Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

As Jesus continues on his journey toward Jerusalem, followed by crowds that include people of every description, his teaching is becoming more and more intense.  Last week, we heard him insist that no one could follow him who had not renounced everything else – family, wealth, or reputation – for the sake of being his disciple.  Scribes and Pharisees had challenged Jesus, but they were still part of the crowd.

In this Sunday’s Gospel we find them once again, complaining because “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”.   Are these words of complaint and disagreement or words of hope and invitation?

On one level the words of the Pharisees and scribes are simply a statement of fact.  It’s what Jesus did; he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  Not only does Luke tell us this but so do Matthew and Mark.  On another level they are an accusation, an indictment, and a judgment.  In the eyes and words of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus is guilty of violating the law and social norms of the day.  He was crossing lines and making himself just a little too available.  He had recently shared a Sabbath meal with prominent Pharisees and now, he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners; a disgrace!

At the deepest level, however, their words are, ironically enough, a statement of the Gospel.  They have just announced the Good News.  Jesus not only welcomes the sinners, he eats with them.  Jesus has aligned himself with them.  Eating with them means there is acceptance and relationship.

It seems that for many, maybe most, sin is a legal category that is primarily restricted to and declarative of physical behaviors rather than descriptive of conditions and relationships.  Sin is seen as a judgment rather than a diagnosis.  For Jesus, however, the defining characteristic of sin is not misbehavior but being lost.

The three parables that make up this chapter in Luke’s Gospel, all focus on the central theme of the certainty of searching, the lost getting found, and the joy that is shared in the finding. 

Notice the parables Jesus offers. They’re not about being wrong. They are about being lost.  A sheep is lost.  A coin is lost.  A son is lost.  His concern is for the one that is lost, missing, absent.  Jesus doesn’t explain how the lost one become lost.  That’s not the issue.  The issue for Jesus is recovering and reclaiming the lost.

In order for the lost to be found, it first had to belong to someone.  The sheep belonged to the shepherd and had strayed away.  He rejoices with his friends and neighbors when it is found.  The coin that the woman lost belonged to her.  When she found it, she too rejoiced with her friends and neighbors that something of her own had been restored to her.  When the wayward “lost” son returns, a feast is organized.  When Jesus told these stories, he was describing things, people, that had once been where they belonged, but had somehow gone missing.

When it comes to us, “getting found” requires acknowledging that we belong to God.  When we stray, lose our way, or even run away from God, he will persistently look for us, and is always ready to welcome us back home with joy.  God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us.  We are his; we belong to him.  Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

When we accept that we belong to God and choose to serve him, it becomes our mission to hold the door open for everyone.  The table keeps getting bigger!  When we read the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin closely, we realize that the ones who need to repent are the ones hearing the story.  A coin or a sheep cannot repent.  Jesus is asking us to open our arms, and our sometimes “closed” circles; join him in searching out the lost, and lead them to his welcoming, forgiving embrace, and all inclusive love.

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