Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 15th chapter of Luke, beginning with the 1st verse.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10, NRSV)
All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you’ve done for us in Christ. Now, as we open that word, we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so, oh God, fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I read a story about a pastor who was called to see a young man, John, dying of a terrible disease. The young man was once a member of this pastor’s congregation. Growing up, he had received all of the good Christian education and training; he was baptized and confirmed—the typical routine. Later on, though, John turned his back on the church and on the faith he had grown up in. He gave it all up to live life how he wanted, on his terms. His story was basically the story of the prodigal son—which our Gospel reading today leaves out. Poor life choices ultimately led John into poverty and this disease, which was rapidly taking his life. He was the talk of the town, too. Everyone knew about John; they spoke about him with disappointment. No one visited him.
And as he lay there, dying, writhing in pain and discomfort, he had plenty of time to think. And he thought back to his youth, back to his upbringing, back to his good church life before all this. He knew the end was near, so, like the prodigal son, he thought about “his Father’s house.” He thought about the Jesus he once knew. And John so desperately wanted to be with Him forever. So he asked for the pastor to come and visit him.
The pastor came and saw the sorrow in John’s eyes; he heard the despair and fear in his voice. And then, the pastor shared with him the words of a merciful God, a God who offers eternal salvation for every repentant sinner. He reminded Him of his baptism and the Savior who died for him and offered forgiveness and new life. And as the pastor read the Bible, John lay there in pain but with a smile on his face. And he closed his eyes and fell asleep in Jesus.
The day before the funeral took place at the church, one of the prominent church members, Mr. Goodman, met with the pastor. He asked, “Pastor, you’re not going to do a Christian burial for that good-for-nothing sinner, are you?” “Oh,” said the pastor, “You mean our brother in Christ, John? Of course, I’m going to give him a Christian burial.” To this, the “good church member” replied, “Well, if this man went to heaven, I don’t know if I want to go there!” “Never fear, Mr. Goodman,” said the pastor, “You may not be going.” Of course, this only enraged Mr. Goodman, who argued how he was far more worthy of heaven than that miserable, sinful wretch, John. But the pastor simply reminded him, “There is no difference...for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Basic story from “Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations,” Burgess, David F., Concordia Publishing House, 1988. p. 112)
I can’t verify whether that story actually took place. As I said, it was just a story I read recently. But doesn’t it sound like something that would happen? Doesn’t that Mr. Goodman sound like some stuffy, uptight, self-righteous person you’ve come across before? We like stories like this because the wayward young man finds redemption, while the vocal, mean-spirited Mr. Goodman gets an overdue lesson in pulling the plank out of your own eye before pointing out the speck in another’s. And yet, by taking pleasure in hearing the self-righteous “Mr. Goodmans” of the world get what’s coming to them, we sort of fall into that same trap of judgment because our sinful nature cannot help but compare and judge.
Jesus tackles this very subject in our Gospel reading for today (Luke 15:1-10). Just before the reading picks up, as we read last Sunday, Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33). He calls people to follow Him, despite the cost. And He tops it off with a phrase, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:35). And so, they came. They came to hear Him; they came to follow Him. But those who followed after Him, those who came to hear, were the worst that society had to offer—tax collectors and sinners.
For this reason, the Pharisees and Scribes were appalled at what they saw him doing. Was he eating dinners with sinners?!? Well, that was a major cultural faux pas. Sitting down with tax collectors was social suicide. Eating with sinners—you might as well write off your chances of salvation. After all, everyone knows that if you sit down with a sinner, you’re guilty of their sin by association!
This was their line of thinking, anyway. That was the prevailing thought of the day. But...actually, isn’t it sort of prevailing thought, still, today? Don’t we naturally place labels on people who associate with the “wrong crowd?” I mean, everyone knows if you sit with an alcoholic in a neighborhood tavern for lunch, suddenly you’re an alcoholic, too, even though you were drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper. And, of course, everyone knows that if you’re a congressman who reaches across the aisle in bipartisanship, you’ve basically joined that political party. Then, of course, there’s where you live that plays a factor: “Oh, your child goes to THAT school,” and suddenly you’ve envisioned, out of your own imagination, the decrepit old neighborhood that they OBVIOUSLY must live in—though you’ve never been there. And you think, “I wonder what they did to end up there?!” Tisk tisk.
At the same time, there’s our own fear that we’ll be associated with the wrong crowd, so we essentially live covert, double-lives. You know what I’m talking about: there are those whom we’re friends with, but we wouldn’t dare tell anyone we hang out with them, lest people get the wrong idea about us. You know the ones: maybe their language is a bit vulgar; perhaps they’re pro-choice; maybe they’re gay; maybe they’re outspoken atheists; perhaps they voted for Bernie Sanders; maybe they’re loud and obnoxious when they drink too much, but the thing is, they always drink too much. Whatever the case, you know the one. And we do our best not to be found guilty by association; we go to great lengths to avoid these two groups of friends ever meeting—nay, colliding—lest our universe is destroyed.
Then, there are those times we live these double lives, putting up a false front. We work so hard to keep up appearances as though our marriage is stable. We want people to see us as the model of what to aim for in life. So we hide the fact that our financial situation is unsustainable. We hide the fact that there’s an addict at home. Or the number of times we have to bail our kids out. We hide our flaws, and we put up a facade to mask our vulnerabilities, to look like we’ve got our act together. And the best smoke screen to hide it all is by pointing out the struggles others are going through. A great way to hide our own failures is redirection, comparing ourselves to others: “Well, at least I’m not like them…at least I’m not as bad as you.” I think these kinds of things are what lead people to call Christians “hypocrites” because they see us falling into the trap along with the Pharisees and Scribes, ignoring our sins and failures.
Well, that day, in the eyes of the Pharisees and Scribes, Jesus looked sinful by association with the dregs of society. And Jesus basically said, “Yeah… that’s the point!” And through a few parables, Jesus blows away the smoke screen. We’re only going to look at the first two of these lost and found parables, and that’s enough. Because, in them, Jesus tears through the curtain we hide behind in our puffed-up, self-righteousness. Jesus sees right through the facade, and today He calls us to repentance.
In the first parable Jesus tells, the shepherd does some bizarre things. When one of his 100 sheep goes missing, he leaves the 99 sheep alone in the wilderness. Different commentaries try to explain that, “well, there probably would have been multiple shepherds, so he probably left the 99 in the hands of one of the helpers.” NO. Jesus is telling a parable—he didn’t mention helpers—so we just work with what he says. The 99 sheep were left all alone. Any one of them could have wandered away. But, for him, it was worth it; saving that one lost sheep was worth it. And when he finally found that little lamb, he picked it up and went, and he threw a party to celebrate—over ONE little sheep! Sure, they’re important…but not THAT important. I mean, he’s still got 99 others who stayed put! But perhaps the most bizarre part that is often overlooked in this parable is that he returned home with the one sheep…but where are the other 99? Jesus makes no further mention of the sheep themselves. I think we usually envision the Shepherd retrieving the lost sheep, then going back to the other 99, then bringing all 100 home with them. But that’s not what’s described. All we get is the fact that the shepherd took the sheep home with him. You might even imagine the shepherd left them out in the wilderness. But even if you don’t like that idea, even if he brought them back, too, at any rate, the one dirty sheep was the only one brought into the man’s home; carried the entire way into the Good Shepherd’s house for a magnificent party. The rest were stuck outside. And Jesus said, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” They’ll be stuck outside with no party.
In the second parable, the woman makes a big deal over something so small. She had ten coins, and she lost one. The coin was a drachma, with unknown value—unknown to us, anyway. At some points in history, the drachma was the equivalent to a day’s wages; at other times, it was the price of a sheep; at other times, it was a fraction of a penny. The way Jesus talks about it, we get the sense that she’s making a big deal out of what we might think is nothing…but to her, it’s everything. It was priceless to the woman in the parable, and she was willing to go to great lengths to find it. She searched high. She searched low. She looked everywhere in her house. And if this was all she had, she very well may have been a peasant. So it would make sense that she went to such great lengths, and lighting a lamp to find it made perfect sense. Because, in those days, peasant houses had short doors and no windows, so it was very dark. She needed to light a lamp if she was going to find it. And the woman was filled with joy beyond measure when the light reflected off that little drachma. So much so that she threw a party. But the thing is, the party she threw probably cost more than the coin was even worth—perhaps the other nine coins were given up to pay for this celebration! And as Jesus said, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
These are great parables, neat stories…but what’s it all about? Usually, we look at these parables with a focus on outreach. Go and find the lost of this world! And that’s fine. These parables call us to action to seek the lost of the world, secondarily at least. But that’s not really the primary purpose—not if you take them in the context of what was happening. The parables were primarily aimed at the self-righteous Jewish leadership. If they are as righteous as they claim, they should be trying to help others and guide them back, like shepherds, not condemn them and leave them to die. If they were so righteous, they should have shone the encouraging word of God’s light for those who were lost in the darkness of the world. But instead, they allow these priceless ones whom God adores slip through their fingers without even bothering to seek them out. And in their self-righteousness, by failing to take action; by failing to seek out others; by putting up a smokescreen of judgment; by failing in these ways, they failed to see their own sin. They failed to see that they themselves were lost. It’s hard to see your own shortcomings when you’re so focused on everyone else’s.
With these parables, Jesus is telling us His mission: “I’ve come looking for you. I’ve come searching for all of the lost. I’ve come to heal those who know they’re broken. I’ve come to bring light to those looking for a way out of their darkness. I’ve come to do what you cannot do. I’ve come to save you from yourselves.” Taking on our flesh, joining in our humanity, dying in our place—yes, Jesus came to be sinful by association with us so that we might be saints by association with Him. And to all who hear him calling; to all who follow him, no matter the cost; to all who repent and believe in the Gospel, this Jesus offers an eternal celebration in paradise. Sinners Welcome! The party is for the lost! The party is for you.
The party is for those who recognize their need for a Savior. There’s no room at the table for those who think themselves righteous. There’s no room at the table for those who believe their own good works merit a seat with the Savior. There’s no room for those who condemn others without question. There’s no room for comparison, no room for those who don’t recognize their own faults and failures because they’re so fixated on others. The party is for the lost. Sinners Welcome!
God in Christ went to great lengths for this party, too! In the parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin were unable to make themselves found. They could not will themselves found by their owner. In the same way, we cannot make ourselves found and worthy to stand before the throne of God. Only by grace, with the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word, does this happen. God finds us. God does all the work.
We see Jesus going to even greater lengths when we consider that first parable. Even in this parable, Jesus is conveying what would happen on the cross—as the Shepherd carries the burden of His sheep upon His own shoulders. And, as the woman paid a ridiculous price to celebrate one coin, so God paid a ridiculous price for the joyful party in heaven—the cost was His own Son, for us. And on the last day, amid the joys of heaven, we who once were lost will have a seat at the feast of victory because the Good Shepherd came looking for us.
Beyond outreach and urging us to evangelize, today and every day, Jesus doesn’t call us to perfection; He calls us to repentance. He calls us to recognize our sins against a holy God. To leave the judging to Him, and confess our failures…because we are lost to sin daily. But daily, Christ calls us back in grace. So that we might know true eternal joy, in grace, Jesus calls us to repentance. And with open arms, He invites us to the feast, saying, “Sinners welcome.”
Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for sending your Son into our world to redeem and restore sinners to a right relationship with you, our Creator. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to realize that we, too, come before our Lord’s table as sinners who your saving grace has redeemed. Take from us the arrogance of pride in our self-accomplishments, and help us to trust solely in your amazing grace. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)® Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Sermon contributed by Rev. Jonathan Meyer.
Whether we know it or not, we are all lost. Jesus comes seeking us, calling us to repentance, and He welcomes sinners to His feast of victory.