My father-in-law’s favorite movie, believe it or not, is Babe, the movie about the pig who was raised by sheepdogs, all under the watchful eye of Farmer Hoggett. Today’s Gospel lesson (again, believe it or not) reminds me of Babe, or at least a construct in my father-in-law’s favorite film. “The animals on Hoggett Farm all had pre-conceived notions about one another: sheep were convinced that dogs were stupid, dogs were convinced that sheep were stupid and—as the narrator often intoned—nothing would convince them otherwise. “The way things are is the way things are” the animal characters would say to one another as a way to bolster their iron-clad worldviews.”1
The dogs and the sheep and the pigs had nothing on Pharisees and the tax collectors and the average everyday sinners of Roman Palestine. The way things were was the way things were, and everybody knew it. Everybody knew that saints didn’t hang out with sinners, and some sinners didn’t even hang out with other sinners.
(As a quick historical aside, let’s remember that even slave owners didn’t hang out with slave traders; even the children of the owners were, for the most part, forbidden to hang out with the children of the traders. The closest modern-day equivalent in the U.S. might be drug-taker/drug dealer relationship. Much in the same way, prostitutes in Roman Palestine thought tax collectors were a special kind of scum.)
So into this world comes Jesus, and as I’ve mentioned before, He went ahead and mucked it all up. Luke tells us that at some point “all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him,” presumably to hear Him speak on a specific topic. But while the crowds were milling about, the Pharisees did what the Pharisees usually did: they started complaining about Jesus and the low company He kept. “This Man receives sinners and eats with them,” they said.
Now, these sinners, these notorious sinners who couldn’t even hide how much they sinned, they were considered unclean; the Pharisees believed that if you touched those people, if you were even around those people, you too could become unclean. If you did something like eat with a sinner, you were, by association, approving of their sin. If you had dinner with a swindling tax collector then you must approve of stealing from your own people.
So does this mean that Jesus, by hanging out and eating with notorious sinners, approved of their actions? By no means. We can tell by Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that we heard today. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin address, by their very names, how Jesus felt about sinners: lost. Lost sheep, lost coins. “Jesus does not deny that the sheep and the coin were lost. Happiness and joy arise when the sheep and coin are found; happiness and joy arise when sinners repent. Jesus ate with “sinners and tax collectors” not to approve their sinful behavior, but rather out of desire that they repent.”2
We too can have some preconceived notions about people we come across. “He’s one of those people,” or “I saw her going into that place.” Not unlike Pharisees and sinners or sheep and dogs, we find it safer to compartmentalize, to keep us here and them there, lest there be any cross-contamination. Am I urging you all to go out and find some drug dealers or pimps to hang out with? No, I am not. I am expecting that if a drug dealer or pimp walked through those doors and sat down, that we would hand him or her a bulletin and invite them for coffee upstairs.
That’s what makes us Christians, by the way, followers of Jesus; when we acknowledge that we too were once lost and in need of being found; we can take joy at the salvation of others, we can rejoice when our Lord runs off in pursuit of that lost sheep, that sinner of great value, knowing that we too are sinners of great value, knowing that Heaven threw a great big party when we joined the fold. And if you find yourself running into a lost sheep or two, remind them that Jesus has been looking for them, and invite them to join the party.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week.
2Gregory S. Baylor, Eating With Tax Collectors and Sinners, speakupmovement.org.