Reasons for Rejoicing - Part 2 - Luke 15:8-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The minister was sitting in his allocated seat minding his own business when a tall, beautifully tanned blond woman came scurrying down the aisle puffing and panting - she had almost missed the plane. As she more or less fell into her seat beside him, she blurted out: ‘I hate to fly. I put off getting here as long as I can.’ And she really did hate to fly. The minister was soon to discover that the way she coped with her fear of flying was by excessive talking. ‘I’m going home to meet my Dad.’ She enthused, ‘He’ll be amazed at my tan. And I’ve got this new boyfriend, he’s from Lebanon. He travels a lot though, so I only see him at weekends, which is fine by me because it gives me the house to myself. It isn’t far from the beach and………’ on and on she went.
Now the minister had learnt over the years what to do whenever a friendly, attractive woman sits beside him. As soon as is possible he reveals his status and his profession. He reasoned this kept everyone out of trouble. So he interjected as soon as she paused for breath, ‘Yes, my wife hates flying too, so I know how you feel.’ And then he quickly added, ‘And since I’m a minister, I know a part of the Bible you might like to read as we take off.’ And so he pulled out his Bible and turned to the 23rd Psalm. Now that approach is usually met with one of two responses. Stony silence or some sort of contact. For this woman it was contact. ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ she smiled; ‘I remember this from when I was a kid.’ But then a tear began to form in her eye. ‘It’s been a long time’ she mused wistfully, ‘a very long time.’ She then went on to tell the minister how she believed…once. She became a Christian, she said, when she was young, but she couldn’t remember the last time she went to church. Perhaps it was a few Christmases ago. So they talked about faith and the God who gives second chances. Then the minister paused and said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, sure’ she replied, ‘go ahead.’ ‘Do you believe in heaven?’ ‘Why yeah.’ ‘Do you believe that one day you will go there?’ She looked away for a moment and then turned and with a firm confidence replying, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I will be in heaven.’ ‘How do you know?’ the minister asked. ‘How do I know?’ she said. She then grew quiet as she started to put together some sort of response in her mind. But the minister knew what she was going to say even before she opened her mouth. ‘Well, I’m basically good. I don’t smoke more than a pack of cigarettes a day. I exercise. I’m dependable at work. I made my boyfriend get tested for AIDS’ (As if that was bound to impress the clergyman) and away she went counting each achievement on each beautifully manicured digit until there were no fingers left. Do you see what logic she was buying into? It was that by keeping a list on earth she could ensure a place in heaven. Even with those who are not so sure that there is a God, the one thing they are sure of is that if God does exist then this is the basis on which he will relate to us- a list.
Well there was a group of people in Jesus day who certainly believed that. We met them last week in Luke 15, the Pharisees. Sure, their list would have differed from the woman on the plane, and would appear more religious, but it amounted to a list nonetheless. How do I know? Well, just a few pages later we meet one reeling off his check list to God in the temple- Like 18 v11, ‘The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself (there’s modesty for you!): `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' They had their check list which they not only applied to themselves but to others to decide whether they were ‘in’ or ‘out’ of God’s favour. But who was to say that their check list was the right one in God’s sight? Maybe God didn’t operate on the basis of a check list of good works at all? Well that was Jesus’ challenge. What was it that brought a smile to God’s face? Certainly not being presented with a self-designed check list, all carefully totted up for him to countersign on the final day. Rather, what sends a jolt of delight through the heart of God and elicits joyful laughter in heaven is when something which is precious and previously lost is found. So do turn with me to Luke 15.
Last week we saw that in response to the carping criticism of the Pharisees about the dubious company Jesus was keeping, Jesus told a parable, three stories which cumulatively build up a picture of God’s passion, our situation and the dreadful danger of religious pride. The first story was of a lost sheep and the searching shepherd. The second story is of a lost coin and the searching woman- v8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?"
Now Jesus is still talking about money. You say, ‘but he was talking about sheep last time, an animal’. Yes, but it was what that animal represented to the owner, something of value, which in first century Palestine was dosh. Something which had cash value had been lost and so had to be found. And Jesus is incredibly shrewd in beginning with these two stories building up to the third about lost sons. You see, whenever money is involved, people’s reactions are more visceral, emotive and immediate, uncomplicated by hypocrisy. The parables then act like stealth bombers they slip under the defensive radar system we erect. Think fi it like this: if you lose your car key, no better still, lose your car, no one is going to have to work hard at persuading you that you should try and find it. It is a natural reaction. Why/ Well, because there is a lot of money tied up in it. Well, these two stories reveal to us, if you like, God’s natural reaction to people who are estranged from him, cut off, in short- lost. If you are here this morning and are entertaining the idea that God is not bothered with you and has abdicated all responsibility for the human race-then be prepared to think again.
What is perhaps so remarkable about this story is that it is told at all. If in the previous parable Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who seeks out lost sheep, then by the same token, Jesus is the Good Woman who seeks out a lost coin. And in all probability this was deliberate. The main target audience is the Pharisees. As we saw last week, the first parable would have particularly hit home to them in that it was about a man, and was linked to their responsibilities which they were neglecting in being-the shepherds of Israel, those meant to care for God’s people. But the wider crowd, especially the ‘sinners’ who were drawn to Jesus like moths to a flame, would have been mixed, made up of men and women. So Jesus wants his message to make contact with and resonate within the hearts of all his listeners, as well as giving some specific insight into the character of God. You know, those who dismiss the Bible as being either sexist or patriarchal have to explain why then Jesus would use this parable if God is so ‘down’ on women- he isn’t. The Pharisees however were, which may be another reason why Jesus told the story to check their condescending attitude. A pious Jewish man of the day would often pray this prayer: ‘Lord, I thank thee that thou has not made me a woman, a keeper of pigs or a teacher of Greek Philosophy’! The Pharisees held a low opinion of shepherds- which Jesus corrects in the first parable by reminding them of God being like a shepherd and King David being one- the Christ, and so Jesus might be making a similar point here in likening God to a good woman. There is a beautiful dignity in being a woman.
So what is happening?
Well, there are two takes on this story. The first is that we have here a Middle Eastern peasant woman who like other such women would occasionally carry their worldly wealth in gold or silver coins fastened to a chain around their necks. This jewellery is referred to as ‘"the woman’s bank" in contrast to the HNBC bank I guess! Literally thousands of pounds would be tied up in this kind of capital. So if the woman became widowed or divorced, she had this wealth to sustain her. So maybe it was from this cosmetic bank that the coin was lost. Well, maybe.
But perhaps a more likely scenario, given the type of people Jesus mixed with is more hum drum and mundane. Poor peasant women carried any cash they needed for daily expenses in a tightly knotted bag. Jesus mentions ten drachmas which by Luke’s day around say, 70-80 AD was out of circulation, so this story really does go back to Jesus’ time. It was a small silver coin which was worth about a day’s wages for a labourer. Remember this is a society in which money and in some cases, jobs, was scarce. People didn’t have reserves in the bank as we do- this was it. No money, no food, and so you and your family go hungry. Most of us in this country are cushioned from that subsistence form of existence. So perhaps these ten coins were given to the wife to provide for the family for a week or two. She tied them up in her little rag but the knot worked loose and a coin fell out.
Having failed to be more careful she would not only have been filled with panic that the grocery money had been lost, but shame that she had been so careless as to lose it. This is a shame culture we are talking about where shame is a very powerful social factor. We live in a culture where you have to work hard to be ashamed of anything- not so here, as in Japan or other South East Asian countries. To bring shame upon your family would be almost unbearable to live with. To receive the reputation amongst the other women in the village of being a sloppy and unreliable wife would cause an acute sense of guilt and shame. So there are two very powerful motives to get on with finding the lost coin- hunger and shame.
So what does she do? According to Jesus, she lights a lamp, and meticulously sweeps throughout the house until she finds it. You see, the village homes of the first few centuries around the Sea of Galilee often had floors made of lime plaster or smooth uncut stones taken from the sea of Galilee. Cracks naturally developed in such floors and so not surprisingly coins often fell into the cracks, which is good news for modern day archaeologists but bad news for poor peasant women. What is more, the windows were small slits placed about seven feet up from the floor and the building stone around Galilee was black basalt, which would have added further darkness to the home. So even in broad daylight, the woman would naturally light a lamp to find a coin- she had to.
Now part of what drove her frantic search was the realisation that she had lost the coin in the house. She hadn’t been out that day, she knew it was in there somewhere and she was not going to rest until she found it. This is a woman with a mission with sleeves rolled up, sweat on brow and broom in hand-so best stay out of her way! I know I would.
So, what does all this have to do with the carping Pharisees and the compassionate Jesus?
Well, where is the coin lost? Not outside on the streets, or out in the wilderness like the sheep; it is in the house, confined quarters and so in principle, findable. Similarly the so called ‘sinners’ who are gathering around Jesus were in the house of Israel, they were part of the wealth of the nation and so they too, in principle could be found. They were right on the Pharisees doorstep so why weren’t they looking for them or perhaps more to the point helping Jesus look for them instead of having a go at him for doing their job for them?
The woman is also more responsible for the loss of her coin than the shepherd was for the loss of his sheep. To some extent the shepherd could be excused, couldn’t he? After all he had a hundred sheep to look after and sheep are such dumb animals anyway wondering off into danger and the wilderness is so vast. So maybe he could be forgiven for being pragmatic and staying with the rest of the flock. But here the peasant woman can blame no one but herself. At least in verse 9 she admits this by saying, ‘I have found the coin I had lost’ which is a more accurate rendering than the NIV’s passive, ‘I have found my lost coin.’ Well, similarly these religious leaders are held accountable in God’s sight for losing these people; that is excluding them from fellowship with God by their pathetic religious check list.
And this is a question which the church today needs to ask: to what extent are we responsible for keeping people lost? All sorts of unnecessary things can keep people outside the Christian faith other than their own rebellion. It may be moral- even unbelieving parent’s like mine can see that there is some inconsistency- hypocrisy they would call it- when the church has standards no different if not lower than the surrounding society- laxity in sexual morality, stinginess in giving to what is claimed to be the most important work in the world-saving people, preferring instead to spend their money like everyone else on their homes and holidays. It may be behavioural and as down to earth as people feeling alienated when they come into a church building- no one speaking a friendly word to them. It may be ecclesiastical- unsingable songs, outmoded ceremony and dress. The only stumbling block the apostle Paul was ever willing to put before people was the stumbling block of the Christian message itself- the rest was negotiable. Jesus certainly didn’t stand on ceremony for the sake of the lost- that is why he is being criticised. He wants to embrace as many as possible without compromising his own integrity for God’s sake- and we should do the same.
But from another angle the woman is also a picture of Jesus himself. God is not to be portrayed simply in terms of a shepherd- acting with brashness and energy to seek that which is lost, but also like a woman showing diligence and care. The woman is actually moved and upset by her loss; is God to be thought of as being any less moved by the loss of someone he has carefully made in his image and has no living meaningful relationship with him? Don’t you see that portrayed by all the energy and thoroughness of the woman we are being given an insight into the character of God as we see him in the face of his Son Jesus? God’s passion for the lost can’t be contained. God’s desire to save them is boundless. And if he is like that, then at the very least in some measure so should those be who claim to follow him. I have shared this quote before but it is one I often return to. It is by Richard Baxter the great Puritan preacher spoken to ministers like myself but really applicable to all Christians: ‘Let us then hear the words of Christ, whenever we feel the tendency growing in us to become dull and careless. "Did I die for them and you will not look after them? Were they worthy of my blood and yet they are not worthy of your labour? Did I come down from heaven to seek and save that which was lost, and you will not go next door or to the next street to seek after them? Compared with mine, how small is your labour and condescension. I debased myself to do this, but it is your honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me, and yet you refuse that little which lies within your hands.’’’
when the coin is found- then it is party time, the woman gathers all the women
in the village and she is beside herself with joy.-v9 when she finds it, she
calls her friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I
have found my lost coin.' 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing
in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
listener- especially the Pharisee with his check list religion- is called to
ponder the two stories. Who are the actors in the drama? Well, there is Jesus
represented by the good shepherd and the good woman. There are the outcasts-
the lost sheep and lost coin. Then the check list religious- the ninety nine
sheep and nine coins. And there is a double progression. In the first story
it was one in a hundred lost. In the second, one in nine. Then there is a progression
in regards the availability of the place in which the valuable article is lost-
a wide wilderness and a confined house. But then Jesus raises the stakes in
the final story. One in a hundred, one in nine, and then with the lost son,
one in two. To be lost in the wilderness or a house is one thing, but to be
outside the orbit of the Father’s love is another- is it at all possible
that such a person can be restored? Well, the searching God In Jesus has not
failed so far as he? The shepherd,the woman. There has not been any holding
back on the celebrations in heaven either. God is still seeking people out
and it may well be you he calling back home this morning-then come. And if
you are a Christian it certainly is you he is seeking to use.
The listener- especially the Pharisee with his check list religion- is called to ponder the two stories. Who are the actors in the drama? Well, there is Jesus represented by the good shepherd and the good woman. There are the outcasts- the lost sheep and lost coin. Then the check list religious- the ninety nine sheep and nine coins. And there is a double progression. In the first story it was one in a hundred lost. In the second, one in nine. Then there is a progression in regards the availability of the place in which the valuable article is lost- a wide wilderness and a confined house. But then Jesus raises the stakes in the final story. One in a hundred, one in nine, and then with the lost son, one in two. To be lost in the wilderness or a house is one thing, but to be outside the orbit of the Father’s love is another- is it at all possible that such a person can be restored? Well, the searching God In Jesus has not failed so far as he? The shepherd,the woman. There has not been any holding back on the celebrations in heaven either. God is still seeking people out and it may well be you he calling back home this morning-then come. And if you are a Christian it certainly is you he is seeking to use.
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