Luke 15: 1-10
The story in today’s reading starts with some grumbling religious leaders. They are not happy. Jesus appears to be challenging social order and proprietary again. He is not doing what is expected. Instead of mixing with his peers he has gone off to eat with those who are socially beneath him, those who are considered sinners, or probably even worse, those who work at collecting the exorbitant taxes for the Roman empire.
What might be the modern day equivalent of this? (show some pictures).
These two verses give us the framework for this story, a story that has two ‘lost things’ stories within it. Overall, we have a story about attitude, set in a culture with more religious rules than we are used to in our churches. Jesus is not criticising the Pharisees and scribes for following these rules. In Luke, Jesus recognises that these religious people genuinely worked hard to understand the law and live by it. What Jesus criticises is the leaders’ attitude to those who did not or could not live by these laws, those who therefore might be called ‘lost’. It is this aspect of being ‘lost’ that Jesus goes on to talk about.
In the view of the Pharisees and scribes, people such as the tax collectors, were probably seen as traitors to their faith. They took money from their Jewish brethren and gave it to the hated Roman overlord. “Sinners” could have been a number of things. They might have been lepers, or beggars, or the poor who could not afford to make sacrifice. They also might have been petty thieves, or mixing with Gentiles, or rebels, or simply ‘unclean’. Whatever they were, the Pharisees and scribes probably thought they were lazy, or weak, or rebellious. And they probably thought it was their own fault that they were sinners.
So the counsel that they give to others is stay away from them. Stay away, because they are the wrong crowd, and they are likely to lead you astray. Have you all heard this sort of thing before? Have you yourself said it before?
To be sure, these religious authorities had good biblical backing for this attitude. Be holy, for I am holy, says the book of Leviticus a number of times. Touch no unclean thing, says Isaiah. Purge the sinner from your midst, says Paul in 1 Corinthians. Pure religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and keep oneself unstained from the world, says the letter of James.
How many of us tend to hang around with people just like ourselves? People who share our own world view and our own interests? We feel happier and more comfortable around people who are like us, who are part of our culture, and like the things we do.
Jesus is not saying that there is no risk involved with hanging around people who may have some bad habits. But Jesus is also saying this is not an excuse to leave the lost to fend for themselves. If we stick to our own groups, and ignore these others, we are just ensuring that they remain lost. Lost coins and lost sheep cannot find themselves. And neither, Jesus is implying, can lost people. They need our help.
So to Jesus, when people get lost, it is up to the community to go out and find these lost individuals, and help them to find their way home. This is very evident in the story of the prodigal son, which has been separated off into next week’s reading. The father sees the son while he is a long way off, and goes running to meet him. The father’s action makes it possible for the son to feel welcome, and forgiven, and valued. He makes him feel safe. Would it have been the same if the son had to come into the house and had to beg for forgiveness without this welcome? Probably not. To put this in a modern framework, if you are operating as a small fellowship or raft or friendship group, do you think it is easy for a stranger or someone who is alienated to approach you? It is very hard to do this unless someone from that group welcomes you and extends the hand of friendship to you. And if you are someone who feels they are on the edge of society, such as an indigenous person, this is even harder. We need to help those who are lost and wandering and bring them back. That means going out to people. It means doing mission and ministry outside of the church and congregation. Mission and ministry happens on the edge of the congregation, and of our social groups. Like Cecil the sheep, the shepherd reaches out to him in the mountains, on the edge of the wilderness, not in the flock.
To come back to Jesus, he then takes the task of restoring the lost this a step further. It is not enough to just hang out with the lost, and to make them welcome, or to be happy ourselves that they are found. Jesus says that the very angels in heaven rejoice whenever someone who is lost is found. All heaven is keen to seek and find the lost.
And this is why Jesus eats with sinners. Jesus makes them welcome, and leads them to repentance, forgiveness and wholeness. Jesus recognises that these are the people who need help – to be found, to be welcomed, to be restored. And as Jesus ate with the lost, so should we.
Who are the lost people of our society, the ones that either you live or work with in this community? How do we treat these people as a congregation or as ourselves?
Who in this congregation seeks out the lost, and in what way are they found? What are their stories and do we share them? Are we listening to them in the same way the father listens to the story of the prodigal son? Do we rejoice with them?
I want to share with you a story about some very lost people that I personally know. They started life as refugees, as boat people, fleeing persecution in Iran to seek safety in Australia. They came here and spent quite a lot of time in the detention centre known as Villawood.
People flee from Iran not because they are economically motivated, but because they are politically persecuted. One of the refugees I am talking about fled because he took part in pro-democracy demonstrations. He had been filmed by the soldiers. A number of his friends were arrested. Some were killed. Some are still in jail. He evaded arrest, and with false papers, escaped the country.
Peaceful protests in Iran frequently result in unlawful imprisonment and unlawful killings. The regime also targets ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian people, trade unionists, those of different religion, lawyers and human rights supporters. Its tools of repression include rape, torture, murder, execution and unlawful arrest and detention.
To continue with the story. There were a number of people from Iran in Villawood around the same time. They were found to be genuine refugees around 2009, and released into the community. I got a phone call in 2009, from a Uniting church worker who had been involved with refugees from Villawood. They were looking for a church to worship, she said, could our church help?
I worked out we could squeeze them in between the main morning congregation, the Korean congregation, and the small alternative evening congregation. The Persians could have the church from 3 to 5 on Sunday.
Once I met them, I learnt more of their stories. Christian people had gone to Villawood to welcome these refugees. They helped them learn English. They helped them learn various skills. They helped them find somewhere to live and helped them apply for jobs. They welcomed them. They did not say go home. They said, you are welcome, and we want to hear your story and help you find you way.
These Persian people decided to convert to Christianity. We baptised a number of them in our church at Epping. Through my daughter, who was working in a WA detention centre at the time, I sent other Persian people there to their congregation to be welcomed and supported. Because a group of Christians welcomed them, they were no longer lost. They were found, and I am sure there was great rejoicing in heaven.
We should never make assumptions about the lost people of our society. Our task is to go out into the community, to the edges of the community, out to find lost people and welcome them, not to sit in judgment of them. We are called to follow the shepherd, not the flock. We are required to venture to the margins. And when we make an effort to find and welcome the lost, we can be very surprised by the results.
And we need to think about our own ‘lostness’, and open ourselves to God’s transforming grace. When we are transformed, and when we become the people of justice that God calls us to be, we become agents of God’s grace, and can offer healing and acceptance to the lost: the weak, the marginalised, the oppressed and the discriminated against in our society.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine