the sort of “sinners” that Jesus so habitually ate with, the tax-collectors and thugs of the ancient world, the kind of people who sent shuddering horror through the bosoms of every proper child of Abraham.
Progressives like to make much of the idea of Jesus eating with sinners. Jen Hatmaker, for instance, breezily commands her readership to search out those on the margin because that’s what Jesus did. He came for those “on the margin” she says. By which she means the immigrant, the single mother in Guatemala, the child no one loved. If you prefer a different source, search out Rachel Held Evans, or any Episcopalian, or even Rachel Hollis, who dutifully mentions this fantastical idea of Jesus being for the outcast in a line or two in one of her books.
It is the one thing you have to notice if your Jesus is going to be acceptable in modern society, where the “marginalized”—which is such a nebulous and undefinable term—are made to be the measure of everything. What is meant by it is, well, culturally determined. Currently, it the person with no power, the person who just wants a better life, the one who wants to escape abuse. It is the person who has tried washing her face but nobody would give her any soap. She wanted to start a micro-business, but no one would give her the capital. She came to the border, and no one would let her in. Be like, Jesus, then, and search out that person.
Indeed, I do think it is the job of Christians to seek out that person and feed her, clothe her, stop yelling at her to wash her face, set her a place at the dinner table and find out who she is. In fact, my church is a particular attraction to people “on the margin” who can’t get their life together and have exhausted themselves from trying. These people—“on the margin”—Jesus sought out and healed, bringing them from the outside to the inside, trusting them with the revelation of himself.
But that category of person—outsider/marginalized/wounded/abused—is not the same as the sinner of Luke 15, the one with whom Jesus ate and made everybody else feel sick while he was doing it. The sinner of Luke 15 is truly a Sinner.
Which is not so nebulous and undefinable as someone “on the margin.” Scripture, though it lacks charm and generates little curiosity for the modern reader, has much to say on the subject of the Sinner. It is the person who rejects God, who offends him through disobedience, idolatry, contempt, and misplaced rage.
And I think, though it is not so appealing as talking about as the downcast and downtrodden, we might see that there are some sinners in modern society. They are always other people, of course, and most of us feel it is our duty to point out this fact to them.
As a general category, the modern Sinner is a person with power, with privilege (if he hasn’t apologized, yet, for having it). Sinners are people who have the wherewithal to abuse others and then go ahead and actually do it. They are crude and say unkind things about women. They are racist. They embezzle money and have buttons under their desks that let them lock the door without the person standing there in the middle of the room, vulnerable, even knowing that it’s shut. That’s one kind of sinner. There are other kinds, of course. Different segments of Western Society have different groups of sinners in mind. And I am sure for all of us—whatever picture we have of Sinner—we would shudder if Jesus sought out that person and sat next to him at dinner.
Which is what he’s been doing, on purpose, through Luke, and has been hearing the grumbling from the margins, as it were, of the room, and so he tells three parables, though only two will be read out this morning.
The second is of a woman who has ten silver coins. She knows she has ten. She has counted them. She has plans for them. She needs all of them. But then, one evening, when it is really too dark to be doing anything, she counts them one more time and discovers that one has gone missing. And so, asks Jesus, does she not light a lamp and sweep the house, seeking diligently until she finds it? The answer is yes, of course she does. Though she is tired and it’s been a long day with many kinds of troubles, though she can ill-afford to light lamps again when they have already been put out for the night, though her house is already immaculate because she has so few possessions, she takes up her broom and sweeps. If you saw her, you would want to put her on the banner of your non-profit website because people would hasten to send you all their piles of coins to help her.
With children, after the story has been told and the little wooden stooping woman with her broom is standing there, alone, I always ask, “I wonder, who is the woman?” Some children think it is us, sweeping and stooping, looking and looking for God. Other children think it is God, of course, because of the way the parable ends. But how strange that God would be in such a poor and sorry place, stooping and sweeping, searching for one single—dare I say it?—not very valuable silver coin. He only has ten to begin with, and then one goes missing.
In the first parable, he is better off. He has a hundred sheep. He probably doesn’t lack for coins or oil for his lamps, except that one of the sheep has wandered away and gotten lost. And so he leaves all the other ones and goes to find it. And when he finds it, he rejoices.
And the habitual reader of the Bible nods, grateful to be a sheep found by the loving shepherd, a coin unearthed by the diligent, stooping woman. Not usually noticing that the story has been told by Jesus as a defense of his practice of “eating with sinners.” The Sinner—not the 99 comfortably grazing in the wilderness—is the one Jesus is particularly anxious to find and save. No fluffy but misguided adorable sheep, no sparkling, silvery, gem of a coin—a Sinner.
Paul describes himself thus in the Epistle for this morning: “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, an insolent opponent.” Then he says—and this is so clever of him and shows that God is an Anglican—one of 4 comfortable words that come after the absolution which comes after the confession of sin: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s where the comfortable word stops, but Paul goes on, “of whom I am the foremost.”
You there slumped over in your pew, you are not meant to count yourself among the group who are standing around grumbling, the group that saw who Jesus was eating with and felt sick about it and wandered away to a more acceptable meal. You are the Sinner they are grumbling about, no matter who you are.
I mean, I hope you’re not Jeffry Epstein, or Tony Soprano, or Kim Jung Un, or any of the people you might distance yourself from as being beyond the pale. Though, if you look deep inside yourself, hoping to find a flash of silver, a charming something or other that God—and others—would look at and think, Of Course, who better to rescue, you should see how absurd is the comparison. It is meant to jolt you out of your complacency, out of your pride, out of your self-congratulation.
The chapter winds up with the story about the son who leaves his father and squanders everything. Jesus, telling it, picks up all the notes from the Old Testament lesson, where the people of Israel, after a few minutes of waiting at the bottom of the mountain for Moses to come down with the law, just can’t take it anymore and make a golden idol—speaking of sparkle. And everybody reading it, century after century, if they have any feeling, feels sick about the betrayal, about the horror of a people receiving so much and then taking it and using it for something so foul, so ruinous, so ungrateful.
But that’s why Jesus came. That’s why he rejoices, and all heaven with him, when one single person turns around and runs back to him.
Paul ends with a doxology, an exclamation of praise: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
And everybody looking in from the outside, grumbling, are put off by a God who would seek out the vilest, who would use his own blood to buy back such a one, who would stoop so desperately low.
See you in church!