The Pharisees viewed sinful people primarily in categories of guilt, defilement and judgement. People had done wrong, they deserved to pay for that. Punitive justice. The Pharisees could express a little of that reality by excluding people socially and religiously, letting them feel a bit of the final judgement in advance. This distancing also kept the good guys safe from ‘catching’ the defilement.
Jesus here busts up that view completely, presenting in its place a fundamentally different category controlling his view of sinful humans: lost. This category explains Jesus’ mission just like the Pharisees’ category of ‘wicked’ or ‘dirty’ explained their way of treating people. While they distanced themselves from others, Jesus went seeking out sinful people to bring them back. Justice, yes, but restorative justice. The sort that puts things right. Its other name is grace.
This confrontation in Luke 15 challenges us to radically rethink our paradigm for dealing with human sinfulness. The big picture here, bigger than the other realities of disobedience or rebellion or evil or godlessness, is lostness. The people we know who don’t love Jesus, don’t love him because they have lost their home and their true Father, everything that makes them most truly who they are: they have really lost themselves in the process. Their lives of sin are not , in the whole, planned, at least not by them. They simply don’t know what they’re doing, or where they’re going. Of course they are prey to every dark and wicked force that lies waiting to ensnare and enslave them. That’s because they’re lost.
The tragic thing is that so often Christians still think and talk about their neighbours in the old Pharisaic categories. We so often talk as though what our society needs is to be confronted with its own wickedness and made ashamed, to realise God is against it. We offer a message which is largely preoccupied with retributive justice. Exactly the program of the Pharisees.
Trouble is, this view of things does not naturally lead to mission. Not to Jesus’ mission, anyway.
We would do better to listen to Jesus and let our theology be challenged and rewritten by his gospel. I.e. we need to learn to see it like he does. Then perhaps we might be able to take part in the mission his view of things inspires. Of seeking the lost with grace.
That’s the line I’m planning to take next Sunday, anyway. How does that sound?