Luke 15:1-10 1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coin and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
What a difference a week makes! Last week we heard Jesus say that unless we hate our families, are willing to die and renounce our possessions we cannot be His disciples. Today we have two touching stories of precious things being lost and are now found, symbols of God longing for and finding us. Actually there is a third story that our lectionary today did not include. After talking about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus tells the story of the lost son, which we often call the parable of the Prodigal Son. That is the most touching story of the three in terms of seeing God’s heart for us.
But before we take a closer look at the parables, let’s consider the bigger picture of fitting last week’s Gospel with this week. Is Jesus contradicting Himself? Is He providing an unclear image of the Father by on one hand giving us some very difficult sayings and then on the other hand telling some endearing parables? I suggest to you that He is not. What Jesus is giving us is a more complete picture of the Father.
In Romans 11 St. Paul says, “Behold the goodness and severity of God.” Another translation says, “Consider the kindness and sternness of God.” Jesus, in both His teachings and His actions, showed us both of these sides of God’s nature. On one hand He would take the children in His arms and bless them and on the other hand He would also take a whip and clear out the moneychangers in the temple. “Behold the goodness and severity of God.”
Saints in the past have understood this about God; that He is both goodness and severity. In Isaiah 45 God says, “I form light and create darkness, I will create weal and make woe.” When Job was so ill his wife suggested that he get it over with by cursing God and die. Job said, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad? (Job 2:10 NLT). Nor did the writer of Hebrews see any contradiction between these two sides of God’s nature. In fact He links them together. “The Lord disciplines those He loves and punishes those He accepts as His child.” (Heb 12:6).
When you read the lives of some of the heroes of the faith, you discover that they were quick to see difficult times as the chastening hand of God. I want to be clear. I am not saying that every bad thing that happens to us is God disciplining us. We need to pray and seek counsel and discern what is transpiring in our lives. But today, largely due to the imbalanced teaching about the goodness of God, we tend NEVER to look for God’s chastening hand to teach and correct us. If you listen to most of the TV preachers they will tell you that every difficulty as an act of the devil and you should rebuke it away. And yet Jesus said, “In this world you will have much tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.”
When I was in Campus Crusade for Christ we used to tell everyone that law one of the four spiritual laws is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And then most of us would interpret the “wonderful life” part as God giving us the American dream of a wonderful family, a beautiful house and nice things. But such a perspective cannot be supported by Scripture. Someone recently posted on Facebook a picture of the early Christians being fed to the lions in the arena with the caption “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It was a stark reminder that while God does indeed love us and has a wonderful life for us, His idea of wonderful may be very different from ours. It may be that we are full of wonder because we go through life saying. “I wonder why He did this?” “I wonder why God allowed that?”
This begs the larger question, of why if God loves us would He create weal and make woe in the first place? Why is He both kind and stern? We go back to the writer of Hebrews. “The Lord disciplines those He loves and punishes those He accepts as His child.”
Have you ever been in the grocery store where a little kid is pitching a royal fit and the parent is doing nothing but saying “Now Hunter, if you don’t stop that you are going to get a time out when we get home” and little Hunter cranks it up a few more notches? Because of the way I was raised, I want to go over, yank little Hunter off the floor, and as my Father used to say, give him something to cry about. But I don’t do that for two reasons. One, I would get arrested….again. And two, he’s not my kid. That’s the key! God disciplines us because we are His kids. Any good parent knows that one of the worst kinds of abuse is to ignore your child and to allow them to do whatever they want whenever they want. A good parent is all up in their child’s business; directing, teaching, and showing that they care by correcting them. We have some wonderful parents in this parish who are actively involved in their children’s lives by both nurturing and correcting them. That is how they show their love.
Our heavenly Father shows His love for us by doing the same. So there is no contradiction at all between Jesus’ very hard sayings and His loving parables. Jesus is showing us the kindness and the sternness of our Heavenly Father. We need to be grateful that God does not make the mistake that so many modern parents make, with disastrous consequences I might add, of trying to be our buddy. He is our God and Father and He disciplines those that He loves and we are the better for it.
With that out of the way, let’s look closer into these parables. What precipitates these parables is a controversy. The types of folks with whom Jesus is associating scandalize the religious people. They are upset with Jesus. And isn’t it interesting that in those days tax collectors were lumped in with other kinds of immoral people. Of course we wouldn’t dream today of making such an equivocation today! (hint hint, nod nod, wink wink).
But to be fair to the religious people I don’t think we can compare their reaction then to how we would feel today if Jesus were hanging out with some hippies. The Law of God was their life and for Jesus to be hanging out with law breakers would be more like us hearing today that Jesus attended a Klan meeting or had supper with Louise Farrakhan. Our first thought would be that He was giving tacit approval to them simply by being with them. So perhaps we can understand why they were so upset. But Jesus wants them to look at it from God’s point of view.
To answer them, Jesus tells two stories, one of a lost sheep and one of a lost coin. The first thing that jumps out to me in the stories is who it is that is lost. I say that because I hear people often use the expression, “I found the Lord” but according to these parables He was not the one that was lost, rather we are.
Surely Ray, everyone knows that! Actually they don’t. The religious people in Jesus’ day were as lost as the tax collectors and sinners but they did not realize it. Jesus even tweaked them with a bit of irony. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents that over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” He does not say it but the unspoken end of that sentence is “over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….or at least think that they don’t.”
We may not be Pharisees and scribes looking down our noses at tax collectors and sinners but we are often guilty of seeing others as sinners but not so much ourselves. It is so much easier to be outraged with Miley Cyrus than it is to realize that I have strayed from the fold this week. It is so much easier to be thinking to myself, “Man I wish so and so was here to hear this sermon” than it is to allow the Holy Spirit to convict me of my own sin. Just as in AA the road to recovery begins by admitting that you are powerless and that your life has become unmanageable, so the first step to being found by the Lord is to admit that you are lost.
But can you belong to God and still be lost? Who did the lost sheep belong to before it was lost? Who did the coin belong to before it was lost? And wasn’t the lost son still a son?
I’m not talking here about eternal security or not. That is another topic altogether. What I am saying it that we need to guard against thinking that we are so righteous that we do not stand in need of repentance. As God’s sheep we can and do stray. David lost his way with Bathsheba. Peter lost his way when he denied Jesus. Thomas lost his way when he doubted the Resurrection. As in the parables, each of these lost ones were found again, but for a time they were lost and so can we.
The next thing that stands out in these parables is the intensity with which their saviors sought them. With the lost sheep, the shepherd was willing to leave the 99 behind just to go after the 1. In the case of the lost coin, the woman lights a lamp and sweeps the entire house searching for the one coin.
It would have been easier for the shepherd to comfort himself over the loss by reminding himself that he still had 99 sheep left. The woman could have comforted herself with the knowledge that it was only one dime out of a dollar that was gone. But that was not their character. And so it is not God’s character to allow His lost sheep to wander off without initiating a search. The Scripture says that God is not willing that any would perish but that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
St. Paul was acutely aware of this part of God’s nature because he experienced this intense love that pursues the sinner. In his letter to Timothy he describes himself as a former blasphemer, a persecutor and man of violence. He was as lost as lost could be and he wasn’t exactly going to a church revival when he came to Christ. In fact he did not come to Christ, Christ came to him. The Good Shepherd sought him out, confronted him on the road to Damascus and turned a blasphemer into an Apostle.
Jesus said that those who are forgiven much, love much and that is why we see the depth of love and devotion in Paul. I have heard many times people say that they have trouble with Paul. They find him abrasive and even arrogant and some question his teachings. But I don’t see him that way. For me, it’s not until I have been beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned and left for dead, as many times as Paul, that I would be willing to suggest that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Paul considered himself to be the least of all the Apostles and yet God made the last become first in that He used Paul more than any other to give us the New Testament. He who was for intents and purposes completely lost, was completely found.
The last thing I want to point out from the parables are the responses to finding what was lost. The shepherd’s response to finding the lost sheep was that he rejoiced. He even called his friends to rejoice with him. Similarly the woman called together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her upon finding the lost coin. Jesus said that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. In the parable of the Prodigal Son the Father not only rushes out to greet his returning son but he calls for a feast. It sounds to me that there is a whole lot of happiness going on in these stories.
That is important to see because people tend to think of repentance as some dour religious exercise but it is just the opposite. Repentance opens the door to celebration. At the end of a confession the priest says “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost and are found; you were dead and now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.” (BCP p451).
It is in the anticipation of heaven’s joy that we should come to worship. Yes we have sinned throughout the week and we may have strayed a little or even a lot and that is grievous to us. But if we will come with genuine repentance then we will go from being lost to being found, from being dead to being alive and having been forgiven much we will love much. The title given to the priest who says Mass in the Prayer Book is “Celebrant.” He is the Celebrant because we come together to celebrate our redemption. And what is even more astonishing and cause for celebration is that Jesus Christ offers Himself to us as the feast at our homecoming.
One more take away from this story. We should be willing to be like Jesus and face criticism and misunderstanding in order to reach out to others. Not long after coming to Middle Tennessee a gentleman asked if I would join him for a drink at the VFW. We walked in together around suppertime. The place was dark and the sun shone in behind us so as we entered all eyes turned to us. Immediately someone yelled out “Holy @#$% it’s a priest.” While part of me wanted to turn around and go back out of the door, the other part of me knew that Jesus would stay because Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners, and so talked myself into staying. This is not to say that the VFW is full of tax collectors and sinners but you get my point.
Anyway, after a rough start, by the end of the night people were coming up and introducing themselves to me and I even had to turn down one old boy who wanted to do a confession right then and there. Some may have thought that I had no right to be there but if you are doing what you believe the Lord wants you to do then it does not really matter what others think.
Cursillo has a wonderful saying, “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.” We need to be like Jesus and go where the people are who need Him the most. When God uses you to bring a lost sheep back into the fold it is an incredible experience. You can almost hear heaven rejoicing. Amen.