Reasons for rejoicing - Luke 15:1-10
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~~Reasons for Rejoicing SJN EP 7.9.18
I don’t know about you but I have never been too fussed about being part of the “in crowd.” I guess in some measure it is down to temperament, I am not too worried about standing apart, in fact I tend to be rather suspicious about any ‘inner ring’ mentality and the cliqueiness it generates and my philosophy is in line with that of Grouch Marx, that, ‘I do not want to belong to any club which would have someone like me as a member.’
But the tendency to form groups in order to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is a common one. It was certainly rife in Jesus day, especially with the religious group called the Pharisees who saw themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy. To be ‘in’ the right group was for them a matter of salvation. Naturally their group was the ‘in’ group to belong to, and the group you didn’t want to be seen to be dead with was the group they called ‘sinners’- not in the sense that we are all sinners in falling short of God’s standards, but a particularly reprehensible bunch who didn’t seem too concern with observing set rituals and who in their eyes spiritually contaminated themselves by associating with outsiders-Gentiles, as well as engaging in dubious practices such as collecting taxes for the Romans. And what they couldn’t get their head around was that Jesus mixed with these people and not with them- v1 ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ That was a barbed criticism they were making. And rather than refuting his critics head on Jesus tells a parable (note it is singular in v3), a parable which appears in three forms in order to show that it is no valid criticism at all because this is what the Son of God came into the world to do. So Jesus has in his sights the religious leaders as he tells the parable and it is important to understand that if we are going to understand the point of the parable.
Now tonight we’ll be focusing on the first two parts of the parable and then look at the climax next week in the famous story of the so called ‘prodigal son’.
Each story follows the same pattern: something valuable is lost; something valuable is sought; something valuable is found and there is something to celebrate. And if we are going to really begin to appreciate what it means to be valued in God’s sight and the lengths to which he goes to embrace us with his love, then we have got to let these stories penetrate deep into our hearts.
First, something valuable is lost.
In the first story that something of value is a sheep, v4, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” What is Jesus getting at? Well, it is that the religious leaders are responsible for the sheep, (that is, God’s people), for being lost in the first place as well as their duty to do something about it. Why do I say that?
Because the background to the parable lies in the Old Testament. In 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? The flock is Israel and the shepherds are the rulers and religious teachers, who having been busy caring for themselves at the expense of caring for God’s people. That is the case here in Jesus’ time, and 2000 years later things haven’t changed all that much.
But there is even more to what Jesus is saying than that. Let me ask: 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’ he says. Going back to Ezekiel 34 God applies that imagery to himself: " `For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them….‘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. Now can you see what an amazing claim Jesus is making by telling this story? He is in effect rounding on his critics, ‘You lost the sheep in your care. I am going out after them in order to bring them home one by one. And now you have the gall to complain about me. Don’t you realize I am making up for your neglect?’ 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.
In the second story the something of value is a coin, v 8, ‘Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.’
So what is happening in this story?
You see, poor peasant women carried any cash they needed for daily expenses in a tightly knotted bag, maybe tied to a belt or hung around the neck. Jesus mentions ten drachmas. A drachma was a small silver coin worth about a day’s wages for a labourer. 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. So, no money, no food, and therefore you and your family go hungry. 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. 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 embarrassment. So there are two very powerful motives to get on with finding the lost coin- hunger and shame- it is that valuable.
So we have a lost sheep and a lost coin, both of immense value. Not surprisingly it follows that…
valuable is sought
In verse 4 we read, ‘Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?’ You bet he does says Jesus!
Have you thought what tremendous security this saying of Jesus offers to those who 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 to search for only one. Isn’t it a bit over the top? Well, the fact is that his willingness to go out to find the one should give the other 99 the assurance 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 seen to outweigh the needs of the few. But God doesn’t look at things like that-thankfully. The individual does matter- you matter, you really do- so much so that the God-shepherd is willing to leave the portals of glory to come to the barren spiritual wilderness of earth to search you out.
Similarly with the woman in verse 8. According to Jesus, she lights a lamp and meticulously sweeps throughout the house until she finds it. 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. I.e. she would do whatever it takes to find that one coin.
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.
So, what does all this have to do with the carping Pharisees and the compassionate Jesus?
Well, we need to ask, where is the coin lost? Not out in the wilderness like the sheep; it is in her own 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? Do you see?
And 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, 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. But here the peasant woman has no one to blame 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 could 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 and truth telling or 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 a bit out of it when they come into a church building with no one speaking a friendly word to them. It may be ecclesiastical using unsingable songs, outmoded ceremony and dress. The only stumbling block the apostle Paul was ever willing to have 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 you know what? We should do the same.
But from another viewpoint the woman is also a picture of Jesus. 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 in both cases something is found which means there is something to celebrate.
In the case of the shepherd, finding the sheep is not the only hard part of his labours, 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? Well, 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, there is a price to be paid and it is paid in the broken body and spilt blood of his Son Jesus.
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 brought to completion. This is so when a person becomes a Christian.
Similarly with the woman, when the coin is found- it is party time, the woman gathers all the women in the village and she is beside herself with joy and so is God when someone is brought into a living relationship with himself-v9-`Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.'
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. This is the measure by which we gauge 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 of the first story 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 wry 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 heaven 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 and religious self-satisfaction think they are alright when in fact they are lost as the final story and the elder brother is going to bring home that truth like an Exocet missile.
But Jesus ratchets up the rejoicing aspect in v 10, ‘In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
For years I have misread this verse. I read it as the angels rejoicing. But that is not what it says. It says there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels. Who is in the presence of angels or to turn it around in whose presence are the angels? It is God the Father, he is the one who is simply beside himself when that which was lost is found by his precious Son, and his heart is bursting with delight. That is what salvation means to him. That is how valuable the lost are to him.
The listener- especially the Pharisee with his DIY religion, which will include some of us here this tonight- is called to ponder the two stories and ask: 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. There is the self-righteous- the ninety nine sheep and nine coins. But there is also a double progression going on. Let me explain. In the first story it was one in a hundred lost, in the second story, one in nine. Then there is a progression with 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 something else entirely and so you have to ask, is it at all possible that such a person as that can be restored? Well, the searching God in Jesus has not failed so far as he? The shepherd finds the sheep, the woman finds the coin. God is still seeking out the lost ones and it may well be that it is your turn to be found by God tonight. And if you are a believer it certainly is you calling to be following in the footsteps of the Searcher.
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