We all grumble from time-to-time, don’t we? Have you ever paid attention to the kinds of things you tend to grumble about? Specifically, do you ever grumble about THEM? You know, those people who aren’t like us. They don’t do things like us. Or look like us. Or think like us. Who are some of the THEMs that you find yourself grumbling about? Politicians? Welfare mothers? People who don’t speak English? Parents who don’t know how to keep their kids under control in church? Gun owners? People who listen to Rush Limbaugh? That kid in the car next to you who’s blasting hip- hop music filled with profanity? Fundamentalists? Convicted felons? Anyone our military is fighting against? People who drive around in cars with license plates that say: New Jersey?Steelers fans? (I’m sorry, but they’re the worst!) Most of us have some THEMs in our lives who can get us to grumbling.
In the 15th chapter of Luke, there’s a whole lot of grumbling going on. This time it’s the scribes and the Pharisees who are doing the grumbling. And they’re grumbling about THEM, the wrong kind of people. They don’t like the way Jesus is blurring the boundary between US and THEM. He’s actually eating and drinking with THEM, something that was reserved for your most intimate circle of friends in that culture, something that was reserved for US.
Well, after Jesus has finally heard enough of their grumbling, he tells them three parables. We have the first two in today’s gospel reading: the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. If we continued to read to the end of chapter 15 we’d learn how Jesus brings it all home with a third parable, the one about the lost son.
Here, let's just focus on the parable of the lost sheep, which is often interpreted by Christians something like this… There is a shepherd and he has 100 sheep. One of them goes astray. That lost sheep is like people who fall away from God. And it’s our job to go out and find them, like the shepherd. We need to get those poor lost sheep in with US so someday they can go to heaven. If they don’t, when they die they’re going straight to hell.
That’s the way the woman who was on my bus tour to the Grand Canyon this summer would explain it. When she found out that one of the men with us was Hindu, she blurted out, “Have you ever thought about becoming a Christian?” “Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “So when you die you can go to heaven with all of us,” she actually said that. To her way of thinking, the whole purpose of being a Christian is so you can be among those who go to heaven. If you’re not a Christian, you’re going to hell. So, this is serious stuff.
What does a theology like that say about a God of love? We really like to hang onto the idea that God loves US. But we’re not so crazy about the idea that God loves THEM. So we decide that until they become like US, they’re lost; they’re doomed to hell.
Well, folks, that’s not what this parable is about. It’s not about how we need to go out and find the poor lost souls and bring them into the fold. Because it’s not about us at all. It’s about God. And we’re ALL a part of God’s fold. There is no US and THEM with God. All are children of God, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. No matter how we might label them. No matter what language they speak. No matter what the color of their skin is. No matter whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Pagan, Christian, or religionless. All are included in God’s wide embrace of love. Even those who don’t want to be included. Doesn’t matter. God loves them.
Jesus is saying: “So you’re grumbling because I’m hanging out with the wrong people? Really? Here’s how it works with God. With God, there is not one person who is beyond God’s loving embrace. Not a single one.”
And here’s the zinger… One of the things about parables is that Jesus always puts the zinger at the very end. In this case, with three parables in a row, you need to go to the very end of the very last parable to find it. It’s the story of the older son who is so miffed at his father, for throwing a party for his good-for-nothing brother who has returned home, that the older son can’t even bring himself to come into the house. Instead, he stands out in a field and grumbles. “My father welcomes a sinner and eats with him!” Sound familiar?
Yeah, Jesus is talking about the scribes and the Pharisees here, isn’t he? But he’s also addressing any of us who ever grumble about THEM. The sheep, and the coin, and the young son aren’t the only ones who are lost in Luke 15. There may be no one who is as lost at those who grumble about THEM. They’re so lost that they don’t even know they’re lost. And that may be the worst kind of lost there is.
The grumblers are the lost souls who are waiting for a party someday, in the future. And the all-important question that drives their thoughts and actions is, “Who will be invited to this big party and who won’t?” Of course, judgment is pronounced against THEM. Unless they can become more like US, there will be no party for THEM. But here’s the danger in spending our time and energy fretting about them, or trying to convince them that they should become more like us, or fearing them because they threaten us or make us feel uncomfortable and then doing all we can to protect ourselves from THEM. Here’s the problem with that way of thinking… The party isn’t someday in the future. The party has already begun. There’s this ongoing party in the universe, hosted by our extravagant Creator, for all of creation. It’s a celebration of beauty, and adventure, and friendship, deeper understanding, and love… with lots of singing and dancing and laughter and good eats.
How much of your life are you going to waste grumbling about THEM? Let me assure you that God loves us grumblers, too. Lost though we are, we’re also included in God’s loving embrace. But here’s what we need to realize: the more time we spend grumbling about THEM, the more we’re missing out on the best party ever.