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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 09/11/2016

The scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like the people Jesus was associating with. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said because they knew who the sinners were and they knew that any self respecting rabbi would not associate with such people. In their opinion, Jesus should have known. The fact is, Jesus did know; whoever these people were, Jesus didn’t deny that they were sinners. The difference with him though, as opposed to the scribes and the Pharisees, was that he didn’t write them off because they were sinners and that’s the point he would make to them.

Of course Jesus was a master of what the poet Emily Dickinson called “telling the truth, but telling it slant.” Jesus almost never took on his opponents directly but instead he did come at the truth slant and the slant that he most frequently used was to tell a parable. That’s what he does here with not just one but two little parables which are actually followed by a third parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, but that’s another text for another time. With parables though, there’s always a hook, something that sounds innocent but that gets the attention of the listener and by doing so causes the point to made and the truth to be revealed. With the two little parables that Jesus tells in this reading, short as they are, there isn’t just one hook, there’s two, maybe three all of which combine to make Jesus’ point.

He starts with, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one?” When posing a question in that manner, the response you assume you’re being led to is an affirmative one that says that everyone would do it, but that’s the hook as Jesus upsets that expectation. I don’t know a lot about the life of a shepherd and proper shepherding techniques but I’m pretty sure that no shepherd would leave ninety nine sheep to go after one. The risk of losing others of the ninety nine to wandering, theft or predators is too great. So that’s the first hook that Jesus throws out there.

Hook number two is the celebration. Even if the scenario plays out as Jesus says and the lost sheep is found which would mean that financial loss was avoided, are you then going to turn around and have a party which most likely would involve cooking some of the animals from your flock thus incurring financial loss anyway? It doesn’t seem likely. Neither part of this parable makes good economic sense so hook number two is the absurdity of the celebration and Jesus isn’t finished.

The story of the woman losing one of her ten coins is similar but different. In this case, the search can be justified. A silver coin would be equivalent to about a day’s wages so even if you still have nine in hand it does make sense to light a lamp and carefully search the house; we’re not talking about just losing some change between the couch cushions. Hook number three though is the same as hook number two in the lost sheep parable, that is, the celebration. Again, having found the coin and thus having avoided financial loss it doesn’t make economic sense to turn around and incur loss anyway by throwing a party for all your friends.

Jesus knew that in that culture as in pretty much any culture, money talks and knowing that, Jesus hooked the scribes and the Pharisees, people who would have known the value of a dollar or a denarius. They knew that in the real world sometimes you have to cut your losses as in the case of the lost sheep. You don’t want to lose one, but if you do, so be it; but you’re not going to risk even greater loss by going after the one. Jesus however, hooks them with his shepherd who does go after the one who is lost. That’s one point that he wants to make.

It would seem though, that of even greater significance is the extravagance of the celebration that takes place when the lost is found. That’s what both parables have in common regardless of whether or not the search is justified. The celebration would seem to be the hook that’s really meant to catch us, a hook that reveals that the economics and the values of God are different.

What Jesus does here is to imagine and describe God differently than the way the scribes and the Pharisees were used to. They, like many before them and many after them wanted a predictable God who made things neat and clean with a clear line between those who were in and those who were out, between those who were sinners and those who were on the side of God. Of course everyone who does that believes that they are on the side of God and, believing that they’re OK, they don’t worry too much about those who are on the other side. The others are effectively written off.

The God revealed in and through Jesus though, doesn’t write anyone off. There is no acceptable loss. The search doesn’t end until what is lost is found and then…there is that celebration. But what’s the celebration all about? In the two parables Jesus tells the cause for celebration appears at first glance to be just finding what was lost. It seems quite simple.

Remember though, that Jesus was responding to criticism concerning the kind of company he was keeping as he welcomed tax collectors and sinners, people presumed to be lost. Are we to assume though, that they had repented and changed their ways and that’s what makes them found? That’s what we read into it and it might very well be a legitimate reading. It’s hard to argue against that kind of repentance being the hoped for outcome as evidenced by the verses that talk about joy over one sinner who repents.

On the other hand, you note that the text doesn’t actually say anything about those tax collectors and sinners having changed their ways. As far as we know, based on the text, they’re still tax collectors and sinners, but…they’re following Jesus, which causes me to ask, is it simply that following that constitutes their being found? Is that the cause of celebration? Is it just the fact that, as they follow Jesus, repentance is now possible? Repentance is clearly the goal, but is Jesus so lovingly and graciously welcoming that he celebrates even when small steps in his direction are taken, when small steps toward repentance are taken?

The scribes and Pharisees were upset that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. The difference between them and Jesus was that they led with sin, that’s what they were worried about, that was their focus, while Jesus led with welcome; that was his focus. That difference in focus, sin vs. welcome, might be at the heart of the truth Jesus wanted to convey with these parables.

At the pastor’s text study the other day a comment was made about how in doing pre-marital counseling with a couple, the bride to be told the pastor that she didn’t feel like she had to go to church very often because she was basically a good person who tried to lead a good life and didn’t feel the need for any sins to be forgiven. In her mind, she was OK. The pastor involved was kind of upset by this as many of us inside the church would be, but my guess would be that for many of the non-church going people out there, that’s probably how they feel; I’m a good person; I’m OK.

As I thought about it though, I was more bothered by her perception of the church than I was about the fact that she didn’t think she was a sinner. It bothered me because we inside the church share in the responsibility for this perception, and it’s justified in many cases, that the church is mostly about sin, that those in the church are self-righteously pre-occupied with sin. Like the scribes and the Pharisees, rightly or wrongly, we as the church are perceived by many as leading with sin, as opposed to Jesus, who led with welcome.

Jesus started with an invitation into a relationship. He wasn’t oblivious to sin and the need for repentance; “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near,” is a key part of his message; but he led with welcome and a celebration to show the joy filled possibilities of this relationship. He led with the good news of the Kingdom of God and as a church we want to pay attention to that.

Jesus knew that repentance was a process and that it started with following. So he did welcome tax collectors and sinners; he didn’t write anyone off because no loss was acceptable. He kept searching and he keeps searching, not to identify sin, but to welcome and…to celebrate.

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
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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