We normally hear today’s gospel lesson preached along the lines of Francis Thompson’s famous poem “The Hound of Heaven.” The searching shepherd and the seeking woman are images of the God Who pursues us “down the nights and down the days;/…down the arches of the years;/…down the labyrinthine ways…”. God searches, God sweeps until God finds us, brings us home and calls the community together to rejoice in our restoration. The theme is lostness. The Good News is being sought, found, forgiven and brought into community. In a world of loneliness and alienation and sin the message that God takes the initiative to seek and forgive and restore to community is powerful and important and, indeed, central to the whole ministry of Jesus.
I believe with all my heart that we belong to this God Who seeks us, Who, again in Thompson’s words, “loves ignoble us” and, as the poem says, has all that we long for “stored for [us] at home.” This Lukan doublet, these parallel stories about God’s searching love, is so powerful that we sometimes miss the strange frame of their telling: “…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.’” (vv. 1-2) The wrong persons are receptive to Jesus, and the wrong persons reject Him.
Tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes: in the short hand of the morally simple Western films, bad guys and good guys, black hats and white hats—except that the bad guys have on the white hats and the good guys have on the black hats. Tax collectors and sinners draw near to Jesus, and Pharisees and scribes grumble about him.
Tax collectors were collaborators. They worked for the Roman over-lords. They bought the job of collecting taxes, and all they could collect over what they owed Rome, they pocketed. Worst of all, they compromised national honor. Nobody anywhere in human history has appreciated living under the authority of someone else’s army or admired those who worked for them. Tax collectors and sinners. “Sinners” may have been moral reprobates, thieves, murderers, prostitutes and adulterers…or they may simply have been ordinary working people who by virtue of their work were unable to keep the Holiness Code. Fishermen dealt with dead fish. Shepherds lived with animals. Neither was ceremonially clean; both were, therefore, by definition, sinners.
Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, is a short hand way to speak of the religious establishment. Pharisees were good guys. We tend to think ill of them because we see them as those who go head to head with Him Whom we call “Lord.” But in their time they were great interpreters of the Torah who helped people understand and live it. Scribes were more or less the theological Ph.D.’s of their time, serious students of religion. These scribes and Pharisees grumble about Jesus. “Grumble” isn’t a happy choice of word, but Luke knows exactly what he is doing by repeating the term used in Exodus and Numbers for the Israelites’ disapproval of Moses’ leadership. (Ex 16:2; Num 14:2)
It looks as if what we have is the religious establishment threatened by an innovator, a nobody rabbi from Nazareth. But what they are grumbling or murmuring about is not what Jesus says, but what he does, whom he eats with. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v. 2) The matter of table fellowship was extremely important. One was known by whom one dined with…and this is still true. To eat with someone is to declare public acceptance of him or her. To invite someone to a meal is to declare him your social equal, indeed, your friend.
Jesus has been dining with the wrong people, and worse, hosting the wrong people. “This fellow welcomes sinners…” The Greek word for “welcome” (prosdechomai) can also be translated “receive.” Luke implies that Jesus is offering hospitality to the collaborators and ritually impure and morally unfit. He’s inviting them to share His table. In the hospitality code of the time, and in the rural Middle East today, the guest is understood to bring honor to the home in which she or he dines. Luke’s implication is that unacceptable dinner guests are bringing honor to Jesus. It’s something of a mind bender to contemplate that the tax collectors and sinners bring honor to Jesus’ table.
Then, to add insult to injury, Jesus compares the Pharisees and scribes to shepherds: “which of you having a hundred sheep…” (v. 3) The implied equation is of the pure and impure, the socially and theologically acceptable with the unacceptable and outcast. It is like calling seminary professors cowboys, or priests pimps. And Jesus uses a village housewife as an exemplar of right behavior—which is perhaps an even more offensive dig at the male authorities. In both cases the marginalized are the positive examples.
Today’s gospel lesson clearly depicts God’s initiative in searching for the lost, God’s seeking love. But the context of God’s relentless and loving pursuit is the question of table fellowship. The two parables are told to explain the company Jesus keeps, to justify Jesus’ association with sinners via heaven’s rejoicing over the lost; simply, He tells the stories to justify the inclusiveness of His dinner invitations. The joy in heaven, the joy of the angels, the joy of God which the two parables highlight is a joy, over not only the lost (whom we distance from ourselves by thinking of them as moral reprobates; surely these stories aren’t about us!) but it’s joy over the inclusion of the excluded. And it leads me to ponder the question “Guess who ought to be coming to dinner?”
What Shakespeare’s Portia calls the “quality of God’s mercy” is the theme of today’s lectionary texts. In the Old Testament lesson, the Golden Calf episode from Exodus, God forgives those who so grievously wrong God. In the Epistle, Paul is called “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” who “received mercy” (1 Tim 1:13) precisely because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (I Tim 1:15) In my home state nearly everybody can quote John 3:16 which is followed by 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but … that the world might be saved through him.” In today’s Gospel Jesus tells parables to the effect that God not only seeks the lost (saves sinners), but Luke’s implication is that God’s son, Jesus, hosts them, and all kinds of outcasts, welcomes them, eats with them, thereby declares them His friends. The wrong people, the rural riff raff, the shepherds, the village women, the absent minded housewives, the political opportunists, the collaborators, the ritually impure…these are the folks at the Divine dinner party. These parables express again what we heard in the gospel several weeks ago: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Lk 13:29-30)
Guess who ought to be coming to dinner? Whom would you murmur to see at table? Whom wouldn’t you invite? The Taliban? Al’ Khaida? Hisba’allah? North Koreans? black folks? white folks? homosexuals? prostitutes? Democrats? Republicans? the religious right? the political left? Everybody we think of as our enemies…everyone I think of as my enemy…. is probably on the Divine guest list. What if I sought them instead of fought them, fed them instead of bled them, tried to love, or at least understand them, instead of responding with violence and hatred? What if I really meant what I prayed in the collect about allowing the Holy Spirit in all things to direct and rule my heart through Jesus Christ the Lord? What if I just invited folks to dinner and didn’t worry about whether they belonged at the table or would act nice when they got there?
“Guess who ought to be coming to dinner?” is another way of asking “Who should be the object of my love? What is the circumference of the circle of my concern and compassion? How widely can my arms embrace?”
In today’s gospel Jesus asks us if we can join Him in the joy of reclamation of the outcasts with whom He eats and drinks. It’s the big question that the father in the Prodigal Son parable poses to the older brother…and the parable leaves it unanswered. Guess who ought to be coming to dinner? It’s the question in my mind as I look at the table set before us, as I reflect on whom I know myself to be, as I hear the invitation with which Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” closes: “Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”