“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2
Jesus’ welcome was way too wide for the spiritual experts of his time. They didn’t like the people he welcomed, how they looked, where they were from, or how they worshipped. The Pharisees, Judaism’s self-appointed Inner Circle in Jesus’ day, weren’t interested in reaching Outer Circlers. They were way too busy judging them. It’s hard to give people a hand up and push down on them at the same time. The restrictive spirituality of those who looked on the aimless and adrift with disdain sets the tone for the rest of the chapter and the three parables that Jesus told to expose it.
Jesus knew that Inner Circlers tend to become enamored with their special status and move furthest away from the most disoriented and least desirable. Remarkably, even John, the innermost of the Inner Circle got his circles confused at times. “We saw a man driving out demons in your name,” he told Jesus, “and we tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us!” Hmm, not really Outer Circle kind of talk. Later he and James – the brothers who wanted to sit at Jesus right and left in his kingdom – put in a request to call fire down on hated Samaritans. They reveled in Inner Circle status while neglecting their Outer Circle responsibility.
As the gospel of the Outer Circle, Luke has recently become favored territory for me. In his book he told more than the other three Jesus Bios about his interactions with Samaritans (9:51ff; 10:30ff; 17:11ff), with pagans (2:32; 3:6, 38; 4:25ff; 7:9; 10:1; 24:47), with outcasts (3:12; 5:27ff; 7:37ff;19:2ff; 23:43), with tax collectors, with lepers, and with women (a woman’s status in the first century wasn’t any better, and often worse, than these others).
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
He didn’t deny it or even try to justify his interaction with the least, last, and lost. Instead, he told three parables that show that he not only welcomes people on the fringe, but goes out of his way to seek them out, and when he finds them he throws a party!
The parables are all about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. A shepherd lost a sheep, he looked for it, found it, lifted it on his shoulders, carried it home, and threw a party. When a woman misplaced a valuable coin, she lit a lamp, furiously swept out every corner of her house, found it, and called her friends over to celebrate. A father’s youngest son leaves home, wastes his inheritance with out of control living, in desperation returned home where his father, much to his oldest son’s displeasure, was waiting with open arms and made a huge party to commemorate the lost son’s homecoming.
All three stories confronted the religious experts’ entitled sense of special status, their Inner Circle mentality. They presumed special treatment from God because they kept the rules, well, most of them; and expected him to fence out everyone else. Those Pharisaical Inner Circlers routinely neglected, even rejected, all Outer Circle lowlifes.
In each parable Jesus taught us something about his relationship to the least and lost – the Outer Circle. In his lost sheep story he says that he’s an Outer Circle-seeking Savior, the story of the son who came home shows that he anxiously waits for returning Outer Circlers, and the parable of the woman in search of her lost coin presses us to be Outer Circle-seeking saints.