Did Jesus Really Say That?
Six empty chairs sit around a beautiful old farmhouse table. The table is set impeccably Martha Stewart style—classy but with a simple eloquence. On the table is some of the most exquisite food you have ever seen or smelled. Six empty chairs, a table full of delicious food, and you get to decide who will join you around this table. In this fantasy, you can include people who are dead or living. Fantasies are like that, you get to bring the dead back to life. You have the chance to dine with anyone in the world—dead or alive. Who is on your guest list?
I have engaged this fantasy at various stages of my life. At each stage there have been two people who have made the cut every time—Eleanor Roosevelt and Oprah Winfrey. Outside of those two, my guest list has varied over the years.
In my younger years, and I mean younger, it included Billy Graham, Lottie Moon, and Amy Grant. Don’t laugh; I know some of you also had those folks on an earlier list. It was just part of being Southern Baptist. By the end of my first year of seminary, my invite list had greatly shifted. That list included, in addition to Eleanor and Oprah, Martin Luther King, Mary mother of Jesus, and Jesus himself. It hasn’t been that long ago that I was at a dinner party and this seemingly timeless conversation-starter question resurfaced. If you could invite anyone to dinner, dead or alive, who would you invite? Who sits in those six chairs?
It seems that our friend Jesus was always getting in trouble for whom he included on his dinner guest list. Among the regular invitees were sinners, tax collectors, women, lepers, and any one in first-century Palestine labeled an outcast. In the gospel of Luke alone, there are ten stories of Jesus eating with various groups of people deemed scandalous. Yes, Jesus’ dinner guest list was regularly landing him in trouble with the religious leaders. The religious and spiritual leaders of the day—the Pharisees and scribes—had a reputation to uphold. They were considered among the highest members of Jewish society.
These priests and preachers were strict rule followers, especially when it came to the Law and tradition, and they went to extremes to avoid those whom they deemed “sinners” because they had a “clean” and proper image to maintain. Tax collectors, infamous for embezzlement and their cooperation with the hated Romans, definitely fell into the “sinner” category.
This story from Luke that we have heard read this morning picks up at a dinner party, or maybe it was a lectionary lunch group gathering. Whether it was lunch or dinner, we read that some sinners had gathered around the table to listen to Jesus, curious about what he was teaching. This didn’t sit well with the religious church going folks who were observing the interaction. No, the story tells us that they started grumbling. Can’t you see them now whispering to one another. John says to Howard, “Can you believe this? He’s over there eating with Harry who hasn’t been sober all year. And lord knows he’s living on the street right now.” Over in the other corner of the fellowship hall is Thelma and Jolene whispering. “Well look at that. He just shared his sandwich with Shirley. Everybody knows Shirley is a lesbian. What a shame the way he welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Being like a mother who has that third eye and ear, Jesus heard the grumblings, the whispers, and he told two stories.
The first story has to do with a sheep that strayed from the herd and how the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep (the whole herd) to go after the one sheep that has gotten lost. And when the shepherd returns with the one there is great joy and rejoicing. The second story uses the imagery of a woman who loses a coin in her house and how she light a lamp and sweeps the house until she finds the one lost coin. And when she finds the penny, she calls together her friends and neighbors and has an impromptu celebration—rejoicing with great joy over having found one lost penny.
Both of these parables in Luke end with a statement about the rejoicing that
takes place over one sinner who repents. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I have to ask: Did Jesus really say that? Or, is it possible, that Luke adds the part about sinners and repentance as his own theological statement? Here’s why I ask that? The first part, about Jesus eating with those marginalized by society and the part about going out and finding those who have been excluded and bringing them back into the circle sounds a lot like Jesus. But that last part about labeling people sinners and this ultimate need for repentance sounds a lot more like the institution—the church folk, the priests and the preachers.
I think Jesus is probably more comfortable with Billy Joel’s theology than preacher Luke’s when it comes to sinners and saints. It seems to me that Jesus would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. At the very least, it seems, he preferred to eat with those labeled sinners. Now, that’s just me guessing about Jesus’ own theological statement. And with that said, I do want to take seriously this word “sinner” since so much of our Western Christian theology focuses on it.
To state the obvious, it is a loaded word. The Oxford dictionary defines sinner as “a person who transgresses against divine law by committing an immoral act or acts.” If you grew up in the church like I did then that word “sinner” was defined with one word: YOU. Even before you were old enough to do anything wrong in the eyes of God, you were a “sinner.” It was your inherited identity from the beginning of creation. End of discussion. Historically, the concept of “sinner” has been used and misused throughout Christendom to keep its subjects under control. By defining the boundaries of what is sinful and who is a sinner, the church has controlled who is in and who is out. If you are suspicious of what I am saying consider this. “Throughout the letters of the New Testament, the people of God are called lots of things. They are the ‘elect’ (I Peter 1:1), ‘faithful brothers and sisters’ (Colossians 1:2), ‘beloved’ (1 John 2:7), ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:2), a ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9), and most of all they are called ‘saints.’ Conspicuously absent from this list is the term ‘sinners.’
There is no place…where the church, the people of God, are collectively called ‘sinners.’ Moreover, an argument can be made that there is no instance in the New Testament where a believer is referred to as a ‘sinner.’” 1 So you see why I raise the question, “Did Jesus really say that?” about heaven rejoicing over sinners who repent.
I understand why good people of faith have shied away from “sinner” language, even left the church over it. The church has used the identity of “sinner” to heap spiritual abuse on those seeking healing from past hurts and wounds. The church has used the identity “sinner” to engage in an atonement theology that seeks to further oppress the human spirit and soul as being unworthy of God’s love and blessing without some bloody, violent sacrifice. If we are “sinners” then there is something inherently wrong with us—a church teaching that blasphemies/desecrates our worth as individuals created in the image of God; the creation that our holy scriptures affirm as good, very good. Christian theology, church teachings got it wrong. Your God-given identity is not that of a wretched sinner. You are not a wretched sinner. Yes—you, me, us—we may be lost at times and in need of being found, brought back into the fold, but our identity as people created in the image of God is NOT that of sinner. The Bible got it right. The Church got it wrong.
I will admit that as someone who sees herself as a kind of Christian rebel— one of those stiff-neck people of faith that the writer of Exodus talks about.
the word sinner starts to sound less offensive. I kind of like the identity of stiff-necked sinner. It puts me into a category of people that Jesus wants to invite to his table. It identifies me as someone the institutional church is not sure about, and that’s a good thing. That identity offers me the opportunity and privilege to stand in solidarity with Jesus in welcoming those that the church chooses to exclude.
That one lost sheep that Jesus talks about wasn’t a sinner. That sheep was Matthew Shepherd, a young gay man that the church told wasn’t good enough for God’s love. That one lost sheep wasn’t a sinner. That sheep was Rosa Parks, a young black woman that society told was not good enough to sit in the front of the bus thus devaluing her identity as a person created in the image of God worthy of dignity and respect. That one lost sheep wasn’t a sinner. That sheep was Derricka Banner, a trans woman of color who was found shot and killed in a vehicle on the morning of September 12, 3 days ago, in Charlotte, NC. A child of God, created in the image of God, that society deemed not worthy of protection.
Jesus wasn’t going after sinners when he told the parables of the lost sheep and coin. Jesus was going after God’s own children that the religious folks—the institutional church—told were not enough, that God didn’t love them, that something was wrong with them. Jesus went and found them and told them they are enough, that God loves them just as they are. Jesus went and found them and told them that they are included, that they are worthy, and that God’s love will walk the hillside and sweep the floor until they know that love.
I recently read this statement: “The one thing that seems to annoy people the most about God is God’s willingness to love…those whom we have decided deserve the exact opposite.” Those Pharisees and scribes—the good church going folks—grumbled because Jesus welcomed at his table those they saw as undeserving of God’s love. The gospel truth is that “God’s love does not discriminate between the sinners and saints.”
The question Luke 15 raises for us is this: Who do we, the good religious church going folk, need to invite to our dinner table? Not because they are
sinners needing us but rather, because of our exclusion of them, we are sinners in need of them.
Six empty chairs. Who of those that the church has labeled as “sinners” we will leave the comfort of our herd and walk this land to invite back to God’s table? Who of those that the church has labeled as “sinners” will we light our lamp, pick up our brooms and start sweeping every floor of this universe until ALL invite back to God’s table? Not because they need us. But for our own redeeming we need them. Six empty chairs! Who will we invite?