“I Saw Them Eating and I Knew Who They Were”
September 11, 2022
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So, he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ ***
The feeling of being lost is one many people encounter at some point in life. Though most people do not talk about it, a variety of experiences can bring about feelings of being lost.
Life’s transitions can bring a sense of being lost; a divorce, the death of a loved one, loss of job, a terminal diagnosis. Being uncertain about the next step to take in life or a that you have lost your spark can bring a sense of being lost. Whatever the root cause, feeling lost can diminish one’s sense of footing and can impact connections to family, friends, even God.
Today, Luke presents Jesus talking about the impact of being lost and as he does this, he paints us a vivid picture of who God is and how God acts. Using two parables, Jesus draws us in and offer us the possibility of seeing God anew.
The setting for the parables is announced by Luke at the start: Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
The Pharisees and scribes were the teachers of the law and fine, upstanding religious folks in the community. They came to listen to Jesus and were appalled to see who has gathered around him.
There is Middle Eastern proverb that Jesus may have known: “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” In contrast to our dining habits of meals on the fly or eating with others while staring at our phones, in Jesus’ day how you dined and who you ate with was a matter of critical concern.
Among the Pharisees and other Jews, eating together was literally a religious experience. To eat together was to celebrate the faith they shared, which included extremely specific rules about what happened around the table. Cleanliness was paramount: clean food, clean dishes, clean hands, clean hearts. A proper Jewish meal was a worship service in which believers honored God by sanctifying the most ordinary details of their lives.
The table practices and dining observances of Jesus offended a lot of people. He ignored the finger bowl by his plate. He thought nothing of sitting down to eat with people whose lives declared their contempt for religion. People saw Jesus eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners and who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.
Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor paints us a picture of what the table fellowship of Jesus might look like today. She sets this dining experience at a table in a local café. Around it is an abortion doctor, a gun dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, a Laotian chicken-plucker, a teenage meth addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with her 5 children by 3 different fathers in tow. Sitting at the head of the table, Jesus asks the young man to hand him a roll and then offers the doctor one more cup of coffee before she heads back to the clinic.
But the scene does not end there. In come some pastors from the local ministerial association. They plop themselves down in a far booth across from the sinners. These pastors all have good teeth and well-groomed fingernails. When their food comes, they hold hands to pray. They are all perfectly nice people. But they can hardly stomach their grilled cheese sandwiches at the sight of the strange crowd around the far table.
The chicken-plucker is still wearing her white hair net. The garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict can barely bring spoon to mouth. But to these nicely groomed, religiously upright folks in the far booth, none of the characters at the table is the heartbreaker. The heartbreaker is Jesus, sitting there as if everything were simply fine. Doesn’t he know what kind of message he is sending? Who is going to believe he speaks for God if he does not keep better company than that? I saw them eating and I knew who they were.
Jesus answers his critics by pulling out his sketchbook and drawing a shepherd who wanders off in worry, leaving his flock to find one little lost sheep. And when he finds it, he throws it over his shoulder, calling together his friends and saying, “Rejoice” — which meant let us have a feast and celebrate! Turning to his critics, Jesus casts a look which says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
And then, Jesus flips the page and produces another sketch, a poor woman who sweeps madly to find one lost coin. When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And a big wingding begins.
“That’s what God is like,” Jesus remarks loud enough for the ministerial group to hear. Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
This is a disturbing story for those who want a black and white, ritually right, neat and clean God. There is alarm in these parables because Jesus is all for hanging out with the wrong people. Yet, we learn Jesus is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill.
But more keenly, these parables are about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise each other. We simply cannot, no matter how wrong any of us has been. The only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationships with each other.
Like I said, Jesus told this story to the ministerial association that was complaining about his dinner parties. He told them he could not hear them all the way across the restaurant, that they should come over and pull up some chairs. Because he saw them eating and he knew who they were — so clean, so right, so angry — he wanted to help them too, so he said, “Come meet my friends. Dessert is on me!”
And as far as we know, he is still waiting to see how the story ends.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Table Manners,” Christian Century, March 11, 1998, 257