By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 11, 2022
Luke 15:1–10 (ESV)
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
When I would dream about what I wanted to do when I grew up, being a pastor was never on the list. Being a pastor was not even a thought in my head. I have mentioned it before, when I was Albert’s age, I wanted to be an astronaut. Every week when our class would go to the library I would have space books, I think I read all the space books in the library. I loved the movie, “The Right Stuff” and even though it is an unbearably long movie to watch as a kid I loved it. And I could not wait to be in the third grade because that was the year the students could go on a field trip to the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. If you have not visited the Cosmosphere, I cannot urge you enough to make that trip the next long weekend you have, because it is worth the trip.
I mention this because even though my mom knew that being an astronaut was probably never going to be something I would ever be able to become, because I was born half deaf, she still encouraged me to try my hardest. She encouraged me to study. She would tell me what astronauts needed to learn, so I really applied myself in the areas of math and science. Never once did she tell me you cannot do that, except when it came to the military. She told me I could not join the military because I heard the doctor tell me that. She let me come to my own conclusions in that regard. She allowed me to find out on my own that, my dream of become an astronaut would not be something I could do, and then she helped me pursue a different path.
I love my mom. I could not think of any mother that could be better than my mom. Except maybe Albert’s mom, because my mom never threw birthday parties like Kristy does. In fact, there was one birthday she forgot to make a cake, so she put a candle in a little Debbie and sang happy birthday. In her defense we were planning on celebrating my birthday on the next weekend, but she usually made a cake for us to eat on the day anyway. My mom is a great mom, but when I told her after I returned from Ukraine and finished my last semester of college that I felt called to the ministry, it was the first time she really told me that I could not do something.
Parents know their children. They know their interests and their personalities. They know their strengths and their weaknesses. And my mom knew that I did not talk. I am painfully shy most of the time. As I have gotten older, I realized why I do not talk much. It is because I do not hear well. It is easier for me to withdraw and read than it is for me to hold a conversation, especially if the conversation is in a crowded room. When people lose their hearing, they will begin to withdraw from conversations, and eventually from social gatherings, simply because it is a lot of work. She knew that I did not talk, I did not like large crowds, and that a career in research probably would have been better suited to my personality. Parents know their children, but sometimes parents are wrong. It is not their fault because they are human just like everyone else. We sometimes misread a situation, or maybe we neglect some aspect of a conversation, and we build a faulty assumption that distorts our perspective of reality.
I love my mom. And although she told me that I could not be a pastor she has sense repented and has said that I do ok.
I bring this up because we can sometimes get things wrong. Each of us look at the world around us and we make choices and decisions based on the things that we see, hear, smell, and understand. But there are always times where we proceed only to later find out that we had built our minds around something that might not be the whole truth. This is where I find myself in today’s passage. I love this section of the gospel. I love the parable of the lost sheep, and the lost coin because it is filled with hope.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”
I must confess that I have not fully understood this parable. I have read it, even spoke from this text multiple times, and yet the more I study the more I realize that I have often been wrong. I look at the shepherd in the story and I know that it is God that is pursuing the lost sheep and bringing it back into the fold. I have built my life on this understand of this passage, because I have been that lost sheep. And God did find me, and God did bring me back. But there is more to this story than just God going out to find the lost sheep.
We often forget why Jesus is telling this story in the first place. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Why are the religious leaders so upset with Jesus talking to sinners and tax collectors?
I have read this passage multiple times and for some reason I just never really understood why Jesus was prompted to tell this story in the first place. A few weeks ago, we discussed Jesus healing a woman at the synagogue on the Sabbath. We discussed how irritated the ruler of the synagogue was at this. And the reason was that she was healed on the sabbath. He was not necessarily upset that Jesus healed the woman, but that he would do it in the synagogue on the sabbath. Jesus worked on the sabbath. Jesus not only worked, but he did this unrighteous feat in the place within a community, dedicated to the regular worship and praise of God. Six days you are to work, come on those days if you want to be healed. Jesus looked at the ruler and rebuked him. He said to that man that all of them would untie their donkey and lead it to water, yet this daughter of Abraham they would leave bound by a disabling spirit.
Then on another Sabbath, Jesus was invited to a meal at the ruler of the pharisee’s house, and he again healed a man on the Sabbath. This time the people were astonished that he would heal on that day yet again, but this time when Jesus spoke, he began to speak out against the various social maneuvering the people at the feast were doing. They were trying to get the best seats; they were inviting the most influential people. They were living their life trying to get one step ahead, while the man, this son of Abraham was sitting in bondage, right outside the house.
And then Jesus, while beginning his final journey to Jerusalem, began to teach those that followed him what the cost of true discipleship was. And I mentioned to you that in God’s economy, value is retained not in the currencies of this world, but in the people that bear the image of God and are called by his name. The cost of discipleship is to turn our backs on economies of the kingdoms of men, and to embrace the very things that God values.
We have value in God’s economy. Every human being bears the image of God within them. Early Quakers would often say that we should pursue and encourage that of God in all people. That is an interesting saying, it is a bit odd, but I like it. I like it, because it reminds me that there is something of value that God loves in every person. When we find that place where those of us who know God and those that do not know God meet, that is where something miraculous happens. That is where we can encourage and be encouraged. That is where we can live the love of Christ with others.
This is the framework that Luke is working in when he wrote these words. He is building on the passages that we have read from the past few weeks. He is telling us that the ruler of the synagogue, the ruler of the Pharisees, the people that wished to be disciples but were unwilling to accept the cost are all in the same place. They are wandering around in the kingdoms of men while claiming to be in the kingdom of God, but their currency is not valid. It cannot be exchanged. They look as if they are wealthy but, they are impoverished.
These religious leaders are grumbling that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. This is tied to Old Testament teachings that many of us may not understand. There were rules about hygiene that were attached to meals. You were to wash your hands before you eat, but not merely washing your hands, you had to wash them in a particular manner, so that you could remain ritually clean. If you were to meet someone that did not put in the same amount of righteous care, they might contaminate you.
There are good reasons for these ritualistic hygiene rules. You do not know where someone else’s hands have been. We have just come through a worldwide pandemic, and we are very aware of how pathogens can be spread. Ancient Israel did not know about the germ theory. They did not know anything about viruses or bacteria. They did not know about parasites that could live within meats that were improperly stored or improperly cooked. They only knew that God commanded them not to eat certain things, and that they should wash before they ate anything. And because of the strict focus on remaining ritualistically clean, they would avoid contact with people that did not actively live the same way. This avoidance would lead to shunning, and the shunning would then lead to open condemnation. When Jesus did not reject these sinners, these people that did not live like they did, they began to wonder if Jesus even believed.
This is where I began to wonder what was going on. They were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners. Jesus listened to the grumbling, and he begins to teach about shepherds and sheep. That is a big leap if you ask me. But then as I studied and as I considered the teachings that Jesus has made in the readings over the past few weeks, I began to see things in a different light. These were the leaders, the most important members of the religious community. These were the ones that had taken on the role of encouraging the people in faith. Throughout the history of Israel there is a word or title for these people. They are the Shepherds of Israel. They are the ones that are to teach and exemplify life with God before the people. And in my study, I was led to Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a prophet that lived around the time of the exile into Babylon. We know some of the stories that he told, like the vision he had of the wheel within a wheel, which prophecy preachers like to use in sermons quite a bit. I will not get into all of that. We also like the story of the dry bones that miraculously reanimate to become an army for God. And pretty much that is the extent of our knowledge of Ezekiel. At least my knowledge. Ezekiel is a very difficult book to read, and if I want to be honest, it is disturbing. I would not recommend letting children read it unless you are prepared to explain things. Basically, Ezekiel is loved by many of the 2nd temple period religious leaders because it speaks a great deal about the sin that got them into the situation of being exiled, and it also speaks about the restoration of Israel. It is the teaching of Ezekiel that is often used to teach the people to be more righteous so that they will see the restoration of Israel and will not face exile again.
Jesus looks at these religious leaders and he reminds them of their own teachings. He reminds them of Ezekiel, this great prophet they like to point to. And he calls them out yet again. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them…Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-6)
I read that passage and I was nearly brought to tears. Because I grumble. I get upset when I am not understood, and when people I respect do not listen. I get upset when I see injustice, I get annoyed when people that should care, do not even try to understand. I get annoyed and I grumble. Ezekiel continues and says that God himself will go out and search for the lost sheep. That he will be the shepherd of his own sheep. That he will seek the lost and bring back the stray. That he will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong he will destroy. That he will feed them in justice.
The Pharisees grumbled. The Pharisees are often given a bad reputation in scripture, but we are not always aware of who they were. These were the guys that helped keep the faith alive during the exile. They were the ones that retained their identity even when there was not a temple to worship in. And they did well. When they returned to Jerusalem the Pharisees were important, they even spread the faith to those around them, and even made converts. The family of Herod were not hereditary Jews, but were from the tribes of Edom, Israel’s brother. And yet Herod’s family was accepted into the community and could worship in the temple, because they became part of Israel in faith, largely due to the work of the Pharisees. They were instrumental in restoring and preserving the worship of the Most High God in the land. The Pharisees were good shepherds for a period. But they had grown fat. They had lost focus and began to look to themselves instead. They devoted their lives to purifying the land to prepare the way for Messiah, but in their work, they lost sight of what God really wanted. He does not need us to be the judge for others, God can do that himself. What God needs is for us to be hospitable.
We often focus on the lost sheep or the lost coin, because we have all been there. But what if that is not the point? What if the point of this whole story is that we should be welcoming, and celebrate with one another?
What if Jesus is telling us to stop grumbling about what the republicans or democrats are doing and instead invite them over for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. What if the point of this whole story is that God is the shepherd not us. God will bring in the lost and we are supposed to celebrate.
We live in a time of division. We live in a world that is at war. We each have our ideas and our opinions. We have our strongly held beliefs and at times those strongly held beliefs are baffling. But what if all God really wants us to do is live our life following him. What if all he wants is for us to notice the injustice and stand with them. What is all he wants us to do is live the love of Christ with others?
We can often get bound in our desire to be righteous. Yes, we need to be righteous, but what is that? Jesus made it his custom to worship in the synagogues with the community. He withdrew often to pray in isolated places. And he ministered to the needs of those within the community. Worship, prayer, and service. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is all God wants. Let us speak to that of God in all people. Let us encourage the light within all people to burn a little brighter. Let us become people that do not grumble because someone around us sins, but instead let us celebrate when they begin to turn toward God, within their own understanding. Let us stop our grumbling and live the love of Christ with others. Maybe…we just need to celebrate.
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