It’s nobody’s business whom you invite over for dinner. You send out your invitations, you turn on the front porch light, you open the door, and when the last guests have arrived you close it, and soon everybody gathers in the dining room. Chances are, nobody cares whom you invite to dinner, unless, of course, they expected to be on your guest list and never got an invitation. They drive by your house at night and see all the cars parked along the curb on both sides of the street and they see silhouettes of people in every window, and they turn to each other wondering, why weren’t we invited? Or they drive by and see all the cars and notice two vehicles belonging to people they would never want to be seen with, and now they’re relieved they weren’t invited and they make a mental note never to invite you to their house again since you’re hanging out with those people.
Now imagine a house where every time you drive by a banquet is in full swing, the lights are on and the door is open, and whoever wants to come in is welcome. What do you do? Do you just park the car and join the party? Or do you notice the cars belonging to people you don’t’ approve of? This is the house where Jesus is the host. And people who are used to standing outside most circles are welcome at table with Jesus. People who have been labeled as outsiders for so long, they almost forgot what it means to belong, are flocking to him. They eat and drink with him, and they listen with their hearts wide open. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him,” says Luke. Not just a few, but all, he says. They were coming because Jesus told and continues to tell a story about God’s reign in God’s world where they are counted in. They were coming because in Jesus’ story God’s mercy and God’s desire to redeem illumine everything. And they continue to come near to listen because at Jesus’ table they can sit down and not feel out of place. Some are driving by the house and grumble, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” A friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34) they call him, and they don’t think that’s a good thing. What do you think? Your answer will depend on where you see yourself on the righteousness scale, if there is a scale like that. Is there?
Jesus tells us a story. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Do any of you own even a single sheep? None? That’s what I thought. So let me tell you about Sammie. Sammie has his picture on yard signs and utility poles up and down Woodlawn. Sammie is a cute Jack Russel whose proverbial energy you can feel just from looking at the photo and you don’t even have to stop and take a closer look. Sammie is lost, and his picture is posted all over the neighborhood because Sammie is loved. Somewhere between West End and Woodmont there’s a home that’s not complete without Sammie.
You wouldn’t expect a home with a hundred little dogs, though, whose owner noticed recently that one of them was missing, would you? And she left the ninety-nine at the dog park and went after the one that was lost, stopping by Kinko’s on the way to have the posters printed? Jesus’ story isn’t quite as fantastic, but it stretches the imagination already with the opening question:
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
It sounds like he’s asking a rhetorical question, like it’s so obvious that anybody would do that.I don’t know. I hear somebody whisper, “Nobody in his right mind who has one hundred sheep and loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves, the thieves, and the coyotes, and goes combing the hills for the missing one. You cut your losses and go on with the ninety-nine.” That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? And I can see that Sammie’s owner would call together her friends and neighbors to celebrate the day she got the call that Sammie had been found, but “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” sounds a little over the top for a sheep owner who was able to track down a missing sheep, a little over the top – unless that particular one was special.
In one of the early Christian texts that were not included in the collection of apostolic writings of the New Testament, this story is told differently. According to the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said: The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep; one of them, the biggest, went astray; he left the ninety-nine and sought after the one until he found it. After he had labored, he said to the sheep: I love you more than the ninety-nine” . That’s a very different story than the one Jesus told according to Luke. In Luke’s version, there’s no room for favoritism, only for love and joy, fantastic, exuberant joy.
What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
Most women I know (and the one I know best) would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search all day for a coin; they have other things to do.
The sun’s barely up, and the school bus will stop at the corner in about seven minutes. One of the kids yells, “Mom, where are my shoes?” And she shouts back, “Wherever you took ‘em off, Sweetie! Do you have your homework folder?” There’s no response from upstairs. “Hurry up, the bus will be here any minute now; at least drink your orange juice and take a cereal bar.” He finally shows up, she asks him to stand still while she tries to comb his hair. “No, you can’t go to Josh’s house after school. You have piano and you need to get your homework done.” She glances out the window. Darnit. All the neighbors have their trash cans out, but her handsome husband forgot to push theirs to the curb, again. “Honey, can you take the trash out before you leave?” There’s no response from upstairs. “Mom, did you sign my form for the field trip?” The dog is barking because the bus is coming. “Didn’t I send that back to school with you two days ago?” “Gottago, mom. Bye, dad! Love ya! Bye, mom!” “Love ya!” A a coin is missing? Well, that’s just too bad. It’ll turn up eventually, probably in the washer.
That’s our missing coin story, but in Jesus’ story, the woman drops everything, she calls the office to tell them she’d have to take a personal day; then she gets the flashlight and the broom, and she sweeps the house, every floor from the attic to the basement, and she searches carefully – until she finds this one coin. And that’s not the end of the story. She gets on the phone, calls her friends and neighbors saying, “Come on over, let’s celebrate; I found my lost coin.”
These stories barely touch our lived experience and then they erupt in fantastic, exuberant joy. What the man and the woman are doing borders on foolishness, because they will not stop searching until what is lost has been found, and what is incomplete has been made whole, and until all their friends and neighbors rejoice with them. That is how God looks at people. That is how God looks at you. That is how committed God is to finding every last one of us. Every single one counts. Creation isn’t complete until you’re at home in God’s house.
Jesus’ offensive table manners are performances of God’s desire to redeem us and restore us to wholeness. The other side of Jesus’ calling us to repent is his proclamation of a God determined to find us and bring us home. Jesus sits at table with sinners, happy to be called a friend of sinners, and he tells those of us who have a problem with that to rejoice, because the angels in heaven are rejoicing as God is finding lost ones left and right; and why wouldn’t we who have been touched by his friendship and his commitment to finding us, why wouldn’t we forget whatever scales of righteousness we carry around with us, why wouldn’t we begin to see ourselves and each other as equally dependent on God’s unrelenting mercy? Why wouldn’t we begin to seek for what is lost in our relationships with even just a dusting of that holy foolishness that is love’s deep wisdom?
There’s a Sufi story that illumines that divine determination:
Once upon a time a Sufi stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. And there, on one of them, a scorpion struggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion that stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. “Sufi,” said a passerby, “Don’t you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you?” And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, “Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save."
I see in the Sufi’s actions a reflection of God’s love for all that God has made, a love that reaches out to every last one of us with relentless persistence, even to the point of great suffering. And our true nature – our true nature – is not to sting, but to let ourselves be found by the love that will not let us go.