Luke 15: 1-10
"Mutton and Money"
Let’s focus our thoughts on the message that the Holy One is giving to each one of us today. Let’s open our hearts to receive it. Let us all pray: Lord God, Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, please let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
In the two parables for today, Jesus shares with us one of the great truths of God's mercy; that only those who celebrate God's grace with others can receive it themselves. Why, because grace and mercy are the rules in God's house. And God’s grace and mercy extends to everyone. God is the good shepherd, and Jesus Christ is the Risen herdsman. In looking at the parable of the lost sheep, it is interesting to note that in the Old Testament, the shepherd was mostly a positive symbol signifying a leader who was a protector and provider for the flock. David, the shepherd-king, is a good example of how the shepherd was thought of in the Old Testament. But by the time of Jesus, in the first century New Testament, the Jews of Israel had changed from a nomadic people to an agricultural, even urban people. No longer were shepherds thought of as "good” shepherds. In fact, shepherds were despised as marginal, or even fringe members of society. Shepherding was among the forbidden occupations in Israel, and shepherds were actually
equated with robbers of that time. Shepherds were held to be even lower than tax collectors and publicans, because the tax collectors could at least be allowed to testify in court and own property, while shepherds could not, because they intentionally crossed the boundaries of others, allowing their sheep to graze on the land of others, which was equated to stealing from people. So here we are, at the beginning of chapter fifteen of the Gospel of Luke, with Jesus in the midst of the Pharisees and scribes. And right away, we see that tax gatherers and "sinners" come to hear what Jesus has to say.
But the Pharisees and scribes began to "grumble," saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." The Pharisees expected that Jesus would want to eat with them, and stay away from the people, food, and life-style that they, the Pharisees, judged to be unclean. After all, the Pharisees were a group of devoutly religious Jews, and the scribes were the educated interpreters of the law, the lawyers of that day. They were the clean and ritually pure people, the winners in life, that according to them, Jesus would, and should, want to be associated with. Not the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and any number of other unclean people that hung around the fringes of society in Jerusalem. Lepers, for example. For Jesus to violate the basic principles of their devoutness, by hanging out with the outcasts of society, supposedly gave them good cause to "grumble," just as the Jews had grumbled in the wilderness, way back in Exodus. Our great God, who
showed mercy to the Israelites in the wilderness, was now showing grace and mercy to tax collectors, sinners, the poor, the sick and other outcasts, in the form of Jesus Christ. So, I ask: Who are the marginalized and outcasts in our world (?): the homeless, ex-cons, the poor and sick, the destitute, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ+, among many others; and when our God shows up in our lives, seeking you out to bring you to the mercy and grace of God, how do you respond? Do you grumble, mutter, and complain; or do you embrace and love the God who fervently seeks you out?
What Jesus does next is incredible, even to the most hardened cynic. Instead of showing God in some awesome display of power, He presents God to us in the lowliest form possible, as a shepherd. God as shepherd; and remember what I said about shepherds being outcasts in Jewish society. And God as shepherd is not just any shepherd, but this is a shepherd who is willing to risk everything, including the other ninety-nine sheep, for the sake of the one who has gone astray in the desert. This SHEEP, incidentally, is not a bleating little lamb. This sheep is probably the largest lamb, or ram in the herd, who is in no big hurry to be led back to the flock by the shepherd. In fact, the shepherd has to carry the sheep back to the flock. But he does so happily, rejoicing, and on his return invites his friends and neighbors, possibly the friends he left in charge of the other ninety-nine, to join him in celebration. Jesus then concludes the story by saying that "there will be
more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Obviously, each one of us is the sheep who has gone astray, and in most cases we’re in no hurry to be led back to the straight and narrow, are we? This parable illustrates that God celebrates the recovery of every person; that each of us has so much value in the eyes of God, that God as the good shepherd is willing to risk everything to find and recover each one of us. Did you hear what I just said? Each of us is a person of Great Value (You are a person of great value) and is loved dearly!
This parable is also about repentance, or in the Greek, Metanoia; a complete turning around and a change of heart. In fact, a change that reverses the effects of our previous state of body, mind, soul and spirit. There is joy in heaven caused by our repentance. Jesus, by the shedding of His blood, actually acts to save us before we ever know we’re lost, and it’s only by God's grace and mercy that we can ever be saved. Think about this: there is absolutely nothing we can offer, absolutely nothing we can do, to merit the grace and mercy of God's forgiveness. We are dead in our sins. We have no power to save ourselves, or even to convince anyone, especially God, that we are even worthy of saving. We recognize that if we’re ever going to be saved, it’s out of the grace of God, who forgives us and raises us to new life, in spite of who we are. Incidentally, I think that when God goes
about turning everything upside down in order to find us; we are likely to see God show up in surprise. That's part of the reason why the Pharisees and scribes were so upset with Jesus, because they couldn't condone God Himself breaking the rules and showing up in surprise, as Jesus did.
Here is Jesus, as God of the universe, eating, drinking and partying with all the people he was supposed to be judging. Here is Jesus, bringing His kind of judging; Godly love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing and salvation to all the people He was supposed to condemn. Jesus then tells the Pharisees, scribes, and you and I, that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over finding one of these lost sinners than over anyone who doesn't need repentance. This parable pictures God's passionate desire to find us and bring us back into the fold. Then the shepherd throws a party, asking his neighbors to celebrate with him since the lost sheep is found. When a sinner turns to God, heaven throws a party, and I think that the very prospect of such joy keeps Jesus associating with sinners.
What is Jesus telling us? We are saved by God's love. This unmerited grace moves each of us forward into the life that the spilled blood of our Savior bought for us. We are moved forward by the Holy Spirit, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the everlasting life that we look to find, because Jesus won't give up on us until we are found and returned. Not only does the shepherd rejoice at having found us, but our God, as shepherd,
throws the most outrageously bombastic blowout of a party in the history of all of creation in our honor, to celebrate our being found. God rejoices at finding us, and invites us, our neighbors and friends, to be at the party. So: picture heaven as an outrageously bombastic blowout of a party, and ask yourself: Will you come to God's party? Are you one of the lost, or one of the found? The Holy Spirit fills each of us and brings each one of us to the point of unmerited grace. The Holy Spirit is waiting to fill us up and bring each of us back from the deserts and dusty places that we lose ourselves in.
Back in the stone age, when I was living in Reno, Nevada, playing the club scene there as a freelance violinist, I was living a life of decadence that I had chosen because of the death of my father, a second divorce, and the relocation of my daughter to Iran. Some people go to Reno for three days; I went there for three and a half years. And what a party it was! Anything and everything was there for the taking. And I did a lot of taking! But after a while, I burnt out on the partying, and found myself called back to a time when I had given my life to Christ. I decided right then and there that I wanted out of Reno. I found myself, between shows, in the sub-basement of Harrah’s casino, crying out to God to save me. I am reminded here, of Isaiah 65:24, ... "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear." God heard me and filled me with the Holy Spirit, then guided me out of Reno, and back to my home in
Seattle, in six weeks. Eventually, I sobered up and began to follow Jesus, again. After years of wild partying, I realized that I’d been at the wrong party! To join in God's party, we must also be willing to share in God's grace, mercy and forgiveness with others, as well. We must want mercy not just for ourselves, but also for those others, the sinners, the tax collectors, and other misfits of life that are not exactly like us, but in fact, are us!
The same is true of the woman and the lost coin. In order to find us, God is always willing to radically overturn everything, whatever it takes, to find us, even if it means overturning everything that we might think of as sacred. God is always willing to upset anybody’s applecart if the result will be to save that person. And when that happens; when we sober up and come to our senses and realize that God actually cares and loves us; that’s when the real party, the real rejoicing, will start. And nothing can stand in the way of God’s redemption; in fact, who would want to? Because, if God is for us, who can stand against us? Amen? Amen!
Jan Ekstedt MDiv.