Eating with Sinners

The readings for Sunday, September 11, 2016, Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Exodus 32:1-11, 13-14; Timothy 1:12-17; and Luke 15:1-32.

Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel is the “Lost and Found” chapter. The headline: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus to listen to him, but the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Tax collectors were among the most despised of all people by their fellow Jews. Why? They bought concessions from the Roman authorities in Roman occupied Palestine to collect taxes for the Romans. They were allowed to keep a certain percentage of taxes collected, but the system was open to abuse and to protection schemes.

Who were the sinners included in the headline of this chapter? Just about anyone who was not part of their in-group. The latter were sitting in haughty judgment of those outside their group. What bothered them was the fact that Jesus, to them a would-be teacher, associated with those who in their opinion were trash. Not only did he associate with them, he engaged in table fellowship with them, “He eats with them.” One can imagine Jesus’ critics saying, “Does he have no self-respect?” Then there is Pope Francis inviting homeless people to dine with him, and adopting a lifestyle to which the poor can relate. A letter in Jesuit America Magazine quotes some Italian bishops as grumbling about the Pope, “And the people expect us to live like he does!”

In response to his critics the Lucan Jesus throws down a challenge in the form of three parables. A shepherd has a hundred sheep. One gets lost. He leaves the ninety-nine alone in the desert and goes after the lost sheep until he finds it. When he returns home he throws a party for his friends to celebrate the finding of the lost. In the second parable a woman has ten coins. (It is interesting to point out a characteristic of Luke’s style. A story about a man is teamed with a story about a woman. Two examples: Annunciation to Zechariah, then to Mary; Simeon, then Anna in the temple at the presentation of Jesus.)

So the woman with ten coins loses one coin. All efforts are made to find that lost coin. When she finds it, she too throws a party. Luke provides the parables with a “spiritual ending.” After the first parable: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who do not need repentance.” After the second parable: “thus the same way there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” These responses should have been enough to remind the critics that God is not like them, that God loves even tax collectors and sinners of whatever kind. As Pope Francis said to reporters on a plane about a certain class of “sinners,” “Of such a person who is seeking God — who is of good will, who am I to judge?” But in case the grumblers were still grumbling, the Lucan Jesus adds a parable about a wayward fellow Jew who, from their point of view, reaches the bottom of sinfulness — prostitution and feeding hogs, to them the ultimate unclean animal.

The parable of the prodigal (free-spending, wasteful) son. A man had two sons. The younger decided it was time to split. He asks for his inheritance. The father gives it to him, and so the parable could be called “Parable of the Foolish Father.” The boy leaves home. He blows his whole inheritance on loose living.  The boy was starving. This boy has reached bottom. A conversion brought on by desperation! He decides to return to his father not as a son but as a servant or slave. At least he would have food and shelter. The father welcomes him again as a son. Another party! Luke loves parties.

The father of the parable, or in this case, an allegory, represents the heavenly Father who seeks repentant sinners, waits for them, welcomes them home. The story could finish at this point but Luke decides to clean up loose ends. Nothing as yet about the older son. Seems there is another sinner in the family, but a different kind of sinning — jealousy. The older brother is The older brother refused to enter the house and join the merriment. But the father reminds him, “All I have is yours and you are always with me. But now we must party, because your brother was dead and has come to life, lost and was found.” Can human nature imitate the unlimited forgiveness of this “foolish” father? Such is our Father in heaven!