Hanging Around With The Wrong Crowd

Luke offers us two “lost things” stories told inside a larger narrative in which some religious experts were criticizing Jesus for spending time with tax collectors and sinners and daring to eat at their tables.
LostAndFoundThe experts knew the rules and genuinely worked hard to live by them. Jesus does not critique that here. What he critiques is their attitude toward those who did not live by the rules, indeed, those who might be called “lost.”
In their view, such persons were either lazy or weak or rebellious. In other words, it was the fault of the lost that they were lost.
The question is, what should be done about this. For them, that was clear. Stay away from them. If they’re going to “return,” that’s up to them. “Hanging with the wrong crowd” is only likely to get you moving in the wrong direction, too.
To be sure, these experts had solid biblical backing for that solution. And it’s present in both testaments, so Christians have often offered the same advice. “Be holy, for I am holy” (I Peter 1:15-16, drawing on Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, and 20:7). “Come out from among them!” (2 Corinthians 6:17, rephrasing Isaiah 52.11). “Pure religion … is to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
We know this from experience, too, don’t we? We tend to become like the people we hang around with. So if we’re working to start a new habit, or stop an old one, it helps a lot to surround ourselves with others who already have that new habit, rather than “fall in” with folks who are continuing in habits we’re trying to break or change.
Jesus doesn’t disagree about the potentially deleterious effect of “bad company.” But he also doesn’t see that as an excuse to leave the lost to fend for themselves. That only ensures they remain lost. Lost coins and lost sheep cannot restore themselves. For the most part, Jesus implies in telling these stories, neither can lost people.
So to Jesus, when people get lost, it’s up to the community, not simply to the lost individuals, to go and help them find their way home. We see this in the story of the prodigal father, too–the father sees the son while the son is a long way off and goes running to greet him, and it is the father’s action, not the son’s request, that restores the son.
Jesus takes the work of restoring the lost a step further. We seek and even “hang with” the lost, not simply to make them happy, or ourselves happy, that they become found. Jesus says the very angels in heaven rejoice whenever the lost are found. All heaven is out to seek and find the lost. (Sound familiar from I Timothy?)
That’s why Jesus eats with sinners.
That’s why we remember this every time we gather at the Lord’s Table.
And that’s why we, his disciples, should not only remember that Jesus ate with the lost, but we ourselves, should, too.

What Should We Do?

gaudeteThe Church’s Advent prayer pauses on this mid-season Sunday to rejoice: to anticipate the joy of Christmas and, as St. Paul reminds, to “rejoice always” and to “give thanks to God in all circumstances.” That’s scriptural language for having an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s important for us, especially in our troubles, to remember the good days and to treasure memories of past joy and peace even if those gifts seem not at hand today.
“Brothers and sisters: rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice,” St. Paul commands in the Second Reading. The word for rejoice in Latin is gaudete, so quite naturally this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday.
Why all this exultation? Are we finally getting a break from the somberness of Advent?
Yes, but there is more to it than that. Remember that Advent is like a retreat that the worldwide Church is making. In this upcoming third week we will consider our lives in the context of the great beauty God has put in us and around us. Can you think this way?
One line in the First Reading puts it in dramatic terms. Zephaniah says that the Lord “will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”
Because of you! Have you ever in your life thought that God’s might be singing because of you? Have you ever let your image of God expand that far? Have you ever let him, in the most profound sense of the word, be one who sings you into existence?
God’s gladness sings out joyfully at every instant, and his song is the earth, the galaxies, the people and plants and chemicals and soaring hawks and encircling planets, droplets of dew and heavy black holes, youthful beauties, ancient wisdoms, and everything else that exists.
We are God’s song!