Throughout history there have always been some who haven’t fitted in—whether because of race, religion, economics or social standing. And the world today is no exception.
Of course, as we watch the news or read the paper, there are a constant stream of stories from overseas of minorities suffering at the hands of majorities; there are many who seem to live with the violence and rejection every day.
But we don’t have to just look overseas for the kinds of people who don’t fit in—Australia has many of its own. And although in Australia our outcasts may not face the same kind of persecution that many overseas face, nevertheless we still have our share of homeless, unwanted, unloved, and uncared for people, who are snubbed or looked down upon by society.
So, this morning, two questions. Should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of our society? And if so, what should we be doing?
B. THE GOSPEL FOR THE OUTCAST
Well, I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers today. But I do suggest that there is no more appropriate place to start looking for the answers to both of these questions, than in our Gospel reading for today. Because in our gospel reading we have a description of a very mixed bunch indeed.
1. Introduction (15:1-3)
There were “tax collectors”—Jewish agents collecting money for the Roman government. A group detested by the people of the day. Not only did they work for their pagan conquerors, but they had a habit of defrauding the common people as well. There were “sinners”—not necessarily evil people, but simply people who refused to follow the Law of Moses, as it was re-interpreted by the teachers of the Law. Of course, this group may have included adulterers, robbers and the like, but it probably included many “good” people too. And then there was Jesus.
And the significance of the meal they were sharing? Well the fact that Jesus was sitting down and eating with them all would have been seen as a sign of friendship; a sign of acceptance; recognition by Jesus that they had worth.
And in addition to that group, there were some Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, “tutting” to themselves and complaining about how Jesus could possibly have any time or regard for these outcasts.
And this was the situation that Jesus used to get his message across. And his message had two principle purposes: firstly, to make the statement that all people are valuable in God’s eyes; and secondly, the need for all people to hear the message of salvation.
As a consequence, Jesus didn’t just spend time with the tax collectors and sinners, whilst the Pharisees and teachers of the law looked on. He told three stories as well. (Only two of which we are going to look at today.)
2. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:4-7)
And the first story he told was the familiar Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Now, on the surface the parable may seem a harmless story—a story about the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. But for those listening they would have recognised it for its shock value.
It was a story of a shepherd in charge of a hundred sheep, who when counting them at the end of the day, noticed that there was one missing. Now the audience hearing this story would have known very well the consequences for the shepherd. The shepherd would have been personally responsible for his charges. If one was missing, unless he could prove it was killed by a wild animal, he would have had to replace it out of his own pocket. Not an easy thing for a poor herdsman. So when Jesus got to the point in the story where the lost sheep was found, many there would have joined in the joy of that shepherd. They would also have understood the application that Jesus made, regarding the rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents.
All seemingly quite innocent. Except in an audience of tax collectors, sinners, and religious leaders, the significance of telling a story about a shepherd would not have been lost. Being a “herdsmen” was one of the most despised occupations in the eyes of the Pharisees. The Pharisees and teachers would not have enjoyed the story at all. The point of the story, then, was that Jesus was not only illustrating God’s concern for the so-called outcasts of society, but he was exposing the Pharisees with their prejudices against such people, who they considered were not good enough to mix with.
3. The Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10)
And the second story, the Parable of the Lost Coin, was equally designed to have shock value.
It was the story of a woman who had ten coins. She lost one, and consequently lit a lamp, and searched for the coin until it was found. Then when she found it she was full of joy. And the story, again, is linked to the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Now, again the story would have been engaging. The ten coins would have represented the woman’s life savings, or dowry. And Jesus’s audience would have recognised the value of the loss. Consequently many would have joined in with the joy of the woman when the coin was found. And linking this story to the joy in heaven, over a repentant sinner, would have been easily understood.
However, in an audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the Law, the significance of this story would not have been lost either.
The woman in the story was a peasant—the amount of money reveals that. But so too does the fact that she had to light a lamp, and grovel on the floor to find the coin. Her housing was typical peasant class—low door, no windows, and with no natural light in the house at all.
The woman in the story was poor, and not the kind of person that the Pharisees would have mixed with either.
You can imagine the scene, then, as Jesus shared the meal with tax collectors and sinners. Here was Jesus, found to be eating with so-called outcasts by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and he was telling stories of just how important these outcasts were. Indeed he was telling stories linking the joy in the kingdom of heaven, over every sinner who repents.
At the same time, however, Jesus was pointing the finger at the Pharisees—people who should have known better—but were renowned for their lack of care and compassion.
Now it must have been quite a scene. But it’s a scene that gives us the answers to our questions.
1. Question 1
Because to our first question, “Should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of society?” the answer is very clear. Very much so. Jesus not only demonstrated his care, but taught it too.
Firstly, he mixed with outcasts; he went out of his way to be with them. And by associating himself with them he showed that he cared. Secondly, he treated them with dignity and respect. He showed this by sitting down with them, and sharing a meal. Thirdly, he showed concern for their needs. And in this particular example he encouraged them to put their past lives behind them, and become reconciled with God. Jesus’s message was one of encouragement, and included the idea that no one is too bad to be reconciled with God. And fourthly, he did all of this despite the opposition he knew he would get from the authorities.
So, should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of our own society? Very much so. Because fundamental to the Christian faith is that once we have received Jesus into our hearts, we have the responsibility to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And Jesus’ footsteps should lead us back to spending time, and quality time, with the outcasts of our society.
2. Question 2
And this leads us, then, to question 2, “What sort of things should we be doing?”
Well, the example of Jesus should give us a few clues. Because, Jesus went out of his way to be with those who were poor: whose relationship with the law may have been a little cloudy, and whose work was looked down on by society. So, if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, then we need to go out of our way to spend time with these kinds of people too.
But Jesus didn’t just spend time with these people; he treated them with dignity and respect. In other words these people weren’t just targeted with some sort of welfare programme—a hand out here, and a handout there. Jesus treated these people as being valuable to God. And if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, then we need to see these people in exactly the same way too.
Jesus wasn’t just being sociable. He realised they had needs to be met, the same as anyone else. And the most fundamental need he recognised was their need for reconciliation. But not reconciliation with the authorities. Rather reconciliation with God.
That’s why he spent time with them; he treated them as people of worth. And he shared with them the solution to their biggest problem—which was not their social standing, their economic status or how they were seen by the authorities. Their most important need was getting their relationship with God right.
Which is why he told them that God loved them. And why he illustrated what he said, and did, with stories telling the extraordinary lengths that God was prepared to go to, to get them back on track—a message that required their response. But he did so in plain sight of the authorities who looked down their noses at such people. And because the Pharisees treated the people in the way that they did, they missed the salvation message which was just as important for them too.
So getting back to our second question, “What sort of things should we be doing?” well, we should be spending time with the outcasts of our own society. We should be treating them with dignity and respect—treating them as equals, and not just as recipients of a welfare programme. Indeed we should be actively involved in responding to their greatest need—a relationship with Jesus.
The principles of equality—where all people are treated the same—and the need to meet the spiritual needs of the people, were central focusses in Jesus’s ministry. Indeed he was determined that the masses should not be excluded from a relationship with God, because of people who considered themselves superior, and who insisted that things be done their way.
Now Jesus was well aware of the responses his approach would get. He knew that generally the outcasts would welcome him, and that the religious leaders—those who should have known better—would reject him. Despite that, what he had to do was far too important to worry about the religious leaders. And so we read the kind of scenario that we have in Luke’s Gospel, and we have a snapshot of the kind of things we should be doing.
Jesus’s example demonstrates our need to treat everyone as equals; it demonstrates the concern we should have for the spiritual welfare of others. And his example indicates that we should be actively involved with the outcasts of society, despite whatever grumbling, frowns or objections we might receive. And sadly many of those objections may well come from people within the church.
What is required in not charity, or Government handouts, but dignity and respect. And if we do that, then we will be in a position to share our faith.
In every society there will always be people who don’t fit in. We see it on the television; we read it in our papers. But we don’t have to look overseas to find such people; we need look no further than our own country, our own town, and even our own street.
As Christians we are called to follow in Jesus’s footsteps. And Jesus has shown us that part of being a true disciple is the need to be engaged with the outcasts of our own society. And, in particular, to give them dignity and respect, and to help them in their relationship with God.
So this morning, can we truly say that we go out of our way to mix with the outcasts of our society? That we treat everyone, regardless of their background, with dignity and respect? Can we say that the fundamental need of every person is to have a relationship with God? And that we willingly share our faith with the outcasts and those in need? And can we say that we do it regardless of any opposition that we might face, because of the criticism we might face that we are mixing with the wrong sort of people?
Well, I’m hoping, today, that we can all say, “Yes!” Because that is the example that Jesus set. It is also the standard he has given all of his disciples, even us modern ones, to follow.
Posted: 8th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis