October 19, 2014
“Jesus’ Peculiar Love for the Least, Last, and Lost”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Luke 5:29-31; 6:20-26
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Think back to when you were in elementary school, maybe middle school, and the kids in your class or your neighborhood are picking teams for kickball or dodgeball or ultimate Frisbee or soccer.
Remember how it worked?
The two best players, or sometimes just the loudest, boldest kids, maybe even the popular kids, were appointed as the captains and they picked team, each taking a turn picking players they wanted the most, until they got the very end and there was one person left.
Probably some of you were the last person so you know what it feels like.
If you were never that person, try to put yourself in their shoes.
Or perhaps remember what it felt like to be the one not included on the beach week plans, or the lunch with friends, or the important work meeting. Hold on to that feeling, of being the least, the last, or the lost – the one not wanted, the one not included, the one with the least value.
We are in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life with this story of Jesus and Levi.
Jesus, up until this point, has been calling, teaching and healing.
He has been calling subsistence fisherman and tax collectors. These are the working poor, and the despised, immoral, wealthy traitors.
He has been healing the sick and the paralyzed and the demon possessed. These are the untouchables, the ones seemingly cursed by God.
And he has been teaching, saying, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God . . .for I was sent for this purpose.”
We’ve talked a lot about the kingdom – so you should begin to assume that when Jesus says things and does things, that those things somehow relate to the kingdom – that they tell us about the kingdom.
Just before the banquet that we read about how Jesus calls Levi the tax collector who he finds sitting in a tax booth. Jesus says, “Follow me” and Levi leaves everything behind to follow him.
And Levi throws a banquet. Banquets were very public affairs in a Galilean village.
It was clear who was invited, and those who weren’t watched what was happening. The religious leaders were appalled at who was invited.
The Pharisees weren’t in love with Jesus at this point. He wasn’t their favorite person. He hadn’t done anything to say that he was on their side. They didn’t expect him to be the next great Pharisee.
But here he was doing something offensive. He crossed a line. And the line was, who was in and who was out – who was acceptable and who wasn’t – who was valuable and who wasn’t.
The Pharisees and indeed the general Jewish population had every reason to draw a line when it came to tax collectors. Tax collectors were tax-farmers who bid on contracts to collect taxes in the provinces. They paid the stipulated total directly into the Roman treasury and recouped the costs by collecting taxes.
In essence, having paid the tax up front, they subsequently extorted what they could, keeping the difference as profit. Such tax collectors in countries subject to the Roman Empire were the objects of hatred and detestation so that no one but persons of worthless character were likely to be found in this employment.
Preacher Fred Craddock describes them this way: He was “working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean.”
So according to everyone else, tax collectors were not God’s business, neither were the poor, the disabled, the mentally sick, women, children. The Pharisees are offended at Jesus’ company – rather than associate with people who would bring honor, Jesus and his disciples associated with people who brought them shame.
So here’s the interesting part: the Pharisees would have had no problem with Jesus calling sinners to repentance. They were offended because Jesus was accepting people before they had repented – and that how God’s grace works.
Jesus responds to the offended Pharisees by saying, in essence, I came not for the good people, but for the least, the lost and the last.
What is the promise of healing to those who aren’t sick?
What is forgiveness to those who have not sinned?
What does grace mean to those who do not think they need it?
Only losers can appreciate the blessing Jesus offers.
And suddenly God’s mission, and our discipleship means something entirely different – it consists not in separation (line-drawing) but in association.
Jesus demonstrates that the good news of the kingdom of God is about erasing lines.
We all draw lines, who’s in and who is out, who belongs to us and who doesn’t, who we want to be our friends or our children’s friends. We do it.
I remember this so clearly in high school. I was a friendly person in high school, at least I hope I was, but there were definitely people I didn’t go out of the way to embrace.
A year after I graduated I was invited back to sit on a panel with other graduates to answer questions from students, and I sat next to these kids from my class who I had never been friends with and talked them, and they were amazing, interesting people – and I left that experience feeling like I had missed out getting to know these people because of the lines I had drawn.
So consider where you have your lines drawn, consider who does not belong to you, and then work on erasing that line.
The good news is not only about erasing lines, but also about highlighting what matters most to God.
In the 1970s there was a theological movement in Latin America, called liberation theology, born out of injustice and oppression and poverty. One of the slogans was the phrase “God’s preferential option for the poor” – meaning that God reveals himself as having a preference for those people who are insignificant, marginalized, unimportant, needy, despised and defenseless. Preference implies that in the universality of God’s love, which excludes no one, preference is, “what comes first,” what is most urgent.
Or as one commentator puts it: “God is always on the side of the underdog. God’s unfailing and unflagging concern for the losers of this world is etched across the pages of Scripture in letters deep and clear enough for anyone willing to read.”
So if you are among the unimportant, the needy, the broken, the one picked last, God in Jesus Christ says, you are not last you are first. In God’s kingdom you are not the cursed, you are the blessed.
If you are a follower of Christ, your preference, what comes first, is the same as it is for Jesus – for the least, the last and the lost. The point is: all who God loves, we love. All who God embraces, we embrace. When God erases the lines of who is in and who is out, so do we, and then it is our job to tell everyone about the kingdom without lines.