In the 15th chapter of Luke Jesus tells three parables two of which appear nowhere else in the Gospels. Of course the chapter is best is known for the Prodigal Son story. The other two parables while shorter are quite similar. One is the story we’ve called the lost coin, the other is the story of the lost lamb. In each case the token, the animal and the person were once securely held and considered precious to a wife, a shepherd and a father. In the first instance an unwitting lamb wandered away from the flock In the second what became lost may have been due to simple carelessness. In the third, and most dramatic, the son intentionally left. We’ve all heard messages built around each of these stories. I actually think it would be so much better if we remembered these three parables as the Recovered Coin, the Recovered Lamb and the Recovered Son which is the joyful outcome rather than focusing on their respective lostness. It seems we miss a great opportunity for a celebration. For those who have had the experience, recovery from addiction is a difficult process. Recovery, even in the matter of health issues calls for celebration. It’s the time when we might want to sing “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength” because the joy that is experienced by the shepherd, wife, and father respectively which, as scripture tells us is known among the angels should also be known among humanity.
We can imagine the woman crying out “I found it”, the shepherd yelling across the field, “I found her” and the once distraught father calling to the whole family “He’s come home”.
Loud and clear in each of the three parables we hear sounded the theme that God’s love and mercy is for those whom others despise and condemn but for today, I’d like to shift our focus from the stories of the coin, the lamb and the son; off the shepherd, the woman, and the waiting father and focus our attention on the setting in which Jesus finds himself. So instead of the whole chapter, we need only look at the first two verses:
Luke 15: 1-2 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The event of Luke 15 occurs as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Please don’t miss the significance of that – he is heading for a show down with the religious leaders who have been conspiring to take his life. As the scene opens, on one side of Jesus are the “tax collectors and” as one translation has it “other bad characters”. This is an amazing amalgamation of the Jewish population. The tax collectors are people, along with the prostitutes who are collaborators with the hated Roman occupiers. Were this the post civil war U.S. south they would be called ‘scalawags’. And the bad characters, well, that’s just what they were. Some would have called them low life or “no count”. Of course even they would acknowledge that according to community standard they would be considered ‘unrighteous’. These are those who are most in need of love and mercy. Evidently they were hungry to hear more.
On the others side of Jesus are the religious authorities who likewise need love and mercy. From the perspective of the religious elite, those who took seriously the warnings of the Prophets, the collaborators and the ‘bad characters’ threatened the very existence of the Jewish people. The scattering of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah resulted from such behavior. Theirs was a commitment to maintain a stable religious culture and change, change of any kind was seen as a threat. No wonder Luke tells us that those tax gathers and other bad characters were crowding in to listen to Jesus. What was it about Jesus that made him so attractive to this rabble? Was it his winsome personality? Well, not if we listen to carefully to Luke. His message is somewhat mixed. Jesus seeks to bring sinners to repentance, that’s true, but his approach isn’t what you might assume. Not once do we read of Jesus scolding or correcting one identified as a sinner. Four times Luke reports meals in which Jesus receives criticism for his relationship with sinners and Jesus never once comments on the behavior of the sinner. This is truly fascinating. Jesus embraces the very people the rest of the religious community rejects. The religious leaders were upset because of those Jesus choose to associate he offered acceptance before repentance. Jesus was declaring, with actions that spoke louder than words, that even though the wicked had not made restitution or demonstrated conversion in any traditional way, they would still be included in his fellowship. And it is not as though Jesus did not require repentance. He did require repentance, but not the kind that came through the Torah and the Temple! The notion that one could repent and regain acceptable status within Israel apart from its national symbols was completely novel. In this the Pharisees found the true offense, not in Jesus’ love and mercy, but in his blasphemous audacity to claim that the wicked were no longer sinners (and thus, no longer outside of Israel). In eating with the wicked, Jesus was declaring the wrong people forgiven. He was reconstituting the kingdom of God. He was offering this blessing outside the official structures on all the wrong people, and on his own authority.
One of the leaders of the religious community off handedly grumbles: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And that’s when we hear these three parables from Jesus. It is clear that, as Jesus ate with sinners and accepted them into his fellowship, he was offering the forgiveness of sins and identifying those who would partake in the kingdom of God. In the face of that it seems the appropriate question to ask of the religious leaders is “What’s your problem?” This isn’t the only time this question was raised. Remember the story of the woman crippled by a spirit for 18 years whom Jesus healed on a Sabbath and how the leader of the synagogue became indignant. So, What’s Your Problem? Is that a question we need to ask of ourselves?
And as we hear in the refrain in the text: “there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents”, but the question, especially in the face of the grumbling Pharisees, is whether there is joy on earth?
Most churches lack the moral authority to distinguish righteous persons from sinners. However, our wider society does name its losers. Politicians and demagogues are constantly scape-goating people who place an undue burden on the rest of society as “sinners”. As we move from one public debate to another, the category of “sinners” includes, for instance, undocumented immigrants, but apparently does not include respectable people who prevent group homes from entering their neighborhoods or insurance companies who deny coverage to churches who use their facilities to provide shelter for homeless families and people who conduct business in predatory ways. Jesus had the courage first to point out who the “sinners” were in his cultural setting, and then, instead of abandoning them sides with them. Isn’t it the calling of the church to take sides with the underdogs? Does eating with sinners mean taking sides?
Brian Stoffregen, a pastor in Yuma Arizona recently quoted Robert Capon in The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology: “… The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world’s moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days’ worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.
What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church’s real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can’t turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what’s right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.
The church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right. Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe.” The church is nothing but the world under the grace of Christ.
Jesus’ proclamation of Good News was truly good news to the tax collectors, sinners and other bad characters who flocked to hear him. It offered hope for restoration to those considered by the religious community as already relegated to hell. It declared mercy and love rather than an inflexible system of justice. And what’s more it offered forgiveness before repentance.