Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“Them People”, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
Jesus is in trouble. Again. For hanging out with the wrong people, and particularly for not having the good sense to know that he certainly shouldn’t have them over for dinner. Any good respectable rabbi ought to know better than to associate with “them people.”
You know “them people?” We’ve all got some. Either they’re the wrong economic status, or the wrong level of education, or the wrong ethnic ancestry, or the wrong gender, or the wrong something. The ones that we’re pretty sure are beyond God’s reach…and certainly they’re beyond our wanting to deal with them.
Jesus is getting some serious flak from the Pharisees and the scribes. And remember, the Pharisees and the scribes are NOT evil people—they’re actually trying (for the most part) to engage the people of Israel as fully as possible with the religious observance of Israel. They’re trying to get as many people as possible involved in “doing it the right way.” But part of doing it the right way—observing the behaviors of faith—meant keeping away from “them people.” The disreputable ones; the ones who were clearly beyond God’s reach.
Jesus isn’t buying it—not then, not ever. He’s just gotten through telling his hearers “Don’t be grabbing the chairs at the head table when you get invited to the country club for Sunday lunch” and “Don’t think that having a bunch of stuff is going to give you the life you’re looking for.” Status and possessions will not get you into the kingdom of Heaven…not in this life or any other. Then, or now.
And after all this he says: “Let whoever has ears to hear, listen!”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Them people! The very ones who, according to the social code of the time, were clearly out of the question, out of the loop, out of range for God to do anything with them at all. Unacceptable.
The fact that this accusation against Jesus (“This fellow receives sinners and eats with them”) appears in the scriptural account at all testifies to the truth of the statement. Because if I sit down to write the biography of someone I admire, I’m going to make that person look good. I might actually omit some things that would reflect badly on him or her, if I thought they weren’t very important. Jesus’ critics have a point—table fellowship with the unworthy and the outsiders is a violation of the purity codes of Judaism. These critics are not only attacking Jesus, but his followers as well. Remember that the Gospels are written several decades after the events they describe—it’s not only Jesus who’s hanging out with “them people” now, it’s those who follow him who are doing the same thing.
Jesus answers by telling three stories: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child. We hear only two of them this morning, but you’ve got to remember the third one, which is waiting just outside the picture frame.
All of these are set up as stories of repentance—“there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents/there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repent and repentance are interesting words, which Jesus uses quite a lot. As does his cousin John the Baptist; as do the prophets of Israel from of old. The Greek word is metanoia—say that with me: Metanoia. It means something like “turn around, change the direction you’re going, change the way you think about this situation.”
An act of metanoia would be required if, for instance, I took the eastbound exit off 520 when I wanted to go to Atlanta. How fast would I realize “Oh shinola, that’s not what I wanted to do!” And I very well might pop myself on the head for being a nitwit, or not paying attention. I might need to pull over and check the map, or even (heaven forbid for the male of the species) ask directions! But what I would not do—I hope—would be to sit there on the side of the road and moan and groan and carry on and feel miserable for being so dumb. I would take the next exit, turn around, and get back on the road toward my intended destination.
Metanoia—repentance—is not about feeling guilty or ashamed. It is about turning around, back toward God and God’s kingdom. Which is what Jesus is constantly pointing his hearers toward, in preaching and healing and feeding and dying and rising from the dead—it’s always, always, always about discovering and going into the kingdom of God.
But here’s the thing about these stories of metanoia, of repentance, in Luke 15.
A sheep is too dumb to repent, to turn around. I’ve never worked with sheep myself, other than in the form of lamb chops from the cold case at Kroger, but I’ve been told that they are the dumbest animals around. Any shepherd would be a fool to leave ninety-nine of them alone, wandering and unprotected to go after a single one—but this shepherd does just that. The sheep is too stupid to do anything to help itself, the shepherd does it all.
A coin cannot repent, cannot pop up and turn around and roll back out from under the bed or the chair or wherever it’s rolled off to. The woman who tears the house apart looking for this coin is doing all the work of seeking and finding and gathering the neighbors for a party—Rejoice with me, I have found… Yes, she does the finding.
The third story which we did not read, is the story of the lost child—or as we know it, The Prodigal Son. The younger of the two brothers takes his share of the family fortune, wastes it, and ends up feeding the pigs of a farmer in a distant land. Finally, at last, he sees what a mess he’s made of it all (He ‘comes to himself’ as the NRSV says) and decides to go home and ask for a job as one of his father’s day laborers. He even practices the little speech he will give when he arrives, so that he’ll know what to say.
Meanwhile the father, who has been standing out in the road, waiting for him every day since he left, sees him coming and runs to meet him. The son tries to say his little speech of humiliation and beg for mercy—and the father will not even let him finish, he’s covering his face with kisses and tears of joy. The Prodigal Father then orders a party, with feasting and dancing, which thoroughly cheeses off the elder brother who is completely put out with this attitude of welcome and acceptance. It’s not fair that someone who’s been so bad should be treated so well!
No, by the standards of the world as we normally know it, it’s not. By God’s standards—of mercy, love and grace, however…that’s another matter altogether.
These stories Jesus tells: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child, form a three-panel image called a triptych. Do you know that word, triptych? It’s like our three lancet windows at the back of the church—a large center image with two other images, one on each side, and all three of the images comment on and interact with one another. These three stories have to be held together to make sense of one another, and to begin to understand what Jesus is trying to get across to his hearers.
These stories of metanoia—repentance, turning around and returning to the Shepherd, the Coin-Hunter, the Prodigal Father—are actually less about the one who returns (the sheep, the coin, the child) and much more about the one doing the seeking and hunting and waiting. The Shepherd, the Coin-Hunter, and the Prodigal Father are all images of God, arrayed together so that “those who have ears to hear” cannot help but see and perceive and understand—and perhaps, themselves, be converted. Turned in their thinking, turned in their actions toward one another, and in particular toward “them people.”
It is not only Jesus who’s being criticized this morning for hanging out with “them people.” His followers are criticized for doing the same thing.
What would happen if St. Augustine’s Church began to get a reputation around Augusta for being the church that received sinners and ate with them? What kind of trouble would we get into? What vision of the Kingdom of God might we discover in that event?