A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 14, 2010.

Psalm 32:1-11; Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Do you know what a hat trick is? It’s generally associated with ice hockey, so we Southerners might not be aware of it since that isn’t exactly the favorite pastime of sports fans around these parts. They tried having a professional ice hockey team here in Little Rock a few years back. Didn’t work out, as you may recall.

They gave it a shot in Macon, Georgia too, where my daughter and her family live. Despite the fact their team had what I consider to be the all-time most ingenious name for their hockey team, they didn’t make it. They were called the Macon Whoopee.

A hat trick is three goals scored by the same person in one game. It doesn’t happen very often, which makes it pretty special. I guess it’s sort of the equivalent of scoring 20 points and getting ten rebounds or assists in a basketball game (what they call a double-double) or perhaps hitting a grand slam in baseball. Actually, the term may have originated with cricket, a sport even more foreign to us than ice hockey. In cricket, a hat trick is achieved when the bowler (what the Brits call a pitcher) dismisses three batsmen with consecutive deliveries.

You can Google it if you want to know more. That’s what I did. But regardless of what sport we’re talking about, a hat trick is accomplishing something significant three times.

We don’t know if Jesus was much of a sportsman, but he achieved a hat trick of his own. Did you know that? At the beginning of the fifteenth chapter in Luke’s gospel we are told that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus (him). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ˜This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

It is the third time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus is criticized by the religious leaders for keeping company with unsavory folk. Hat trick! He hung around with lepers, women of ill repute, tax collectors “ people like that. And they hung on every word he had to say. Took pretty good advantage of his healing abilities too. Evidently, Jesus enjoyed their company because he sat at table with them. Can you believe that?

Last Sunday we talked about how the table is more than just a place to eat. It is also where acceptance takes place. When people sit down to eat with one another, cultural and social barriers are broken down. The breaking of bread simply has a way of bringing people together as nothing else does. So when Jesus sat at table with known sinners, it was his way of accepting them, and they him. This was the kind of company Jesus kept.

And the religious leaders didn’t like it… not one bit. They worked hard to keep their religion pure and safe from the likes of sinners, and here comes Jesus passing himself off as a rabbi and all the while defying their rules and flaunting their customs.

So, as he often did in situations like that when he is confronted by those who disagree with his way of doing things, Jesus began to tell stories. He didn’t rail at them or argue with them, nor did he try to defend himself. He just told them stories. The first had to do with a lost sheep, and the next one centered on a lost coin. In those parables Jesus talked about how the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin forgot everything else in their zeal to reclaim that which was lost. Finally, in his third story “ hat trick! “ he tells of a lost son.

These are more than just heartwarmers designed to make his listening audience feel good about God. Quite the contrary; it probably set his listeners’ teeth on edge. His purpose was to let the Pharisees and scribes know what is important to God. And guess what? What is important to God is not the purity of rules nor the comfort that comes from fulfilling religious customs. It is in bringing God’s human creation into right relationship with their God.

The conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities were almost always over the propriety of his ministry… how he conducted himself, what he had to say about God and how he said it, the company he chose to keep. As far as the religious leaders were concerned, it wasn’t proper to allow his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, especially with unwashed hands. It wasn’t proper to touch unclean people, even if that touch brought healing. It wasn’t proper to heal on the Sabbath, even if that healing was doing good.

One lesson which Jesus obviously had not learned, and was alive and well in his day, was that proper religious folk do what is proper. So, the questions put to him by people like the Pharisees and scribes generally had to do with what was proper.

Tell us, Teacher, is it proper to pay taxes to Caesar?
Rabbi, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her? Is it proper that we do so?
Is it proper for a man to divorce his wife?

And when they weren’t asking questions they were grumbling among themselves. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Have you ever asked yourself what was important to Jesus? This is at least a fairly knowledgeable crowd when it comes to the scriptures. In other words, you know your Bible. I imagine that is especially true as far as the gospels are concerned. You’re aware of the stories about Jesus, and what they tell us about his public ministry, his journey to the cross and then the experience of the resurrection. You may not be familiar with every little nuance of those stories (I’m certainly not, and that’s supposed to be my business), but you’re hardly illiterate when it comes to knowing what the scriptures have to say. But have you ever wondered what was most important to Jesus?

I’ll give you a hint. But first, I’ll tell you what was not important to Jesus. He didn’t concern himself much with the rules of the day. It would be interesting (and maybe I’ll do this some day) to take the lessons Jesus taught and hold them up in the revealing light to compare them with the rules that were so important to the religious establishment that opposed him.

Actually, I don’t have to do a comparison. I can tell you right now. The things Jesus taught us still hold up today, and are absolutely vital to anyone who wants to be in right relationship with God. Those things the religious authorities thought were so important… like keeping your hands clean, not lifting a finger on the Sabbath, refusing to associate with the wrong crowd… they don’t mean a thing, do they? Certainly not in the eternal scheme of things.

Jesus didn’t put much stock in the importance of the temple and its upkeep. That was important to them too. He predicted it would fall, and indeed it did. He wasn’t worried about what people thought of him, because the ones who did think of him in a negative light were not the ones he had come to seek and to save in the first place. After all, those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are ill. His sole concern was for the needs of those he met, for sharing with them the nature of his heavenly Father’s kingdom. He became angry when he witnessed those who took advantage of the poor and the sick, and he threw his shoulder against the established government that took advantage of the poor while lining their own pockets.

It didn’t matter who they were, if he saw people who had need of what he uniquely was able to offer, he gravitated toward them and they toward him. In fact, he was quite careless about the company he kept. Why, he just threw his mercy and his grace around as if he had an unlimited supply of it. And the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t like it.

You and I wonder what the fuss is all about. If Jesus wants to hang around with people like that, what business is it of theirs? Perhaps Jesus, then and now, simply had a way of drawing people to himself in such a way it caused friction on the part of those who felt they have some ownership of him… and if not ownership of Jesus, ownership of the kind of business Jesus was in. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees thought he was invading their waters, and in doing so broke the rules they had established. If he’s going to claim a special relationship with God, then he needs to portray God the way they want him to do it.

They had a strong sense of entitlement when it came to God, and they weren’t going to let anyone “ certainly this upstart Nazarene “ mess with their good thing.

Simply put, they didn’t like the company Jesus kept.

And that is the backdrop for his telling what has become his most famous and well-loved parable… the story of the prodigal son.

Try to imagine, if you will, the reaction of the religious leaders as they hear Jesus tell these stories. They are puzzled, perhaps, that a shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep to go seeking after the one. Doesn’t that put the rest of the herd in jeopardy? They might have been able to understand somewhat better the reaction of the woman who had lost the coin, especially if those coins were precious and few.

But look into their faces as Jesus provides the elements of his story about the father and the two sons. They would know immediately the custom of their day was not for a father to give his inheritance to all his children. Inheritances, or blessings, were given to the first-born, and if any of the other children received anything of the father’s estate, it would be because the eldest chose to share it with them. Yet, in Jesus’ story, the father gives the younger son a share that, by custom, should not even be promised to him. I can imagine the scribes and Pharisees muttering to one another about that.

But they ain’t seen nothing yet… nor certainly have they heard it all. Jesus has the son taking off to a foreign country and behaving in ways he had not been taught. The Pharisees and scribes would not have liked that at all. And then for this wayward son to attach himself to a man where his job is the feeding of pigs, well, that takes the cake.

They know this son lives only in Jesus’ imagination. Why would he tell the story this way? Is he intentionally trying to get on their nerves? To provoke an argument?

And then for the father to so easily take his son back… well, that was just too much. They completely understand the attitude of the older son when he says to his father, All these years I have been working like a slave for you… But when this son of yours came back… Notice he does not say, When my brother came back…

That’s exactly how they feel. The elder son didn’t like the company his father was keeping, even if that company was his own brother, and they feel the same way.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Take a journey through the gospels and what you will find is that Jesus kept company with all the wrong people… sick folk, illiterate fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, even those who were dead. Unclean, sinners, the lost… To Jesus, they are his brothers and his sisters.

What does that say to you and me? If we want to keep company with Jesus, we won’t generally find him in proper social circles. Instead, he will be found among those he came to seek and to save. If we want to keep company with Jesus, we might just have to re-think our daily agenda and go where he goes, do what he does, love those he loves.

Are we ready to do that? It’s certainly something for us to think about, isn’t it? It might require us to make drastic changes in the way we look at things and in the way we live. But that may just be what it takes if we want God to keep company with us.

Lord, if we want you to keep company with us, we might just have to spend time with those who are different from us. Whatever it takes, we pray you would find us faithful in being your presence in our world. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

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