“But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” – Luke 15:32
It’s easy to distance ourselves from people who hurt us. It’s easy to dismiss people who disagree with us. It’s easy to devalue people who don’t contribute the way we want them to. But we can’t forget that Jesus saw people as inherently valuable – created in the image of God – and he consistently challenged his society’s devaluation of those considered lost, rebellious and wayward.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables in response to criticism of his ministry – that he was welcoming and befriending tax collectors and sinners. It’s important for us to consider what these terms meant to Jesus’ audience or we might miss the context and purpose of this passage.
Tax collectors were far more than just an inconvenience in Jesus’ day, they were considered traitors. We have to remember that the Jews were a conquered people living in a homeland that was no longer theirs. When Rome conquered nations, it was their practice to appoint people from within the conquered culture to work on their behalf and exercise their rule. The tax collectors were Jews who agreed to collect money from their own people, at times exploiting them, and deliver it to their Roman oppressors. As a result, tax collectors were considered traitors to their people and considered to have turned their back on God’s promises and purposes for his people.
When we hear the term sinners, we might perceive that these were heinous people who caused destruction and disorder whenever possible. But in Jesus’ culture it was simply a term applied to Jews who did not fully participate in religious festivals and activities – they were Jewish only by blood, but not in practice.
So when we read the three “lost” parables in Luke 15, we have to remember that Jesus was referring to people who had turned their back on their own people, who no longer participated in the religion of their people, and those who no longer held the dominant political positions and aspirations of their people. They were abandoned or rejected because they didn’t fit or agree with what it meant to be a “godly” person in their society, and could no longer be considered “one of us.”
Jesus was referring to the tax collectors and sinners as he taught that if you love sheep you would do everything in your power to retrieve and restore a wayward one that had wandered off (Luke 15:1-7). He reasoned that if you believed you had lost ten percent of your assets, that you would feel a sickening sense of loss and would apply all of your attention to recovering something so valuable (Luke 15:8-10). He reminded his audience that a father would mournfully hope and long for the day that his relationship with his son who had rejected and abandoned him was restored – that it would feel like his son had been raised from the dead (Luke 15:11-32).
In contrast to the social, political and religious norms of his day, Jesus consistently accepted the people that popular society had rejected. He worked to redeem their value – exchanging whatever social leverage he had to elevate their position. They weren’t worthless, unacceptable or opponents for Jesus. He saw them as every bit as valuable as those who pursued God and thought about their nation the “right” way. He made those rejected feel welcomed and valuable.
When we talk about following Jesus’ example, we have to remember this crucial aspect of his ministry – he was constantly redeeming the value of culturally “lost” people. As Jesus’ followers then, we have to be on the lookout for those who’ve gone missing, are being ignored or rejected because they see things differently, or hold an unpopular position. Even those who’ve done damage to our values are valuable in the kingdom of heaven. No one is too far gone. No one is unacceptable.
Are we willing to place our own cultural equity at risk to stand with those who are different and uncomfortable? Will we demonstrate the idea that every person is inherently valuable to God?
Before you declare “traitor,” before you think “lost,” remember that they are dearly loved by God.
This week, be on the lookout for those who have been devalued in your community and commit to being a part of flipping the script.
Do you know someone who you thought “should have known better”? Or someone you feel has turned their back on your community? Is there someone in your community whose lifestyle is incongruent with your picture of godliness? Do you feel some people are just too difficult to befriend because of their political views?
How can you demonstrate that the door is always open? How can you demonstrate that you value their voice? How can you protect them from those who would want to devalue them? How can you help them pursue God, even if their picture of that pursuit differs from yours?