“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.‘
Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.‘”
In the 21st century we are not quite familiar with tax collectors and the negative reputation they had in society, but we can substitute many other modern examples into that blank that accurately represent the same feelings. For example, in our community it is easy to insert drunks, addicts, gang members, prostitutes, and any number of other labels of people who are often seen in the same light (or darkness, rather) as the tax collectors of Jesus’ time. What we can understand by the Biblical and modern examples is that Jesus was pretty buddy-buddy with the people that no one else wanted to speak to or even acknowledge. He was so close with them, in fact, that the religious leaders were appalled by him, grumbling and muttering about him in disgust.
It is easy to picture Jesus with these outcasts and cheer him on as we point our fingers at the Pharisees and religious leaders and condemn their lack of understanding. What is difficult, though, is to not just picture Jesus but to do as Jesus did. We are, oftentimes, content for the outcasts to ‘gather around and hear’ us as we preach about the Good News of Jesus Christ, but we are challenged to take that to another level, the standard that Christ set for us, by ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them.’ Yes, eating with them. Not leaving a meal and taking off, but eating with them.
A good friend of mine and volunteer in the ministry once relayed to me a story he heard told by Francis Chan. Francis and his wife (I believe) were preparing to invite a good number of impoverished people to their home for a meal. They were beyond excited to share with their guests the delicious food and welcoming atmosphere of their home; they just could not wait for the evening of the dinner! Zero costs were cut and all measures were taken to make this the most memorable evening ever. During it all, Francis made the connection to the Father and the way He desires for us to join Him at the banquet table- zero costs cut and all measures taken as He shows us His divine love.
I do doubt that Jesus worried himself with table runners, chargers, and centerpieces when he ate with the sinners, but I can imagine he welcomed them as one would welcome any distinguished and honored guest- or as Francis and his wife welcomed and ate with their homeless friends.
Chapter 15 of Luke has been on my mind a lot recently as we delve deeper and deeper into eating with sinners and ‘tax collectors’ in our own community. We have delved so deep, in fact, that we have gained negative attention from the local authorities. On two separate occasions in the past three weeks our home has been raided by anti-drug, anti-gang, preventative, military, and who knows what other kind of police. Each time we were accused of collaborating with the local gang as the authorities had received tips from someone in town to that effect. We were also accused of money laundering (that has to be modern day tax collecting, right?) as well as moving drugs. All this fuss just because we have opened our home to the sinners and tax collectors.
Obeying Christ’s example almost always comes at a cost. Not because it is difficult, but because the world continues to be firmly opposed to the Gospel. When I was finally given the opportunity to share about the ministry and why we do invite sinners into our home, I was (not so kindly) reminded that associating myself with these people could have negative repercussions for my own life, mostly because of the reputation that they expect me to uphold. Additionally, I was rhetorically asked why I even bother with ‘these people.’ Even knowing it was a question they did not want answered, I responded all the same. We work with ‘these people’ because they deserve to hear the Good News of salvation just as much as anyone else, including myself and the very same police officers. We work with ‘these people’ because the blood of Jesus Christ heals and redeems even the worst sinner.
Luke follows up this scene with Jesus and the Pharisees with two more parables that Jesus uses to demonstrate just how far the Father will go to bring one of His children home: the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the lost son.
After just finishing Henri J.M. Nouwen’s short book The Return of the Prodigal Son, I cannot help but focus more on that parable. Nouwen discusses the impact that Rembrandt’s painting of the same name had on him the first time he saw it while visiting L’Arche community in Trosly, France. The book is divided into three parts, signifying the three stages of self-reflection through which the painting brought Nouwen: the younger son, the elder son, and the father. In short, he confesses his journey from being the wayward prodigal son to the resentful elder son, unwilling to celebrate the younger son’s return. Ultimately, Nouwen challenges both himself and his reader to not only return to the Father, but to become Him. He states:
“Jesus wants to make it clear that the God of whom he speaks is a God of compassion who joyously welcomes repentant sinners into his house. To associate and eat with people of ill repute, therefore, does not contradict his teaching about God, but it does, in fact, live out this teaching in everyday life… If God welcomes sinners home, then certainly those who trust in God should do likewise.”
“As the Father, I am no longer called to come home as the younger or elder son, but to be there as the one to whom the wayward children can return and be welcomed with joy.”
At some point, we must all grow up, so to say, and mature from the younger/elder son to the Father. Jesus is sharing about God’s amazing love and acceptance just as much as he is challenging us to live out that same love and acceptance. He is asking us to risk our reputations and put ourselves in the line of criticisms and false accusations as we dare to live out his commands.
Again, this is much more easily said than done, especially once real or perceived-to-be-real consequences arise. I have to admit, I am slightly more hesitant to let our modern day tax collectors into the house after having a gun pointed to my temple by modern day Pharisees. But there is a boldness that one acquires as a child of the Most High, and that boldness is what allows me to continue opening my doors to ‘welcome sinners and eat with them’ even in the face of such serious accusations and criticisms. It is the challenge of Jesus to become the Father and to welcome the wayward children, to excite ourselves at the mere thought of preparing a table for our outcasted guests.
It is less than two months before our deadline to purchase the mission house we rent in town, and I cannot help but see these raids as spiritual attacks from the enemy to try to run us out of town. The light that our house provides to the wayward children of Ciudad España is a direct threat against the darkness with which the enemy desires to blanket this community. The table that we prepare for the sinners both terrifies and angers the enemy.
In boldness and faith, we will continue to ‘welcome and eat with sinners’ as we strive to show them who the Father is.