Sunday, September 15, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10
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From time to time people want to know what the core of the gospel is. What is the heart of the good news about Jesus? If you have ever wondered that, or if one of your friends ever asks you, because they have found out that you are a Christian and they ask you to tell them what the big deal is about Jesus, why we love Jesus so much, I am here to tell you today that a very good place to start is to take your friend to Luke chapter 15.
The chapter begins by setting the scene. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” That’s the first thing we need to know about Jesus. Jesus is someone that the rejects of society want to be close to. Tax collectors were hated in the 1st century. They were seen as greedy, they were seen as sell-outs to the Roman Empire for whom they collected taxes, and they were despicable. The word “sinners” is a broad term that is a euphemism for people with a bad reputation. These are the people your mother warned you about. “You’re known by the company you keep,” we are told. According to this story, Jesus keeps company with sinners.
Luke 15, for my money, is close to the heart of what is so special about Jesus, because it’s at the heart of what Jesus shows is so special about God. The chapter contains three parables. Two short parables of the sheep and the coin, which we have read today, and then one longer parable, which is the parable of the prodigal son, which we read earlier this year. When Jesus wants to convey the heart of who God is, he does not make some kind of sophisticated doctrinal statement that you’d need a PhD in Theology to be able to understand. He tells a story, a series of stories, to which even a small child can hold onto.
And believe me, the good religious people noticed. “The Pharisees and the scribes” – those are the upstanding religious citizens of the day, the people who had gone to seminary, people who were well-educated in matters of religion and philosophy, people who knew how to handle themselves around the sanctuary – they were “grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
What the Pharisees say about Jesus is actually one of the core truths of the gospel. They don’t mean it as a compliment; in fact, they mean it as a derisive insult, something meant to invalidate his authority. They don’t say this with praise, but in the humor and the irony of God, they have just spoken the truth of the gospel. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus does not reject sinners, does not humiliate them or scold them or shame them. He welcomes them, and he shares his table with them.
Whenever we fall into self-righteousness, we always think that our grumbling is not that noticeable, but of course, one person’s self-righteousness can infect an entire room, and so Jesus is aware of what they are saying, and how they are trying to enlist God on their good and proper side, the side of rules and performance and acceptability. And he tells them a story.
“Which one of you,” he asks them, “when you have 100 sheep and you lose one of them, does not leave the 99 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. ‘Rejoice with me,’ he says, ‘for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”
Now, we may observe how strange this is. I’m no agricultural expert, but I’m thinking that any shepherd who leaves a flock of 99 sheep alone in the wilderness, the dangerous wilderness where there are wolves, so that he can go off and look for a single lost sheep, could be accused of being foolish. It doesn’t seem like a good way to play the percentages. It seems an excessive amount of concern for that single sheep. It doesn’t seem reasonable.
This shepherd notices when one of his many sheep has gotten lost. And Jesus says God is just like that. God cares so much about every single sheep, especially those sheep that are lost, that God will go to any lengths necessary in order to find his sheep that are lost.
And just to be sure that the religious leaders get the point, Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” According to Jesus, sinners are not cut out of the family, sinners are not left behind because they’re only one sheep, sinners are not left to flounder in their sin, sinners are loved and cherished and sought and welcomed and invited – again and again and again – to repent, to change their thinking, to turn around and join God’s party that is going on all around them.
Jesus here places a big ol’ reminder not to hold onto our religious rules and codes of prescribed behavior too tightly. Religious rules and laws and instructions are very important – the Torah is God’s great gift – because they provide us with a guide for living. But there is a persistent human temptation to use rules or lists of behaviors, which we can see and control, to tell us who’s good and who’s not, who’s acceptable and who’s not, who we need to welcome and who we can leave outside. Our attention is then on the rules, rather than on the beloved and broken human beings whom the rules are about. God’s heart is centered on those whose lives are a mess and who can’t take care of themselves.
Now, if you’re anything like me, this may strike you as mixed news. After all, you may not like to think of yourself as lost. You may like to think of yourself as one of the 99 righteous persons, or at least as one of the people who are trying to do the right thing. It may sound like this isn’t fair, that God ought to pay more attention to the good students in the class, ought to reward those who are doing what they’re supposed to.
Whenever we identify ourselves as one of the good people, whenever we are wanting a reward for all of our good behavior, passages like this are going to drive us nuts; Jesus is going to drive us nuts with his wild compassion for those who are mixed up and messed up. Because what this passage, and other passages like it are telling us is that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, because his heart is centered on those who are the least and the last and the left behind.
For anyone who has really messed up, anyone whom successful, respectable society has shoved to the side, this passage is literally music to your ears, because it tells you in no uncertain terms, that Jesus does not reject you, Jesus does not avoid you, Jesus does not run away from you. Jesus moves towards you with his arms open wide, ready to receive you and love you and restore you to the fullness of community. You always have a home with me, Jesus says, no matter what other people may say about you, no matter what you have done. That’s why those tax collectors and sinners loved him and gathered about him.
And for all of us who have thought that our future well-being depended on getting everything exactly right, and who think that we’ve done a pretty good job thus far of doing that, the day may come, sooner or later, when we realize that our lives, in spite of our best efforts, are falling apart. The day may come when we mess up really bad, or when we fail at a job or a relationship, or when we just find ourselves in a world of pain and hurt that we can’t fix, when all the control in the world won’t make things right. And then we will realize that we, too, are lost sheep in need of a good shepherd. In that moment, the words of Luke 15 will sound completely different to us, and they will no longer drive us crazy. They will sound like music to our ears, too. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Yes, he does. Thanks be to God. Amen.