Proper 19C; Luke 15:1-10
Today's gospel is probably familiar to most of us. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, has developed a following of sinners and tax collectors which tends to bother the scribes and Pharisees to the point where they begin to openly gripe about him in a way that casts doubt on his character and/or integrity. In response he tells a couple of parables about a lost sheep and lost coin. A shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to find the one that is lost. A woman loses a coin so she sweeps her house and searches diligently. Both the shepherd and the woman find that which is lost and both hold a celebration in thanksgiving for the return of the sheep and coin. Jesus equates the tax collectors and sinners to that which is lost and, rather than grumbling about it, says that all heaven rejoices when one sinner repents and returns to the kingdom of God.
On the one hand Jesus is not wrong. I think about the person who wandered away from faith, for whatever reason, and then returns. Whether that's someone who left the church as a teen and came back as a parent; or whether it's someone raised in one tradition, leaves, and then finds their way to a different tradition; or whether it's someone harmed by the church but discovers not all churches are abusive, I can imagine angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven singing out in joyful praise at this person's return. It's certainly a glorious event to behold.
On the other hand, as my New Testament professor was fond of saying, “It's more complicated than that.”
Part of reading and interpreting scripture is our ability and willingness to place ourselves as different characters to see how that different viewpoint changes our perspective. For instance, we rightly see ourselves as God's people, and that viewpoint tends to align us with the Israelites. But it just may be that, as a country, we are more aligned with the Egyptian empire than we are with the oppressed Israelite minority. But that's a thought exercise for another day.
For today, I want us to look at the first two verses of this passage. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'.”
The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. They were the ones who taught the faith. They were the ones who worked to preserve a sense of community and righteousness. They were the moral compass, so to speak, of Judaism. In a world of Greco-Roman influence, paganism, and other distractions that might pull people away from the faith, they were the ones who ensured everything was done decently and in order. For good or ill, they were the gatekeepers of the faith.
Now they have to deal with this guy Jesus who is welcoming tax collectors and sinners; and not only welcoming them, but eating with them. It's the eating with that is most problematic. In eating with someone you help provide nourishment, but you also treat them like other people. You share conversation. You learn about them. You share things about yourself. If you are lucky, they start showing up at church.
And there's the rub.
The Pharisees had a good thing going. They had control over their system. They were good at maintaining the status quo and not upsetting the apple cart. But now into this well-kept system comes sinners and tax collectors. These people are going to wreak havoc on that system. These people might start having ideas about changing things. These people might want to participate in the life of the synagogue. These people might want to become leaders. For those who like the status quo, maintaining control, and being the gatekeepers of the faith, that's a problem.
The late Dr. Edwin Friedman, family therapist and rabbi, wrote about this very thing in his book, Generation to Generation. In short, he applies a family system theory to the life of church and synagogue. Every organization has a system that it works to maintain, and religious organizations are no exception. Because the organization is in effect a living organism, the organization will work to preserve itself. Friedman refers to this as homeostasis of the organization. When the organization is threatened with change, it will fight to keep things in check and familiar, up to and including self-sabotage.
The Pharisees and scribes were part of a system. That system ensured that all the good Jews participated in the life of the synagogue. That system ensured that both the bad and good people of the day knew their place and their roles. But now Jesus comes along and upsets that system. He blurs the boundaries between the good and bad people. He asks the system to change. Ultimately, in an effort to maintain homeostasis, the system will have Jesus crucified.
Verses 1 and 2 of today's gospel are not only directed at the scribes and Pharisees, they are directed at us; not because we are scribes or Pharisees, but because we are part of a system and we need to be aware of system dynamics.
A lost coin and lost sheep are found and returned to what was, thereby maintaining homeostasis. Tax collectors and sinners, however, are being put into an existing system, thereby disrupting that system and throwing off its equilibrium. Tax collectors and sinners disrupt the homeostasis.
This isn't a new idea for us, and we are familiar with stereotypical responses. We want to grow – as long as we don't have to change. We want new people – as long as they don't sit in my pew. We want children – as long as they are quiet. This is what the scribes and Pharisees were worried about. This is the ongoing struggle between homeostasis and welcoming the lost.
Helping lead people to Jesus and faith is always a good thing. Helping people to grow and mature in their faith is always a good thing. We need to remember, though, that when new people enter the system – whether they are those who sleep on our property, or those who come for the food giveaway, or those who come from the country club – the homeostasis of the system will be thrown off kilter. When that happens we can help the system adjust to the change, we can help the person adjust to the system, or we can do a little of both. If we welcome people with the joy of the angels of God, any or all of those three things will bear good fruit. If, however, we welcome people with the grumblings of the scribes and Pharisees, we will be condemned.
As we begin the slow climb out of COVID, as we work to reopen activities and ministries safely, as we look to return to full community, may we always work to welcome other people into our midst; not with the grumblings of the Pharisee, but with the joyful exuberance of the angels of God.