Rev. Michael Woods
Reynoldsburg First Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2013
4th Sunday in Lent
One of my favorite television shows is a little half hour sit-com called The Middle, which comes on Wednesday nights on ABC. It involves the middle-class family of Frankie and Michael Heck and their three children who live in the state of Indiana (the Mid-West). The middle-child is named Sue; and when the series first began airing a few years ago she was in middle school, although she’s gotten a little bit older now. Sue has a problem gaining recognition for who she is in the show. Her teachers never remember her name, she is snubbed by her fellow students, and one year her picture was left out of the yearbook even though she had her pictured taken three times!
Sue’s life is pretty typical for most middle school girls in that she spends most of her waking moments strategizing different plots and schemes to climb up the middle school social ladder. And nowhere is the social stratification of middle school more evident than in the cafeteria, where all the students congregate into different groups based on their degree of popularity. There are the A-tables, the B-tables, the C-tables, the D-tables and the F-tables. Sue (as you would expect) is right in the middle – she is definitely a C-table person, … but she aspires to be a B-table!
In one episode Sue had won a contest or had gained some sort of notoriety for something she had done, and she hoped that would translate into increased popularity for her so she could finally make her move to one of the B-tables. But, at the very next lunch period, she encountered a problem. As she and her friend got their lunch trays, they quickly began to scan the all the B-tables, all excited about getting to sit with a higher level group of students. But they couldn’t find any place to sit down! All of the chairs at the B-tables were taken! And they dared not go back to the C-table; because if they went back to the C-table, they were going to get stuck there! They would miss the chance to move up a rung. So, she and her friend ended up eating their entire lunch standing up in the middle of the cafeteria!
I’m sure you remember what going to school and trying to fit in with the right group, and all that, was like for you when you went to school. If you’re like me, you’d probably like to forget about it! You were judged by your peers according to who you hung out with … who you sat with in class … and who you ate with. And you probably remember the different social gradations, too. A-tables … B-tables … all the way down to F. And you probably remember where it was you fit in on that ladder.
Here’s a question to think about: If Jesus were to have come to the cafeteria of your school, what table do you think he would sit down to eat at? Would he sit at the table with all the jocks and cheerleaders … next to the president of the Beta Club?
The scriptures actually give us something of an answer to that question. And it’s not just this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke … we see an answer to this question spread throughout all of the Gospels. Jesus seems to have a reputation of associating the kind of people that the “good” people of society want to have nothing to do with. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50), Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee and they are sharing a meal together. We gather that this Pharisee was one of the fine, upstanding citizens of the community. But in the middle of their meal, a woman enters the home – a woman who is described as a notorious sinner – and she stands immediately behind Jesus and begins weeping. And with her tears she begins to wash his feet and dries them with her hair … kissing them and anointing them with oil. And the Pharisee is scandalized! And he tells Jesus, “If you knew who this woman was, you wouldn’t be letting her do this.”
This story is recorded in each of the four Gospels – each with a slightly different version and sometimes with different characters. In John, it’s Mary of Bethany who does the anointing, but here it’s an unnamed woman.
In other parts of the Gospels, Jesus eats at the houses of tax collectors, Matthew and Zaccheus (and tax collectors, as you know were one type of outcasts) … in another episode Jesus is at the house of someone called, Simon the Leper (lepers were all outcasts) … and who can forget the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman considered racially impure by the Jews and who had unorthodox views on the practice of religion, and who had been married five different times and currently living with a man who was not her husband and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.
Jesus likes to disturb artificial social boundaries in all four of the Gospels. I say “artificial,” meaning these are social boundaries created by human beings and not by God … boundaries that divide one group of people from another and set us up in hierarchical relationships to one another, creating artificial categories of one group better than another, one group having more privileges, better opportunities. Human beings have done this throughout our history. We divide people along the lines of race, income, education, language, familial lineage, political affiliation.
We’re really not very different from wolves in that respect. Zoologists tell has that wolves have their own social hierarchy. At the top are the alpha wolves – usually one male and one female, who are the strongest physically and have the strongest personalities, and they enjoy special privileges. They get to eat first ahead of the rest of the pack. They’re the only two in the pack that mate and produce offspring, and all the other wolves have to take care of their pups. After the alpha wolves are the betas and the gammas … all the way down to the very last wolf on the scale – the omega wolf. And the poor omega wolf is lucky to have anything to eat at all after the rest of the pack has finished and had their fill, and it’s always being nipped at and driven off by the other wolves. So, you see, wolves have A-tables, B-tables, … and so on just like we do.
Coming from the South, I remember a time when I was young and the schools were divided along racial lines. I was lucky enough to have been born into the group that the State of Alabama decided should be the alpha group and have the better schools, the better education, the better cafeterias and football fields. But all that changed one day in 1970 when the Supreme Court ordered the state to integrate the schools. And the first day of the next school year, I went to a different school … one that previously had only been for African American students. So technically, we were integrated – whites and Blacks went to the same school and shared the same classrooms with one another. But in reality – the boundaries that separated the races were still there – they were just invisible. We sat in class grouped along racial lines … we congregated at recess along racial lines … and at lunch period, we sat at different tables separated by racial barriers. It took years for us to get over the invisible social constraints that were always feeding us the lie the State had been telling us for ages: that it was wrong and sinful for the races to mix. I don’t think the South has entirely gotten over all that.
But Jesus likes to break down these artificial social barriers because he knows they feed us a lie – they feed us the lie that one group of people is better than another and always will be and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. He does this by defying those social constraints and consorting with the “wrong” people that the “good” people want nothing to do with. He eats with tax collectors, lepers, sinners and prostitutes. If Jesus were to come here today, what group of people would he consort with in order to challenge the artificial social barriers we have constructed in our society? Whose table would he eat at?
Let me answer that question in this way: What group of people do you most despise, look down upon, think are not as “good” as you are because they are the worst kind of sinner you can possibly imagine – and that’s probably the first table Jesus would go to. Jesus would walk right past a lot of us – the “good” people of this society – and then be completely unconcerned by how scandalized we are by the grace he has chosen to show and to give.
And when Jesus finally at some point does come by our table to sit with us, I’m sure the first thing he will do is address our concerns about his scandalous grace. And he would probably do so in the same way he does in this morning’s scripture and the way he does in most other instances throughout the Gospels when this topic comes up: he tells us some parables.
Now, the first two parables (The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin) are very similar to one another: something is lost … the person who looses it goes to great lengths to try and find it, even defying social conventions to do so … and when it is finally found, there is great rejoicing and celebration by the person and their friends and neighbors. But then Jesus tells a third parable … and this parable starts out exactly like the other two, but then Jesus adds a little twist to the ending: something was lost and then was found, … but not everyone is rejoicing.
Jesus tells us that when the prodigal son was returning, and he was still far off, the father sees him in the distance, and he does something quite uncommon for parents of that time – he runs out to meet his son. He runs out to welcome the son who, earlier in the story, had told him essentially that he wished the father were already dead … that he couldn’t wait for the father to die so he could have his inheritance … he wanted it now. The father runs out to welcome this son who had brought shame and disgrace upon the family, who had dishonored the father violating one of the Ten Commandments, and who according to the Law of Moses the father could demand be taken outside the gates of the city and stoned to death. And he welcomes this son – not as a servant, but as his beloved son who was lost and now is found. This son is given a robe, brand new sandals, … a fatted calf is slain, and the father throws a big barbeque for the whole neighborhood.
So far this sounds just like the other two parables before it. But then Jesus throws in that little unexpected twist at the end of the story, and the father’s scandalous grace doesn’t stop there … it keeps on giving. When he learns his older son is outside, sulking and refusing to take part in the celebration, the father leaves the party (it is a breach of etiquette for a host to abandon his party) and just as he reached out to the prodigal, he reaches out to the older son and reminds him: “You are always with me, and all I have is yours. But let us celebrate, because your brother was lost but now he has been found. Don’t you be lost to me, as well, by refusing to join in this celebration.”
And then Jesus does something he doesn’t often do in his parables – he doesn’t really give us an ending … we never know how the older son responds to the father’s invitation. And I think the reason Jesus does that is because he wants to leave it up to us to fill in the ending. Do we accept his invitation to us to come sit with him at the F-table … to not be afraid to be among the misfits … to not be afraid of what someone else might say about us … maybe to even be misfits ourselves?