17 PENTECOST, PROPER XIX - c - 16 LUKE 15. 1-10
Today’s gospel passage picks up where we left off last week. Luke reported that great crowds were beginning to follow Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the cross.
The crowds were made up of all sorts and conditions of people from the very rich to the very poor and everything in between. They came from all walks of life from the religious elite to the core of society’s outcasts. But those who had ears to hear Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom of God were eager to accept it, and pushed through the crowd to be near him; namely the tax collectors and sinners.
The tax collectors we know. They were Jews employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen and profited by it. They were disliked and despised by all. But who were the “sinners?” In the eyes of the Jewish elite they were the irreligious, the non-practicing Jews, and that also included the Gentiles. By pious Jewish standards they were social outcasts.
The pious Jews, who were self-satisfied with their relationship to God and who would have considered themselves defiled by standing next to such people, much less eating with them, dropped back in the crowd making their dissatisfaction known. They grumbled against Jesus’ association with such as these, and especially his eating with them, and Jesus heard them. In contrast to the Pharisees’ grumbling, Jesus responds with two stories filled with joy and rejoicing; that of the lost sheep and lost coin.
Commentaries are filled with interpretations of the 100 sheep. One such early interpretation has the 100 sheep representing all natural creation. The one sheep who goes astray symbolizes mankind, while the 99 represent the angelic realm who rejoice in heaven over the repentance and return of the lost. Christ descended from heaven to pursue the one sheep, man, who had fallen from grace.
The interpretation of the lost coin is similar. The lost coin, which carries the image of the king, symbolizes mankind, who, though bearing the image of God, fell from grace. The message is clear; the joy of God is in the recovery of the lost. The Epistle and the Gospel go hand in hand as St. Paul makes Christ’s mission clear in his confession to Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Those who pushed to the head of the crowd knew they were in need of redemption. Those who drew back and grumbled were self-satisfied and in their mind’s eye had no need of repentance. What alienates from God is self-satisfaction which leads to the image that there is nothing wrong with us, and to treat with contempt the disreputable sinner.
These two stories explain the principle of Jesus’ actions and the method of divine love. N. T. Wright in his commentary on Luke, expands our understanding of these two little stories by explaining the Jewish belief that the two halves of God’s creation, heaven and earth, were meant to fit together and be in harmony with each other.
If you discover what is going on in heaven, the Bishop writes, you will discover how things were meant to be on earth. That is what we mean when we pray that God’s kingdom will “come on earth as it already is in heaven.” Jesus was teaching that heaven rejoiced every time a single sinner repented and began to follow in God’s way.
Imagine the impact of this on those who pushed forward in the crowd to be near him and heard these words. Imagine the impact it still has on these who long to hear it today. They didn’t have to earn God’s love or Jesus’ respect. He came to look for them, and celebrated in finding them.
What Christ was doing, God was doing though Him. The tax collectors and sinners could see it in the way Jesus said it and they could feel it in their hearts as he spoke. While the Pharisees objected by closing a blind eye and a deaf ear.
Jesus’ actions on earth corresponded exactly with God’s love in heaven. God’s love persistently seeks the lost and rejoices at their redemption. Luke’s gospel is filled with story after story of the hospitality of God; that is, God’s open invitation to all to enter the kingdom through repentance, faith, and obedience.
The Church’s role is to carry out the idea of God‘s hospitality by inviting others to come and see and to hear for themselves the “good news” that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. None of us can earn God’s love or Jesus’ respect. Christ came and continues to come seeking the lost and celebrates when he finds them. The kingdom remains open to all who choose to walk in God’s way, responding to His Love with repentance, faith and obedience.
Our calling is to exemplify the acceptance that is in Jesus. But how difficult it is to surrender our prejudices and our own sense of self-satisfaction. However, we can not afford to forget that we are all sinners in need of redemption and that repentance is an on-going process for each of us. God’s Love and Grace stands ready to accept our return, and Jesus says that the angels rejoice when we do.
Evangelism is the mission of the Church. We are to invite and welcome in Christ’ name, remembering that Salvation belongs to God. We do evangelism best by living in the way that manifests and exemplifies the life and grace of Christ, the gentle, self-giving love that empties itself, being a servant and host to the other.
There are many challenges before the Church today, but none greater than inviting and welcoming others in His name so that those who come might know the height and depth of God’s redeeming Love and accept the Salvation that Christ brings.
Think of what we might do outside the confines of these four walls today that would make people stop and ask “why are you doing something like that?” That would, in turn give us, as the Bride of Christ, the opportunity to respond with the right answer by telling them stories about the lost and found and how God’s Love persistently seeks the lost and rejoices at their redemption. AMEN+