Don’t go to Johnny’s Cafe as a missionary to the lost; go as the lost.
If the heart of God is with the lost, where does that leave those who aren’t lost? What about them? What about those 99 other sheep, and the nine coins rattling around in that woman’s purse, and the elder son? What about the people, who, when Jesus talks about the lost, don’t put themselves in that camp? They assume He’s talking about someone else. What about them? What about those who, as Flannery O’Connor describes them, are “those with great dignity, accountable as they [have] always been for good order common sense and respectable behavior?” The parables aren’t about them, but they are in the story just the same, like the Pharisees who were always there, too. Are they really “the righteous who never strayed?” Is there even such a thing?
I believe that Jesus may have had just as much to say to these people in these stories as He did to the lost, but He said it by way of irony and hyperbole. The big questions are: Are they really righteous? Have they managed not to stray? Does God care about them too? I would say, “No,” “No,” and “Yes!”
These parables are all about perception. These descriptions can’t be real because we know from the scriptures that everyone is lost, and there are none righteous on the earth. So how can Jesus talk about the righteous who haven’t strayed when Isaiah says we have all gone astray? I believe He is speaking this way for the benefit of the Pharisees who think they are righteous and think they have not gone astray. (“Think” being the operant word here.) I believe He is knowing they will identify themselves in the story and maybe realize they are shutting themselves out of God’s grace. If God sent Jesus to save the lost, then who’s going to save them? Nobody, because they don’t need to be saved.
Jesus came for the lost, even those who think they are not lost, because they are. Jesus came for those who have gone astray, even those who don’t think they have, because they have. All of humanity is in the same boat. If one is unrighteous, we are all unrighteous. If one has gone astray, we have all gone astray. If we see ourselves as different from this, the problem is in the perception of ourselves, not the reality.
If you’re going to Johnny’s Cafe with the mentality of a missionary to the lost, don’t go. If you are going to be among the lost as one of them, then for sure, go! You go to Johnny’s to join the lost. Wherever you go in the world, you find you are looking up to people better than you because you are the worst of sinners. When Jesus talks about the lost, you shout, “Here, here! That’s me!” This is what qualifies us for grace. Being anything better than this disqualifies us for grace. “So you think you’re righteous enough?” Jesus would say to the Pharisees, “Well, good luck with that,” speaking about what God requires for righteousness.
This is my struggle as a recovering Pharisee. Sometimes I forget I’m recovering and slip into my Pharisee robes. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to see myself as better than others. This is hard to shake.
If you’re like me, remember this: Don’t judge; join.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on today’s Catch, I noticed an op-ed column in today’s paper with the following subtitle: “What if landlords and tenants were neighbors?” It was written by an apartment manager who took up residence in the apartments he was managing, and what it did for his perspective. He wrote:
“Living among tenants radically changed our perception of them. The stoner who always sped down the alley in his truck? He was actually a doting father. The homeboy just downstairs? He had a heart of gold and was learning how to install optical wire cable. The fortune teller shop, however — which everyone had complained about — was a front for all sorts of shady business. I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t lived at the apartments myself.”
Conclusion: Don’t judge; join.