One of the benefits of writing a sermon for a weekday service is that it forces me to wait until later in the day to write a typical post about the lessons for this coming Sunday. Because of that, I have the benefit of reading what other people have written, and that gives me the chance to build upon their work or engage it in a dialogue or argument even though that wasn't the intent of the author. Today, I want to engage with what Steve Pankey wrote today about sinners. It's a great, short post, and I hope you'll read it first.
In that post, Steve distinguishes between what we often think of as "sinners"--all people who have fallen short of the glory of God and, thus, need God's forgiveness--and what Luke has in mind in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 15:1-10)--a particularly notorious class of people who were defined by their sin. To make that point, he quotes Greg Carey: "Congregations may stumble over the term sinner, especially if they are well educated in Christian doctrine. 'Aren’t we all sinners?' some may protest. Not in Luke’s world. In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not."
Think about that for a moment. Yes, we're all sinners, but Luke isn't trying to make that point. (I'd argue that he isn't trying to refute that point, either; it's just not on his radar.) Luke wants us to see that there are two kinds of people in Jesus' world: saints and sinners--holy ones and unholy ones. Sure, a lot of people fell somewhere in between, but on either end of the societal spectrum were individuals whom everybody recognized. The Pharisees and scribes were those who were defined by their holiness, and the sinners and tax collectors were those who were defined by their wickedness. This encounter involves not the vast majority of people somewhere in between über-holiness and über-sinfulness but the people on the margins.
Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about it. This isn't a group of goodie-goodies grousing about the rabbi's sermon on welcoming the outcast. It's more extreme than that. This is the board of deacons shocked and appalled that the minister is having a rowdy dinner at the local strip club. As Steve rightly points out, the "sinners" that Jesus is dining with have no place in the religious life of Israel. They were so bad that, according to the religious expectations of the day, there wasn't any reason for them to try. In modern, Christianized terms, they were so sinful that they could not come to church. They were not welcome. Their very presence would disrupt the entire worship service. Yet Jesus ate with them. What does that tell us about God? What does it tell us about the sinners? And what does it tell us about the holy ones who would have excluded the sinners in the first place?
The image of the banquet table is a central expression of the hopes of God's people. Who gets to come to that table? Jesus shows us that notorious sinners get to eat at that table. But what about the Pharisees? What about the individuals who are defined by their holiness? They don't want to eat at the same table as the sinners. They'd rather not take part in that version of God's kingdom. So are they left out? What value does their supposed holiness have? Do they still have access to God? Apparently not.
I get Luke's point and Steve's point: this passage is about Jesus sharing a meal with religion's rejects. And that is challenging for those who appeal to religion for an understanding of what it means to have a right relationship with God. But I'd suggest that this passage isn't only about radical welcome. Nor is it simply about a rejection of the apparatus for righteousness embraced by the Pharisees and scribes. It's also about those of us in the middle--the vast majority of sinful saints or saintly sinners, depending on your willingness to embrace a doctrine of human depravity. Regardless, it's clear that Jesus sets a table for the wicked. Religion of all stripes sets a table for the holy. Where will we find a seat? We may not be drug dealers and prostitutes, but the table for religion's righteous isn't where we want to be. There is no hope for us at that table. But, if we want a seat at Jesus' table, we must understand our own sinfulness--a label that we all wear.