The Gospel text for this week comes from Luke, Chapter 15. It contains two parallel parables, beautiful in their simplicity. Take a look:
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or 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? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The story continues last week’s theme of God changing our direction. Then we talked about outward versus inwards, lines versus circles. These stories highlight the difference between exclusion and inclusion, revealing God’s bias towards the latter.
In this reading, the indoctrinated religious leaders of the time made a motion towards exclusivity. They openly wondered why Jesus was welcoming, and eating with, people who were not in the religious fold, deemed unworthy of joining.
It’s easy for us to cast stones at those leaders, saying, “Thank goodness we’re not them!” This claim does not hold up to scrutiny. How many of us have heard, or used, terms like, “believers and unbelievers” or “church members and non-members”? We’re taught that our identity depends on dividing the world into insider and outsider designations.
We extend these designations to our relationship with God. We define sacredness by location. We call the church, “God’s house” and caution our children to be on their best behavior when they cross that threshold, as if God resided inside and not outside, as if God were in the business of judging whether our behavior conforms to standards. Within “God’s house” stands the altar, considered to be even more sacred, and thus more off-limits to normal people. In the altar area many churches lift statues, representations of God or saints or angels looking down, inaccessible and unapproachable.
When we express faith in this way, we end up with a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. God (supposedly) lives in the smallest, center circle. Each circle outside of that is bigger, but also less “holy”. Personal holiness is determined by how close to the bullseye you get. Those in proximity to the altar and the church are presumed holier than those outside. Those who memorize and repeat correct beliefs of the church are presumed holier than those who doubt, disagree, or never learn them.
Constructing things this way, we separate God from the world. We also separate ourselves from each other. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, we ask, “How can God possibly be with someone who is not as close to the center as I am right now, especially considering all the work I’ve put in and the time I’ve spent shooting at this target?”
Today we read about a God who refuses to be localized. When asked why he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus gives a response that amounts to, “God doesn’t stay where you try to put him.” We hear the story of a sheep tender leaving the flock to seek out a single, lost lamb. We hear the story of a woman turning her house inside-out to find one, lost coin even though nine already sit upon her table. Each time, the seeker ranges far and wide, rejoicing when the object of their search is discovered and reunited even harder than they rejoice over the existing flock.
When religious leaders attempt to draw circles and exclude, Jesus roams, recovers, and welcomes. He does not ask about qualifications, fitness, or how near the bullseye the arrow hits. He zooms off the target altogether, catching not only our stray arrows, but us! He delights in doing this, because he loves us!
Being “Christ-like” does not mean hitting the mark or living close to the center. It does not mean drawing lines and excluding those who do not qualify by the traditional standards of holiness. Being Christ-like means including, embracing, and loving as peers those whom God has wandered off the grid to welcome.
Inclusion and exclusion are not equally valid approaches to faith. Inclusion follows God, allows for the possibility that God finds and calls people who don’t measure up to our preconceived standards. God exists beyond us, working to transform and move us. Exclusion places our standards in place of God’s work. It limits God’s work in space and time. God dwells only with us, for the express purpose of making us look good compared to our neighbors. This not only puts us at odds with them, but with God.