If you`ve ever wondered what it was like standing at the very back of the crowd listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount- then you might like to check out Monty Python`s life of Brian. It features, in my view, a quite hysterical argument between a group of Judean misfits who can`t quite hear what Jesus is saying. And they end up wondering why Jesus could possibly say `Blessed are the Cheesemakers`.
I think it was Archbishop George Carey who once remarked that one of the interesting features of the Gospels is the number of people who seem to simply wander in and out of Jesus presence for a whole range of reasons. And it`s this traffic of people coming to Jesus that we`re presented with in the introduction to our Gospel this morning isn`t it? Chapter 14 of Luke`s Gospel has ended with Jesus saying “Anyone who has ears to hear- let them hear`. And Chapter 15 begins with the words we heard this morning: “The tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus”.
So, what does this teach us? Well firstly, we learn that there is something incredibly attractive about Jesus. Those people wanted to find out more. Jesus speaks, as the Gospel reminds us; `with authority`. He has an integrity, a sharpness and an impact which has the effect of gathering in even the Judean misfits- and we might add, the likes of you and I. Those who feel beyond the pale find something compelling; something which has the effect of drawing us in.
But secondly, and this is what I`d like us to explore this morning, when Jesus speaks he always seems to set up a tension. In this reading we`re told that “The Scribes and Pharisees were grumbling; this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”. And sure enough, it`s often observed that Jesus says and does things many consider outrageous. But this, as I want to suggest simply confirms that we`re hearing him correctly. In other words, one sign that we`re hearing an authentic word from Christ is the presence of a tension.
I remember a good friend and mentor of mine, a particularly thoughtful and good man who was always pulling me up short. What I mean is that he had a particular way of contradicting or correcting me. At times I felt really irritated by it but what he said always had the ring of truth. He had a way of making me think again. And I`m suggesting that this for me was a glimpse of what I also experience in the words of Christ.
In other words, if you draw near to Jesus and really listen to what he`s saying there are times when you might want to join the chorus of those who accuse him of naïve idealism. It`s how we instinctively react to his words about forgiving `seventy times seven`; loving your enemies- and the way he challenges the boundaries that we take for granted; “If you love only those who love you what credit is that to you?” But no, an authentic word of Jesus confounds our assumptions and expectations. He forces us to cross boundaries. In what Jesus says there is no room for the “everybody`s doing it” excuse. You have to engage with what he`s saying.
Now, what I`m suggesting is that the door is open for us to walk away- as many did. But the fascinating thing is that something keeps drawing us back because we know deep down that he is right. And this is beautifully –and I think movingly illustrated in John`s Gospel where Jesus has just told his huge crowd of followers: “I am the bread of life”. And folk can`t take it in. We`re told: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
You see it`s here that you can just feel the tension of being in friendship with Jesus. Again, he says confusing, peculiar, outrageous and impossibly idealistic things which are an affront to how we`ve grown up and our view of the world. But he won`t be corrected by us. And to make it worse there`s something that won`t allow us to walk away. There`s something of a “you can`t live with him and you can`t live without him” going on here isn`t there? And my point is that this is the reality of faith. This is the attraction of holiness. I mean, remember how King Herod eventually agreed to the murder of his ferocious critic, John the Baptist but we`re told, “He loved to listen to him”.
So in your prayers this week there are couple of places you might- or might not like to go…..
Firstly, I wonder what draws you closer to Christ?
How do you imagine him?
More importantly, what`s the look in his eye?
When has something he said really touched you?
What was it? How did you react? How did it change you?
You might like to re-visit and sit with those words again this week…..
Secondly, as you hear Jesus speak what kind of tension do you experience?
I mean, on the one hand there`s a tension within us.
So we might ask “What things do I wish he hadn`t said?
What words of Jesus make me feel uncomfortable and why?
Or what would my life look like if I took him at his word?
This is something of what he means when he says: “I didn`t come to bring peace, but a sword”. This is where he continues to get under our skin. So we could take the tension inside as a sign that the pruning is going on.
But on the other hand there`s the tension from outside. And this is surely part of the point in this Gospel reading this morning. We hear how Jesus stands up and justifies what he is doing in mixing with those Judean misfits by telling a story about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
But I wonder if the tax collectors and sinners were able to overhear what Jesus was saying. And the way he stood up for them…. And could you imagine Jesus standing up for you in the same way?
You see, the tax collectors and sinners heard a multitude of voices saying they weren`t worthy. It was woven into the fabric of their cultural and religious life that they weren`t good enough or `clean` enough to come into God`s presence.
In other words, they were permanently on the edge. But as I say, Jesus fights their corner. And he fights our corner whenever we find ourselves in tension with those nagging voices that say we`re not the real deal. He fights our corner when the last thing we feel is `holy`. When all our efforts at prayer feel like shambolic wanderings and a waste of time. When we can`t remember one end of the Bible from the other and we bottle out whenever someone asks us about our faith. In the midst of all of this tension we`re the misfits that matter to Jesus
But we need to remember that drawing near to listen to Jesus is the important thing. And remember also that faith is never a settled state. This side of the resurrection we live in a permanent place of tension with voices from within and without. For we have a God who is labouring that we should become the one we were created to be.