Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2016
Luke 15:1-10 Commentary
In the United States for certain—but perhaps in other parts of the world, too—it will escape the notice of very few that this Sunday falls on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the 3,000 lives that were lost in New York, in Washington, and in a field in Pennsylvania. We tend to mark anniversaries that fall in multiples of five so we will likely see and hear more remembrances this year than in the past couple of years since the 10th anniversary in 2011. In the church, the Lectionary on this day presents us with a couple of parables of lost and found, even though the very anniversary we observe on this September 11 Sunday stands as a reminder that in this life at least, some things that are lost cannot be found back. Not ever.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade and a half. Hard to believe that there are kids entering high school this Fall who were not even born yet on that September day. But for those of us who can remember, there are certain memories seared into our consciousness, not the least of which was the sight of all those children, spouses, parents, and friends posting signs all over New York and on the chain-link fences that eventually surrounded Ground Zero. Photos of missing loved ones were stapled to crayon drawings and hand-written signs. “Missing: If You See My Daddy . . . Missing: If You See My Wife . . . Call 555-678-5047.” But the phones never rang. Some things, some people, who are lost cannot be found back. Startlingly, all these years later, there are over 1,100 people of whom not a single trace has ever been found. Nearly 40% who died in the Twin Towers are not findable even at a trace level.
But here’s the thing: those who lost someone will never give up hope of finding . . . something. Anything. That’s what love does for you. It makes you look and never give up. How easy it is from the outside looking in to be incredulous that families of the missing Malaysian jetliner still hold to a scintilla of hope that these people may be found alive somewhere someday. “Of course not” the rest of us think. But we’re not the ones who lost someone—someone we love.
And that’s who God is, Jesus says in Luke’s version of these two parables. From the abundance of his love he searches until he finds. He won’t give up. Not ever. There’s just too much love involved.
As Luke frames the parable, there are two audiences: there are the Pharisees who are out on the fringes, sneering at Jesus for the bad company he was keeping at table. But then there were the “sinners,” the members of that alleged “bad company” with whom Jesus was sitting at the table when he told his triplet of “lost-and-found” parables in Luke 15. Verse 3 informs us that Jesus “told them this parable,” but the antecedent for the “them” is not clear: is it the “tax collectors and sinners” who were gathered all around him for dinner that evening or was the “them” the eye-rolling and snippy Pharisees who are critiquing Jesus from a distance?
Well, it is probably both, and yet it is instructive to wonder how differently these parables sounded in the ears of those two groups.
Let’s start with the “bad company” in front of Jesus. To them these must have been great stories because if they needed a reminder that they were the ones God needed to seek out and find, all they had to do was look over their shoulders at the scolding religious leaders looking in through the windows. The Pharisees and company never failed to signal the message that folks like these tax collectors and the like were not God’s kind of people. They were lost to God. They were, therefore, unwelcome among the truly righteous because the only thing these greasy folks would accomplish would be the messing up of the already found and saved folks. Indeed, the religious establishment viewed those other people as being quite literally “lost causes,” so much so that it seems never to have occurred to the Pharisees to reach out to such sinners.
It reminds me of a motif that ran through the wonderfully poignant and humorous movie Babe some years ago. The animals on Hoggett Farm all had pre-conceived notions about one another: sheep were convinced that dogs were stupid, dogs were convinced that sheep were stupid and—as the narrator often intoned—nothing would convince them otherwise. “The way things are is the way things are” the animal characters would say to one another as a way to bolster their iron-clad worldviews.
So also for the Pharisees: there were good and righteous people like themselves—these were people whom God could not fail to love because they were just so morally attractive. But then there were pagans like tax collectors and prostitutes whom God could not possibly love no matter what (such that there was nothing the Pharisees could do to change that circumstance, either). That was simply the way things were. (It’s what you see in the Book of Psalms, isn’t it? There are the righteous and the wicked and that’s that. The Psalms may often wish for the destruction of evildoers but attempts to reach out and redeem them are not frequently depicted in the Psalms and so maybe, the Pharisees thought, that really is just the way things are.)
So if you fit into the category of a “lost cause” but then heard Jesus tell three stories about how God is the champion of the lost . . . well, it must have sounded like Good News for sure. What’s more, to hear that there was even more joy over one of those being found than in the static piety of the ostensibly already-found must have sounded swoon-worthy to those people. Because then it turns out that there is no such thing as lost causes—just lost and wandering people waiting to be found by God’s grace.
It goes without saying, therefore, that Jesus’ parables sounded rather different in the ears of the Pharisees and company. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin joy busts out all over and there is no mistaking the fact that such divine joy is getting aimed at Jesus’ “bad company” and not at the Pharisees themselves. But in the end—just to be sure no one misses the point—Jesus will conclude with an elder brother refusing to enter into the joy of a party, and there is no way the Pharisees missed recognizing themselves in the portrait of that surly kid.
I wonder sometimes which set of ears most characterizes many people in the church yet today. Does the gospel sound wonderful to us only when we see ourselves as the target of God’s grace and joy and happiness? Or does it sound best to us when we see others getting caught up in the divine embrace, even if those “others” are people very unlike us (and maybe even people we ourselves do not particularly care for or are able to relate to)? And if we can feel joy over the salvation of “others,” is it because we properly know that when you get right down to it, we are all the same? Life-long church members and newly saved drug addicts; conservative Christians with a backlog of moral virtue and more progressive folks whose views don’t always jibe with our own—we are all the same. We all need the same amount of grace to get saved.
If we stop thinking in terms of “Us vs. Them” in the church, maybe we will arrive at a day when we all have just one set of ears through which to hear parables like the ones in Luke 15: ears that are highly adept at picking out the tune of sheer joy that just is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!
It is easy when preaching on these texts—especially the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin—to produce a sermon that is long on inducing guilt (“Why aren’t you going out and seeking others more often!?”) and short on celebrating the joy of salvation. Yes, at least one major thrust of Jesus’ parables is precisely to tell us that—contrary to those judgmental Pharisees—we should be seeking the lost. True enough. This text is shot through with a sense of mission. But let’s get the motivation right: it’s not because this is some grim religious duty that, darn it, we just have to do if we want God to love us.
No, it’s because we remember the joy of our own salvation, of our own having been found by the Savior, and it is now our privilege to beam that joy to all and to invite others to come and join the celebration by letting Jesus become their Lord and Savior too. It comes when we remember the never-ending well of love and hope that motivates God’s own search. He won’t give up. He can’t. There’s just too much love involved for him to throw in the towel even when the odds are really long.
If we can preach sermons that center on that, then we are proclaiming Good News indeed.
Two small items in the Greek text may be interesting. First, in Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” sinners and tax collectors. The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms. The image here is very nearly of an embrace. This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in, of this person. (It reminds you of the big embrace that the father gives to his prodigal son later on in Luke 15).
Another small point is in verse 4 when the shepherd is said to leave his 99 sheep not just “in the open” as the NIV translates it but more along the lines of the NRSV’s translation of “in the wilderness” as the Greek there is EREMO, which is the word for the desert or wilderness—a dangerous place to be and a very dangerous place to be left unsupervised and unprotected.
From a sermon by Hugh Reed, as quoted in Paul Scott Wilson, Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Abingdon, 2008, pp. 159-60):
Allan (not his real name) came to me at my previous church in Hamilton, wanting to be baptized. He was a child (or victim) of the “me decade” and felt compelled to leave home and family to find himself and, of course, lost himself, becoming a stranger to himself and the world, wandering the streets of Vancouver trapped in a world of drugs. One night he managed to get off the street for a night in one of the shelters. He crashed into the bunk, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the groans, and trying not to be overcome by the odors of the strangers in the bunks around him. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was, but he wanted it to be over with and he considered how he might take his own life.
He was shaken out of this thoughts when someone came in and called out a name from another world.
“Is Allan Roberts here?”
That had been his name once but he hadn’t heard it for some time. He hardly knew Allan Roberts anymore. It couldn’t be him being called.
The caller persisted, “Is there anybody named Allan Roberts here?”
No one else answered and so Allan took a risk. “I’m Allan Roberts (or used to be).”
“Your mother’s on the phone.”
My mother, no, you’ve made a mistake. I don’t know where I am, how could my mother know where I am?
“If you’re Allan Roberts, your mother’s on the phone.”
Unsure what to expect, he went to the desk in the hall and took the receiver. “Allan,” it was his mother, “It’s time for you to come home.”
“Mom, I don’t know where I am, I have no money, you don’t know what I’m like anymore. I can’t go home.”
“It’s time for you to come home. There’s a Salvation Army officer who’s coming to you with a plane ticket. He’s going to take you to the airport to get you home.”
She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him.
He went home and, supported and loved by his mother, who had never ceased to know him even though he had forgotten himself, and influenced and inspired by the faith that had sustained his mother’s hope and love, he began attending church services and one day came to my office seeking to be baptized.
He did not find his own way to my office . . . A path, not of his own making, [was] made by the love that found him, that knew him better than he knew himself, and invited him to “follow me.”
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