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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 9/12

          Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  That’s the lead in to today’s gospel and it makes me wonder a couple of things.   First of all why didn’t tax collectors just get lumped in with all the other sinners but instead always got a special mention?  They must have really been bad!   But also, what was it about Jesus that caused tax collectors and sinners to be attracted to him in the first place? 

Luke’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ association with those considered to be sinners quite a bit, more than the other gospels do as, for example, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to follow him and then is questioned about who he was hanging around with; Luke alone tells the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus feet with her tears; he alone includes the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in which the tax collector winds up being praised for his humility in prayer in contrast with the pride of the Pharisee; you’ve got the story of Zacchaeus, another tax collector and I suppose you could include in this category Jesus’ forgiveness of those who had him crucified along with the forgiveness of the thief on the cross.

          Jesus associated quite regularly with those thought to be sinners and I think it’s significant that he never scolded them, nor did he shun them, but instead he ate with them and the Pharisees and scribes grumbled about it.   The two little parables today are evidently intended to tell them and us something about that; something about sinners and how God deals with them, maybe something about why Jesus hangs around with people thought to be sinners.  Sin seems to be on the agenda here, as both of the parables, the one about the lost sheep and the one about the lost coin, end with the announcement of joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.

          The temptation then is to get into a discussion of sin and sinners and from what goes on in Bible studies I know there are those who enjoy that discussion; we like pointing out the sin of others, kind of like the Pharisees did.  In our own discussion, while I’m pretty sure that we’d agree that all of us are sinners we, like the Pharisees, still have those who we place in a different category of sin.  It may not be tax collectors but we all tend to have some group we consider to be so habitually bad that we classify them differently; we find some sins to be more acceptable than others.   That means though, that having a discussion that focuses on categorizing sins and sinners might not prove to be very fruitful apart from feeding our feelings of self-righteousness.

Besides, in the case of today’s parables, that might be the wrong discussion anyway.  Sin may be on the agenda, but it might not be sin as we tend to think about it.  Think about the sheep:  the sheep didn’t do anything that we would categorize as sin unless wandering off and getting lost is a sin but I don’ think it is.  Same with the coin; it’s certainly true that we can do sinful things with our money, but the coin just does what it’s told.  In the parable, the coin, like the sheep, is lost but not sinful. 

          So rather than talking about sin, maybe a discussion of repentance would be more productive as repentance is also part of the formula that ends each of the parables.  Repentance is another piece of that sin discussion that sometimes happens in Bible study with the conclusion usually being that you have to repent in order to be forgiven…and repentance is usually understood as confession--acknowledging our sin to God, feeling bad about it, and trying to change, intending to change.  That’s what the order of confession and forgiveness that we do every week is all about and my guess is that when you think about repentance, that’s what you have in mind—confession, feeling bad, trying to change; me too.

          But these parables call that definition of repentance into question.  Again, the sheep and the coin have not sinned so they have nothing to confess, nothing to repent about. So the question is why does Jesus attach the ending about joy in heaven over one sinner who repents to these parables? 

          The only thing in these parables that might be considered repentance is the finding of what is lost.  For us what that could mean is that rather than defining repentance as we usually do—confession, feeling bad, trying to change—we should define it simply as our acceptance of being found, our acceptance of the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has found us.  In addition to that, as human beings who have the ability to think more deeply than a sheep or a coin, for us repentance also involves recognizing that we are lost, that we need to be found. 

The sheep and the coin couldn’t find themselves, and neither can we.  The burden of being found doesn’t lie with us and that’s consistent with our Lutheran theology.  We don’t have to do anything except be found and that’s up to God and isn’t that what we say all the time??  It’s not what we do, it’s what God has done for us; God has found us.  So this definition of repentance would seem to have some merit.  Repentance is more about the experience of being found by a concerned seeker than it is about any human effort to change.  The proper response to being found is joy, rejoicing at a new opportunity, rejoicing at new life.

When you try to figure out what Jesus was getting at when he told parables, a good question to ask is what is exaggerated in the parable?  What is out of proportion to anything that would logically make sense?  For example, in the Parable of the Sower, when the seed finally produces, it produces way more than any normal harvest ever would which is a clue that the parable has something to do with God’s abundance.  This technique of looking for exaggeration doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a question worth asking.

In the two parables today, there are two things that are exaggerated.  The first is the concern and diligence of the one looking for what is lost.  A shepherd with a hundred sheep would not be likely to risk leaving the other 99 to go look for one.  By the time he came back he might find that wolves had killed twenty of the remaining 99.  A woman on losing a coin might look for it but she is not likely to light a lamp and sweep the house.  A couple of weeks ago Kathy lost her bread knife and after an initial look around just said, “It will turn up,” assuming she’d stumble across it at some point and sure enough, that’s what happened a few days later.  That, I think, is a more normal response.

So the concern and diligence of the seeker is one thing that’s exaggerated.  The other thing that is exaggerated is the level of rejoicing.  On finding a lost sheep or lost coin or a lost bread knife, you kind of breathe a sigh of relief and carry on, hope it doesn’t happen again.  You don’t invite the neighborhood over for a party.  The response doesn’t fit the circumstances; it’s out of proportion. 

With those two elements of exaggeration, Jesus takes kind of a double jab at the Pharisees.  First he reminds them that the God they want to portray as something of a legalistic watchdog waiting to bite is in fact more of a bloodhound with his nose to the ground searching tirelessly to find the lost.  The God described by Jesus will not rest until all are found, even those we might think don’t deserve to be found.  The second jab that Jesus takes reminds the Pharisees that religious faith isn’t intended to grimly suck the joy out of life but instead it’s an invitation to rejoice, it’s an invitation to party.  We want to remember that, that our faith should provide us with a sense of joy about life; it shouldn’t just be a grim obligation. 

As these two parable end, we don’t know if the neighbors accepted the invitation to rejoice; the parable doesn’t take us that far.  The chances are though, that some accepted the invitation, and some didn’t because that’s still how it goes.  In his preaching and teaching, in his very being, Jesus must have conveyed a sense of joy, a sense of possibility.  Perhaps the tax collectors and sinners were attracted to him because in him they saw a chance for their lives to be different whereas the Pharisees didn’t see the need because they didn’t know that they were as lost as those they considered sinners. 

The invitation to rejoice in the new possibilities of Jesus is still offered to us and as a church, we make the offer to others so that they too can rejoice in being found by the God who never gives up looking for any of us.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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