The Company God Keeps
Preachers salivate when the fifteenth chapter of Luke shows up. Who cannot warm to the shepherd who hits the hills to find the sole lost sheep or the woman who tears her house apart to find the one lost coin or the loving dad who weeps with joy as his prodigal son returns home and then goes out to find his eldest son who is lost but has never gone anywhere?
A word of caution, though: take care when handling parables, especially the three parables in Chapter Fifteen. The parables of Jesus should come with the equivalent of those yellow cones that are often placed on newly waxed floors. Parables are by nature “slippery when wet” and they are always wet, even when they look perfectly dry. They lure us out onto the floor and before we know it, our feet are up in the air and we are looking at the room from an entirely new, and often not so comfortable, angle.
Luke includes so many parables of Jesus not because they are cute and quaint timeless morality tales like Aesop’s fables. He includes them to battle easy assumptions and ill-informed attitudes that mistake half-truth with truth. He includes them to get us out of the balcony of life where we watch the parables performed from a safe distance, and afterwards, we politely applaud. Luke knows that Jesus cannot be understood from a safe distance and discipleship can never happen from a safe distance.
Even before Jesus tells his three parables, this chapter opens with two seemingly throw-away verses that are actually the trap door that drops us into the often, puzzling world of parables. Luke writes: “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’.”
As a child, I had two fine parents and a grandmother who lived with us. Like the religious leaders at the start of this chapter, my family spent a good deal of time warning my brother and me that people will judge us by the company we keep.
Years later, I can easily criticize my parents and grandmother for their worrisome warnings, but we do live in a tough and sometimes ugly world. In my own fearful way, I have told my own children what my parents told me, “Be careful of the company you keep.”
The religious leaders simply cannot understand how Jesus can associate with, much less eat dinner with, tax collectors and sinners. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were not the IRS agents that you and I grouse about today; they were traitors who collaborated with Roman occupiers while robbing their own people. Sinners were not people who looked over someone’s shoulder on an exam or told little “white” lies. Sinners were those who abused the laws of Israel, boldly violated God’s commandments, people who earned the warning, “keep away!”
The religious leaders seemed to have known the Bible better than Jesus did. For in the first chapter of Proverbs, we hear: “If sinners entice you, do not consent . . . my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths” (Proverbs 1:10,15). The first Psalm admonishes: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread” (Psalm 1:1). In others words, according to Proverbs and the Psalms, the religious leaders were right: “be careful of the company you keep.”
Jesus knew his Bible as well and he knew what company to keep at any dinner table. Sharing meals with others was not just a kosher matter, establishing a wall between Jew and Gentile; it was also a class matter. As a well-raised Jewish boy, Jesus knew better than to eat with such morally corrupt people as tax collectors and sinners. He had been raised better! And yet, he still did. According to almost anyone’s measuring stick, as this chapter opens, it is Jesus, not the religious leaders, who is behaving badly.
When religious leaders want to talk about proper company to keep, Jesus invites them onto the wet dance floor of three parables. In each parable, he talks about what happens when what is lost is found. The first parable speaks of one lost sheep in a herd of one-hundred, while the second parable speaks of one lost coin.
In 2022, these two parables might hit closer to home if they spoke of lost cell phones and keys. Of course, there is delight when the lost phone or keys are found, but I have yet to get a call from a neighbor inviting me to a grand gala because she found the lost keys or phone. And, for sure, I have never been invited to a black-tie affair hosted by a father whose son had ripped him off.
For years, I have read the introduction to the three parables and then the parables that follow while seated comfortably in the biblical balcony, cheering Jesus on as he outwitted nitwit religious leaders obsessed with keeping only the right company. For years, I have served a denomination too often obsessed with the company we keep, rejoicing not when the lost were hoisted on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, but celebrating when we protected the Good Shepherd and his church from all those filthy, needy, wandering, sometimes rancid sheep wandering about. We have kept good company by diligently avoiding bad company, like that of an unwed teenage girl on her way Bethlehem or a blind beggar shouting at the edge of the road. We have watched like hawks the company we keep. Surely our heavenly parent must be proud!
When the parables of Jesus really work, they invite us to look at the company God keeps; the company God searches out and celebrates when the lost is found. I love a story the late Fred Craddock used to tell about a neighborhood game of hide-and-seek. “When my brother was it,” says Fred, “he cheated. He would start off well enough. He would close his eyes and start counting, ‘One, two, three, four, five...ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. Ready or not, here I come.’ But I didn't care, because I always had great hiding places scouted out in advance [and one favorite place in particular].”
“I was small as a child,” says Fred, “so I could squeeze into the space under our front steps. There were bushes that hid me from view. No one would even think of looking back there. It was a great hiding place. My brother would come right by me, but he couldn't see me. He'd go all over looking, then walk right back by. I had to concentrate to keep from laughing out loud and giving myself away. I thought, he'll never find me here! He'll never find me here! And then it hit me, he'll never find me here.
“And so, after a while,” Fred said, “I would move the bushes a bit. And he’d come up and see those bushes and yell, ‘I see you. I see you’. Then he ran back to touch the base and yelled, ‘You're it. You're it. I found you’.”
“And I came out, brushing myself off, and said, ‘Darn it, you found me’. What did I want? To hide. Yes. Yes. What did I really want? What did I really want? The same thing as each and every person in this room. Every person.” I wanted to be found (from a sermon preached by Fred Craddock at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina on February 18, 1990).
Jesus invites us not only to consider what it is like to find what is lost but what it is like to be lost and then to be found. Or as my friend, Barbara Brown Taylor is fond of saying, “God’s talent for finding us proves greater than our talent for getting lost.”
In Luke 15, Jesus is met by sincere religious folks who are worried about the company he keeps. He does not give them a lecture or debate their concern. He tells them three parables that invite them to delight in the company God keeps and to join God’s extravagant, welcoming party. Jesus tells well-intentioned, good religious folk to spend far less time fretting about the company they keep and far more time noticing and then celebrating the company that God keeps.
I wonder what would might happen and I wonder who we might see for the first time if we stopped fretting about the company we keep and opened our eyes and our hearts to the company God keeps.
I wonder. I hope you wonder too.