Pentecost +14

So when I was researching today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Howie Mandel popped into my head.  If that sounds weird, it is, but I couldn’t help think of how Howie, through no fault of his own, really won’t shake hands with anyone.  He “has spoken publicly about having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which can take many forms, including mysophobia (which is a fear of being contaminated by germs).  Mandel’s anxiety affects him to the point that he does not shake hands with anyone, including enthusiastic contestants on Deal or No Deal, unless he is wearing latex gloves.”[1]  Like I said, this isn’t Howie’s fault, nor do I judge anyone else who doesn’t like to be touched.  My mentor Fr. Doug was famous for always being a good two arms length away from everybody.  But Jesus, apparently, was a hugger.

“In Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” (receives in the RSV) sinners and tax collectors.  The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms.  The image here is very nearly of an embrace.  This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in of this person.”[2]  It’s a bear hug.

What kind of people did Jesus tend to hug?  The worst of the worst.  Tax collectors, those rotten scoundrels who were traitors to their own people, in this case Israelites exacting tolls and fees to funnel to their own oppressors.  “Sinners” seems like a broad term, and it is.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, after all.  But there were a few groups of people that the Pharisees and other religious rulers considered to be beyond the pale: Jewish money lenders who charged interest on loans to other Jews; business managers who stole wages and deprived workers of what was theirs; degenerate gamblers (think the Prodigal Son, spending his money on games and loose women); and those loose women themselves, prostitutes if you want to boil it down.  And Jesus apparently had a habit of hugging all these people.

The Pharisees did not approve of all this, nor do they come off as big huggers anyway.  And so Jesus tells the Pharisees, and not just them but everyone gathered, the righteous and sinner alike, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

These are not the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to figure out.  God loves us so much that He pursues us.  He puts on His gear and breaks out His tactical flashlight and comes after us, like an old lady searching for a coin that represents the last of what she has, or like a shepherd who’d rather die than lose his favorite sheep to the encroaching wolves.

No, this parable is not difficult to decipher.  But it can be heard in different ways by different people.

The Pharisees no doubt did not like this message.  Theirs is an easy trap to fall into: I’m an upright citizen, I go to church every Sunday, I never break the law, and I’ve never even laid eyes on, say a prostitute; surely God loves me more, maybe He even likes me more, than those sinners.

On the flip side, those same sinners no doubt rejoiced at hearing this parable.  I can’t count the amount of people who have told me that they are beyond redemption, unsavable.  They’ve done too much, seen too much, too much has been done to them.  God doesn’t want them.

Not so, says Jesus.  God loves them so much, wants them so much, that He leaves the righteous where they are – they’ll be fine – to be with the lost, the excluded, the hopeless sinner.  To literally sit down and eat with them, comfort them, bring them back to the fold.

What all of us need to hear, for the first time or for the hundredth, is that no matter if you are the righteous or the sinner, the ruler or the excluded, is that God wants you; He will chase you down; and when you turn to Him, even if you’re really into personal space, He’s going to give you a huge hug.

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