Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1-2

This was a common complaint of the Pharisees and Scribes in the Gospels. The people of Jesus’ day were pretty sure they knew the boundaries around God’s love.

Unfortunately, the religious leaders so often referred to in the Gospels as Pharisees and Scribes have become “the bad guys” as the Biblical narrative has been read over the years. In truth, they were simply trying to follow God’s way as they understood it.

Not wanting to eat with tax collectors — I understand that. Jerusalem was an occupied territory, and their hard work had earned them very little in the way of an income. Giving the majority of that to an occupying, oppressive empire just wouldn’t sit well with any of us.

Rome would recruit locals in whatever territory they invaded and equip them with what they needed, such as the assistance of a few Roman soldiers, to get the job done. So these were the friends and neighbors who knew their hardship. These are the people taking their income and giving it to Rome! Seriously, why would Jesus — or anybody — eat with them?

But, you see, Jesus didn’t tell the stories in Luke 15 to criticize the Pharisees, or to agree with their thinking. He was inviting them — and us — to see the radical love of God through stories of the lost being found, followed by a tremendous celebration

So, if this parable were written in Hutchinson today, who would be named tax collectors and sinners? Who do we, the faces, hands and feet of Jesus in the world, name as unworthy of God’s love? Religious leaders, perhaps? Maybe we don’t say it quite that harshly. Perhaps we simply want those people to clean up their act first, and then they’ll be welcome to the table.

But, you see, God’s grace and mercy is so big that no one is excluded. Just as the lost sheep didn’t go seeking the shepherd, God makes no “requirements” for grace or mercy. Remember that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Dear friends, the Shepherd always acts first! God is the one who moves to find us when we are lost.

And here’s the really good news: When that lost sheep has been found, she is brought back to celebrate with those who were waiting. Note that the 99 didn’t stand around and question, “What is she doing here? Seriously, doesn’t that shepherd know who she is?”

No, they all celebrated together.

People, before we begin to place boundaries around who is in and who is out of God’s love, remember Luke 15.

May we share God’s radical love and mercy with everyone we meet. No exceptions!

— The Rev. Janine Olson is pastor at River of Hope Lutheran Church in Hutchinson.

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