Reasons for Rejoicing - Part 1 - Luke 15:1-7
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the most notable characteristics of the Sea of Galilee is the way storms can suddenly appear from out of nowhere. Peter, James, John and Andrew, of course, were seasoned fishermen and they knew what these storms could do. They had seen the splintered hulls float to shore. They had attended their friend’s funerals and comforted the grieving widows knowing only too well that it could have been they themselves laid out in the funeral pyre. And Jesus himself was not unfamiliar with these freak storms of nature. At least twice according to the Gospels he himself was caught in them. But in Luke 15 we see another storm beginning to brew. However, this was a storm which began to stir within the hearts of men rather than on a choppy lake. But when this storm was eventually to break the consequences would be no less terrifying for it was to result in the killing of the Son of God. And we see the first stirrings of what was to become a spiritual tsunami in verse 1 ‘Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him (Jesus). 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."’
Then, as now, members of the religious establishment were finding themselves aggravated by Jesus. And we are not going to understand what Jesus goes on to teach by way of the following three stories unless we fully appreciate the social setting in which they appear. You see, Jewish society at the time of Jesus was basically divided into two groups- the ‘sinners’ and the ‘saints’. The Pharisees, which was a lay group of religious enthusiasts and a closely allied group of Bible experts whose whole life was given over to interpreting the Old Testament law, the ‘scribes’, knew which group they belonged to, in fact they defined it- the saints. In terms of racial purity they were Jewish and could trace their ancestry all the way back to Abraham. They didn’t need ‘Genes reunited.’ As far as religious observance was concerned they were ruthlessly scrupulous in ensuring they did everything correctly almost to the point of being obsessive. And the ‘sinners’? Well, they were more or less everyone else. Not that these were necessarily immoral people, although adulterers and prostitutes where placed in this category, but there were good non-Jews, gentiles, as well as people who were considered ritually compromised because of their trade. As we shall see, here shepherds would qualify, and especially those known as ‘tax collectors’. You see, to be a tax collector was tantamount to being a collaborator. No one likes paying taxes at best, but to pay taxes to an occupying government, especially when you consider yourself to be God’s people with these heathens defiling the sacred land, was more than any true patriot could stomach. And so you can imagine the shear venom that would be directed against these early day quislings.
But into which category was Jesus going to be placed- was he a saint or was he a sinner? There is no doubt he was doing good, the healings and the miracles astounded everyone. His words were like manner from heaven itself. His character was spotless; his compassion was universal and his kindness a byword. So surely he was a saint? But if you judge a man by the company he keeps then a different conclusion might be reached. And this was the path along which the Pharisees and Scribes were travelling. Like, attracts like, they thought- ducks gather with ducks, deer with deer, so who is gathering around Jesus? The answer– the religious dregs- ‘sinners’. So it must be pretty obvious what he is! Interestingly enough the word translated ‘muttered’ is the same word used to describe the people of Israel grumbling against the leadership of Moses as they came out of Egypt. In fact the word has a special prefix which gives it a certain edge- so it could be they were ‘murmuring amongst themselves’ or ‘murmuring through the crowd.’ The picture, then, is of a distinct nasty undercurrent of discontented complaining about Jesus. This is not just dissatisfaction with his style, but a bitter resentment of the man himself and all that he stands for.
So what’s their beef? We are told it was the complaint that, ‘This man welcomes ‘sinners’ and eats with them.’ In fact ‘welcome’ is too weak a word. If someone comes to the Vicarage and knocks on the door, I might well invite them in and in that sense extend a warm welcome. However, if someone comes to the door, and I not only invite them in out of the cold, but offer them a meal and a place to sleep for the night- that is the kind of welcoming envisaged here. In other words Jesus has fellowship with these people, he delights in their company. And that is underscored by the observation that he ‘eats’ with them. Even today in the Middle East to have a meal with someone is a near sacramental act of acceptance. If you go to a village and you are offered something to eat, even if you are not hungry or too keen on what is being offered, sheep’s eyeballs and the like, or can ill afford the time, you do not refuse unless you want to cause great offence. That’s how feuds start. Even more so if the guest is a religious teacher, for there is the added belief that such a holy man confers some sort of blessing on the gathering by his mere presence. So now do you see why the religious elite are getting so hot under the dog collar? Jesus is with the wrong group! It is like the shock some people could have had a few years ago when I was invited to speak in Belfast. It was a Saturday afternoon when I arrived, and the meeting wasn’t due to start until late tea time and so I asked my hosts if they would take me into the town centre so I could do a bit of shopping. I was particularly keen to go to the large HMV shop there. As we drove down into town at one end there was an apprentice boys’ parade with drums, pipes and all, so we skirted past these pretty promptly and parked the car. I felt quite relieved I hadn’t got mixed up with that, and especially since it was obvious that the boyos were well tanked up on Guinness or Bushmills. But after we had parked and I made my way towards the shops another march was in progress and the BBC was there with cameras and mikes and I got myself entangled in this before I could make my way out. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was Gay Pride march. But could you imagine someone watching the news at home and seeing their Vicar on the Nine O clock news and with a puzzled expression saying, ‘Isn’t that Melvin there in a gay pride march?’ They would be rather shocked. Well, whether I made the news or not I don’t know, but that is the sort of reaction the religious are having here, but worse. To be frank, they are plain disgusted with Jesus. And do you realise what Jesus was doing by flaunting this social and religious taboo? He was signing his own death warrant.
But Jesus is undaunted. He is not going to apologise for his social policy he is going to justify it. And he does so by telling three stories which Luke introduces in the singular, did you notice that in verse 5, ‘He told them this parable’ but then gives three, which suggests that they are all of a piece. Each story contains similar themes to the others but then adds something further and complements the rest in some way. And who is this teaching directed at? Well, not the crowd in general but to the religious in particular, the ‘them’ are the ones who have been doing the grumbling. That doesn’t mean that others would not have been listening in and gaining a tremendous sense of being valued, especially those who had been the butt of the sneering derogatory put down- the social outcasts. But the people Jesus primarily has in his sights, are the oh so respectable religious types who feel that Jesus has nothing to offer them and that he shouldn’t be offering anything to others either. If they are going to get to heaven then it is by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and not receiving charitable hand outs from this upstart from Nazareth.
And so we have the first subversive story in verse 4. :"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”’ Now the Pharisees, as I have said, were lay men and they were expected to work to provide an income, and were not allowed to receive money for teaching the law. That is one reason why Paul, the former Pharisee had a trade in making tents. So while it is possible that a Pharisee might own some sheep it was highly unlikely that he was himself a shepherd. The reason being is that they were considered to be ‘people of the land’ whose occupation prevented them from fulfilling their religious duties such as attending religious festivals or resting on a Sabbath day- think what would happen to the sheep then. However, there was no reason why they would not own a flock of sheep, and a flock of a hundred represented some considerable wealth. So, what would happen is that the Pharisee would hire a shepherd, usually someone not very well educated, with a fair degree of stamina having to traipse over the Palestinian countryside looking for wandering sheep. So no doubt the Pharisees would have expected Jesus to say something like this: ‘Which of you, owning a hundred sheep, if you received a report that one of them was lost, would not send his servant to the shepherd responsible and threaten him with dismissal if he didn’t find the sheep.’ That would make sense. But he didn’t say that. Jesus is very specific in what he says and chooses his words carefully with deliberate precision.
It literally reads, ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one.’ What is Jesus getting at? Well, it is that the religious leaders are responsible for the sheep, that is people God loves, for being lost in the first place as well as their duty to do something about it. Why do I say that? Well, for two reasons.
First, the background parable for this lies in the Old Testament. So in the prophet Ezekiel chapter 34 we read: ‘1The word of the LORD came to me: 2"Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.’ The flock are God’s people, the shepherds are the rulers, kings and religious teachers, who rather than caring for the sheep have more or less killed them by failing to teach God’s Word, and by treating people harshly they have cut them off from God’s saving love. That is the case here in Jesus’ time, things haven’t changed much.
Secondly, Jesus underscores the personal responsibility by saying ‘If he has lost one of then’ and not the passive rendering of the NIV ‘If one of them is lost’. You see, even today, in Arabic and in Spanish, a person doesn’t say, ‘I missed the train’ but rather, ‘The train left me.’ A person doesn’t say, ‘I dropped the dish’ but rather, ‘The dish fell from my hand.’ There is a reluctance to admit personal responsibility. But Jesus won’t have any of that. The shepherds- the religious leaders are responsible. So Jesus changes the normal idiomatic way of saying things to make that point.
But there is even more to what Jesus is saying than that. What is one of the best loved Psalms of all time? It is the 23rd Psalm, written by the Shepherd King-David. In the psalm he likens God to a shepherd, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Indeed, going back to Ezekiel 34 God takes this imagery up and applies it to himself: " `For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 14I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. ….16I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.’ God will be doing the searching out. But then he gives a new twist by immediately saying, 23 ‘I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.’ Now can you see what Jesus is saying and what an amazing claim he is making? He is in effect rounding on his critics and exclaiming, ‘You lost your sheep. I went after it and brought it home. Now you have the gall to come to me complaining. Don’t you realize I am making up for your mistakes? These are the lost sheep you see around me, the very one’s you should have been caring for all along, but no, instead for the sake of your own religious comfort you abandon them but I have come to care for them.’ And who is that ‘I’ in the Old Testament? As we have seen it is God, it is a new King like David, and here he is and his name is Jesus. This is nothing less than an implicit claim to deity that Jesus is making and I doubt very much that it would have been totally lost on his audience.
But have you thought what tremendous security this saying of Jesus offers to those who do put their trust in him? You know, some folk would take issue with the wisdom of doing what this shepherd did, leaving the 99 in the wilderness to go off after the one. Sure, they may have been left with an under-shepherd, but the point still remains that he leaves them seeking after only one. Well, the fact is that his willingness to go out to find the one does give the other 99 the confidence that if it happened to one of them he would do exactly the same. Within a communist world view, or a western utilitarian view, the needs of the many are always said to outweigh the needs of the few. But God doesn’t look at things like that-thankfully. The individual does matter- so much that the God-shepherd is willing to leave the portals of glory to come to the barren spiritual wilderness of earth to search us out. And this belief has been the cornerstone of Christian ethics in championing the dignity of the individual over and against the demands of the state, whether it is the rights of an unborn baby to life or an elderly patient for palliative care. It is also one of the motivating principles in mission, going to far flung places so that other people can hear the Good News of the saving love of Jesus, instead of remaining nice and comfortable amongst our own type. It is this which lies behind the ordination service in the Church of England as we have it in the Book of Common Prayer- This is the charge given ‘We exhort you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord, to teach, and to admonish, to feed and provide for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.’ This is what Anglican clergy ministry is meant to be- a sheep finding ministry, just like Jesus. And look at the reaction of the shepherd when he finds the sheep v 5 ‘when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.’ Why he is beside himself with joy, he doesn’t chastise the sheep for getting lost he embraces it. That is what discovering a lost son or daughter means to God, the Good Shepherd. This is not mere duty it is a delight.
But having found the sheep the hard part for the shepherd is not yet over, there is still the picking up of the heavy beast, placing him over the shoulders and then carefully negotiating rocky and barren terrain, often in baking heat to take it back to the fold. Can you imagine the shear physical, let alone emotional cost that involves? A few years ago my wife Heather and I were walking in Wales when came across a sheep which was lying on its back unable to aright itself, just lying their kicking its legs, bleating. It took both of us to lift it and turn it around. But here in the story it is just one man who does that. Now the cost of restoring people back to God is just hinted at in this parable and then all but disappears in the next one only to be fully displayed in the final one of the lost son, but it is still there. So the lesson is this: seeking and saving costs God dearly. It is no easy task bringing wayward creatures like us back to himself as our service of Holy Communion so graphically reminds us; there is a price to be paid and it is paid as a broken body and spilt blood.
And what does the shepherd do when he gets back home? V 6 ‘Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' He involves the whole community in the celebration. You know, in a way, each person lost is a loss to the family of the church, and each person found is a cause for tremendous celebration by the church because the family is being restored. This is so when a person becomes a Christian and what a wonderful thing that is. But it is also the case when a person who is backsliding is brought to their senses and back into the fellowship of God’s people, that really is something to be grateful for. Just as it is heartbreaking to see someone fall away from fellowship it is a shear pleasure to see someone restored.
So the Pharisees as religious leaders are the ‘shepherds of Israel’ and Jesus is turning the tables in holding them responsible for the lost highlighting what a spiritual shepherd should be doing- first, he accepts responsibility, second he searches without weighing up the cost, third he rejoices in the burden of restoration and fourthly he rejoices with the community at the success of restoring the sheep. Far from carping and criticizing Jesus the Pharisees should have been falling over themselves to join with Jesus in doing the very task God had assigned them to do.
Now here is the challenging standard that Jesus has set for any church in any generation; to be wholehearted in reaching out to the lost, not counting the cost but rejoicing in the task. That is the measure by which we see whether our heartbeat is one with God’s heartbeat, so that his passion becomes our passion.
And that this is what lies at the centre of God’s eternal concern is underscored by the climax in v7 ‘I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’ You cannot say that Jesus didn’t have a rye sense of humour. You can imagine the religious group thinking, ‘That is all well and good for those that have wandered off but we are part of the 99 safely in the fold.’ The point is, there are no ‘righteous’, that’s the irony. So is God rejoicing over them? Hardly. No the only rejoicing which takes place is when someone is found, not over the ones who in their self-respectability think they are alright when in fact they are still lost. Of all the people whose minds should have gravitated to a key portion of Scripture it was these folk, Isaiah 53:6, ‘We all like sheep have gone astray’ I don’t see any exceptions being mentioned do you? The 99 don’t exist.
You might be sitting here this morning saying to yourself, ‘That is all very well, but you have no idea of what I have done, what guilty secrets I am hiding, God could never be bothered with someone like me.’ Or you may be thinking, ‘Who needs this anyway? I can hold my head high. All this talk of forgiveness is for losers.’ Well, according to Jesus, you would both be wrong. No one is too bad and no one is too good for him. But it is to him we must come.
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