We love boundaries.
We put them up all the time. Our countries are not the only things in life that are divided by borders. These boundaries may help us define who we are, but they also can lead us to assume we know others based on what they appear to be. And most of the time, if people aren’t like us, we consider them lost.
Are you Conservative or Liberal? Are you Republican or Democrat? Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you LGBTQ affirming or traditional? What’s your race, your favourite sports team, your gender, your religion, your favourite ice cream flavour?
Let’s think about the Church. We have thousands of denominations, all boundaries that we set up so we can say that we are right and others are heretics. Even Mennonites are having huge disagreements about the work we do together through Mennonite Central Committee. It seems like the relief and aid work we do together isn’t worth it if we disagree about important subjects, like sexuality.
There are people who are “in” and “out” when it comes to our boundaries, and of course we think that everyone who’s “in” with us, is right. Those who are “out” simply need to see things our way and then be found. But surprise, surprise, Jesus has something to say about being lost and found.
Luke 15 is a chapter of three stories that all have to do with being lost and found. These may all be familiar, but what might be new is to see these three stories as all tying together.
First comes the story of the lost sheep, where a shepherd leaves 99 sheep who are safe to go find the one lost sheep who has wandered away. The shepherd cared for that one sheep so much that he left the others to find it and bring it back to the flock.
The second story is that of the lost coin. A woman has 10 silver coin and loses one. Instead of just counting it as lost, she searches the whole house to find it, and does.
The third story is of the prodigal son. A father, who has two sons, was asked by the one to give him all his inheritance. The father agrees and the son goes away and wastes it all on useless things. After reaching rock bottom, he decides to return home, only to be greeted by the loving embrace of his father.
All three stories are about being lost and found, and all three stories end in celebration. The shepherd, the woman, and the father all celebrate because what was once lost is now found. They rejoice with their neighbours and their family, all except the brother of the prodigal son. He’s angry that his father would welcome his lost brother back and throw him a homecoming party. The father tries to convince him to join the party, but he sulks and refuses to celebrate.
Boundaries exist, whether they are natural or man-made. In many ways they can be helpful, but in other ways they unnecessarily divide us. The sad part is that we are often just like the second son, believing we are right in excluding others from being found. We like it when we can define who’s in and who’s out. It makes sense to us. Then we know who’s on our side and who we can hate and put down.
But what happens when the father welcomes home those who we thought were out? What happens when we are invited to their homecoming party?
The transforming power of the gospel of Jesus is that enemies become friends and boundaries are destroyed. We must all realize that we have been welcomed into the family of God. It wasn’t of our own doing so we can’t take any credit. If we have been welcomed in, we have no right to sulk when God welcomes others in, even if they are the long lost brother or sister that we have come to despise.
But there’s another lesson we get from the text that may make us feel even more uncomfortable. It comes from the context in which these stories are told. This is why Jesus told the parables.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” - Luke 15:1-2
If there was any group in the time of Jesus that considered themselves “in,” it was the Pharisees (the teachers of the law). They had God figured out. They knew the law by heart and thought they knew exactly where to make boundaries. The unclean had no place in their presence, or in the family of God for that matter. They were “in” and everyone else was “out.”
But Luke 15:1 shows us that Jesus has crossed the boundary and was hanging out with the kinds of people the religious leaders considered lost. How is this possible? Doesn’t Jesus know that these people are “out,” useless, and not worth the time?
The Pharisees started to sulk. If He truly was someone special sent from God, shouldn’t He be hanging out with them? Jesus saves His harshest criticism for the religious leaders of His day, showing them that they are actually the lost because of the boundaries they had set up.
Whenever we think that we are right, that we have it all figured out and that God is on our side, we need to remember to look hard to see that Jesus is hanging out on the other side of the boundary. We can never co-opt Jesus to be on our side. That’s not how it works. Jesus doesn’t take sides. He came to seek and to save the lost. And sooner or later we’ll need to learn that we too are part of the lost.
May we be very careful with boundaries. In fact, let’s break them down. Why not choose to see everyone, everywhere, are a part of God’s beloved creation? And as soon as we try to convince ourselves that we are “in” and they are “out,” may we remember that the way of Jesus calls us to a radical love that bridges boundaries and never counts anyone as too far gone.