So Jesus was at the pub, eating and drinking and talking with whoever turned up. There were gay men and rainbow families; transgender teenagers; women who prioritised work over family life; some sex workers; a couple of drug addicts; more than a few atheists; and some traumatised Muslim asylum seekers. And these people were crowding around and listening to what he had to say. Just inside the door of the pub, a huddle of priests and ministers and good Christian types stood awkwardly clutching their glasses of warm mineral water and grumbling among themselves. “Who is this feller?” they were asking. “If he keeps hanging around those dodgy people, nobody will take him seriously. And what is he saying? If he’s telling stories like that, maybe he needs to rethink his connection with the church.”
Jesus looked across at them and said, “Supposing one of you has a hundred people in your congregation, and one of the difficult people leaves: someone who can’t buckle down and live like everyone else; someone who asks lots of questions and rejects all your answers; someone who is probably pretty angry, to boot. What will you do? Why, you’ll leave the ninety-nine to fend for themselves, and you’ll spend Sunday looking for the lost one! And when you find that person, you’ll be so happy that you’ll throw your arm around their shoulders, and walk them home, and invite everyone over for a party!”
Um … really? Is that what good Christians usually do?
The parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin aren’t cute children’s stories. Nor are they positive affirmations for middle-class Christians about how much God loves them. These stories are dynamite. They throw down the gauntlet at every comfortable Christian, at every powerful denomination, at every self-satisfied congregation, and ask: Who do you think you are?
Because we keep making the same mistake, over and over and over again. The ancient Israelites, the first century Jews, the mediaeval church, the contemporary church: we all think we know who the sinners are—and they are not us. We focus on sexual purity, theological correctness, and Sunday participation, and we draw our boundaries high and tight.
But this is not good news to everyone else: the Gentiles, the Samaritans, the sex workers, the tax-collectors, and everyone else labelled ‘sinner’. A focus on sexual purity is not good news for those who keep making big relationship mistakes, or who are drawn to same-sex relationships, or who were sexually abused and still sometimes feel unclean. A focus on theological correctness is not good news for big thinkers or doubters, nor for the generations for whom authentic engagement trumps rational argument every time. A focus on Sunday participation is not good news for casual workers who are called in for weekend shifts, nor for families whose kids play soccer Sunday mornings. Nor is it good news for the poor, who can’t turn up anywhere on time; nor for the functionally illiterate, who struggle to follow responsive readings or sing contemporary songs. In fact, a focus on sexual purity, theological rectitude, and Sunday mornings is not good news for a whole lot of people.
Yet these themes are still emphasised in many churches today. How, then, do people who don’t fit into heterosexual middle class Australian church life experience religious people? My conclusion, drawn from years of informal conversations in playgrounds and coffee shops, is that people feel criticised. Sometimes, they are publicly demonised by Christian lobby groups. Sometimes, they are taken down a peg, or ignored, or rebuked for their lack of faith. Sometimes, they feel the object of fear, or contempt, or loathing. Yet the people who don’t fit, who don’t satisfy our religious or cultural norms, are exactly the people who flocked to Jesus. Clearly, they didn’t feel rejected by him; clearly, his teaching must have been good news.
So what was this good news? Well, as we heard in the psalm, God demands social justice; God embraces the poor. And as we heard in the parables, God never gives up on anybody. Instead, God is described in shocking ways, as a nobody—a bogan of a shepherd, who picks up that stinking lost sheep and throws it over his shoulders; a biddy of an old woman, all bent over and fretful and wearing out the bristles on her broom—and this strange and wonderful God, who dares to identify with people held in contempt, seeks to find the lost and bring them safely home.
No wonder the wrong people flocked to listen to Jesus! No wonder so many turned their lives around!
So here we are, a freshly minted congregation of lovely intelligent middle class heterosexual Christians, listening to these stories. It’s a great start. But let’s make sure we don’t stop here. Let’s keep listening to the stories about Jesus, and the stories told by Jesus, with our ears and our hearts wide open.
For we all know people who have felt judged or rejected by religious types, and who have in turn judged and rejected the church. Fair enough. And some of those people are doing just fine. But some of them are not. Some of them are hungry, ravenous even, for good news. They are hungry for a place to belong; they are hungry for a story big enough to turn their lives upside down; they are hungry for life in abundance. They are longing to be gathered up by the One who cares about the poor, the marginalised, and those who never quite fit; they are aching for blessing and acceptance. They don’t need lectures on sexual purity or doctrine; they don’t need to be ticked off when they don’t turn up on Sunday. Instead, they need to know that in the stories of Jesus we find an alternate narrative to the constricting narratives of this world, a narrative which offers a life of freedom and hope, justice and joy; a narrative in which we are stitched together for a common purpose: to live for the world which God loves.
Yet people who have felt rejected by religious types often assume that they could never be Christian, and could never be part of any church. And so here lies our challenge: the challenge of communicating that all people are truly welcome into this narrative, this life of discipleship, and this church.
Happily, the challenge is not beyond us. For we meet this challenge when we live the life of hospitality, generosity, and embrace that befits the followers of Jesus. We meet this challenge when we love and respect people who live differently to us, and communicate beyond church boundaries. We meet this challenge when we tell stories, true stories, that really are good news. And we will know that we are on the right track when we are sprung in the pub one night, pint in hand, laughing and surrounded by all the wrong people—and the religious types are beginning to grumble. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 15:1-10, 11 September 2016. Image shows Emmanuel Garibay Emmaus (2010).