Parables for the Lost
Third Sunday After Trinity
Monday, July 7, 2014 (Rev. Mark Squire Preached Sunday)
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
My family and I like to go to Greenfield Village every now and then, a place where history comes alive. We like to ride the old cars and the train, walk across the covered bridge, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a live action outdoor museum. I find it easy to lose myself in the history, especially in some of the older homes and cottages on the property. In fact, one of the highlights of the Village for many visitors is the Wright family home, the home where Orville and Wilbur Wright were living when they invented the airplane. I heard an interesting story once about the Wright Brothers. Apparently, when Orville and Wilbur Wright finally succeeded in keeping their homemade airplane in the air for fifty-nine seconds on December 17, 1903, they rushed a telegram to their sister in Dayton, Ohio, telling her of this great accomplishment. The telegram read, “First sustained flight today fifty-nine seconds. Hope to be home by Christmas.” Upon receiving the news the sister was so excited about her brothers’ accomplishment that she rushed to the newspaper office and showed the telegram to the editor. The next morning—so the story goes–the newspaper headline stated in black, bold letters, “POPULAR LOCAL BICYCLE MERCHANTS TO BE HOME FOR HOLIDAYS.” The scoop of the century and the editor missed the point.
I suspect that at one time or another we have all missed the point, be it with our kids or coworkers, our spouse or parents. I bet we have all had someone tell us, “You just don’t get it.” I wonder if Jesus was thinking that exact thing when the Pharisees were grumbling about him in today’s reading. “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they complained. Well, duh, we might say. Of course he is sitting with sinners. After all, he’s Jesus; sinners are the ones he came to save; it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But the Pharisees don’t see that. They don’t get that, so they grumble and complain.
The self-righteous Pharisees were looking for a different kind of Jesus. They didn’t want a Jesus who dined with sinners, they wanted a Jesus who dined with kings. They wanted a Messiah who would vindicate the Jewish way of life, or at least the way of life that they themselves had passed off as truly godly – following extra laws and wearing your piety on your sleeve for all to see. They wanted a Messiah who would tear through the shackles of Roman oppression and exalt the Jewish people for all to see, so that the world would know that the Jewish people had been right all along, and anyone who opposed them would get was coming to them. This was the Messiah that the Pharisees were looking for. They just didn’t get it.
So Jesus shows them just how far off center they truly are. Jesus explains exactly what kind of Messiah he truly is, using stories to illustrate what the Pharisees don’t understand. He is not a Messiah who came to exalt the Nation of Israel. He is not a Messiah who came to validate all the man-made laws and regulations imposed by the self-righteous. He is the Messiah who came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus tells these parables to show what he is all about. A man has a lost sheep, so he goes out and finds it. A woman has a lost coin, so she cleans her house top to bottom in order to find it. Finding. Finding the lost is what Jesus is all about, and the Pharisees just didn’t get it.
But before we dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back, we ought to take a moment to acknowledge that we don’t get it either. Just think of what we call these parables. The Parable of the Lost Coin. The Parable of the Lost Sheep. We talk about these parables as if the coin or the sheep was the point of emphasis. But what does either one actually do, other than get itself into a bad spot where it needs to be rescued? The coin just lays there while the woman lights the lamp, sweeps, cleans the house from top to bottom in a desperate attempt to find it. The sheep just wanders off; it’s the shepherd who seeks it out, who braves the elements, who fights off the wild beasts and carries the sheep home. The sheep doesn’t even walk home; the shepherd carries it. These parables would probably be better named the Parable of the Searching Woman or the Parable of the Relentless Shepherd, for these parables aren’t really about us – they are about Jesus. In the grand scheme of things it really makes no difference what these parables are named, far more important is what they say. But we don’t seem to get that either.
These parables have a great deal to teach us about what Jesus, about who he is, about what he values, and about what he came to earth to do. Jesus, by his own admission, came into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He came to seek and save the lost. Jesus came into the world to find the lost, which is exactly what the main characters in these parables do. The Pharisees had an inaccurate picture of what the Messiah came to do. They were grumbling that he was eating with sinners, but the sinners are the very reason that Jesus came to earth. The sinners were lost like a coin or a sheep, so Jesus kicked into gear and went to find them, to find us. That is what Jesus is all about, and that is what the Pharisees didn’t understand.
But so often we don’t understand either, because while these parables primarily show us what Jesus is all about, they also teach us what repentance is. After the coin and sheep are found, each parable ends with the sentence, “there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” Quite simply put, these parables show us bluntly that repentance means being found by Jesus. But this isn’t how we tend to talk about repentance. We talk about repentance as if it is something we do. Our sinful flesh is always looking to take credit for anything and everything it can. We want to make faith something we do, proudly saying, “I believe in you Jesus, aren’t you happy with me?” We want to make our good works worth more in God’s eyes, boasting, “I helped so many people and prayed and read the bible, doesn’t that make you happy God?” But more than anything, we want to make repentance our own work. “Well,” we tell ourselves, “maybe I can’t save myself or forgive my own sins, but I am the one who is asking for forgiveness. I am the one who recognized my sinful condition and my need for a savior. I may not be able to make a decision for Jesus, but I can at least recognize that a decision needs to be made.”
And so we fool ourselves. But the parables could not be any clearer. Repentance is not my own work any more than faith is. It is all Jesus. My contrition, the fact that I feel sorry for my sins, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. If it wasn’t for God’s Word I wouldn’t even know what sin is, much less that I am a sinner in need of salvation. It is through God’s Word that the Holy Spirit gives me the knowledge of my sin and works in me a desire to be rescued. This is all his doing, not mine. And this is what he is doing, over and over again. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, including me – including you. He still comes to us today. He comes through the preaching of his word, coming to us with words of Law to show us our sin, to show us how lost and lifeless we are apart from him. And he comes to us with the words of his Gospel, showing us all that he has done in our place, all that he has suffered in our place, showing us that he has come to earth to find us and claim us as his own. He comes to us in the body and blood of this altar to strengthen us in our faith toward him and in our love for each other.
And what great joy this brings to us! Now that we have been found by Jesus, now that we have the gift of his Spirit alive in us, we are being reshaped back into his image, brought back into the fold, put back into the coin purse with the other coins so that we may live life as it was intended to be – life in relationship to others. We are no longer lost and alone, we are members of the body of Christ. In this body we find strength in numbers. We gather together to worship and encourage one another. We mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. We build up others when they have been brought low, just as others build us up when we have been brought low. The Pharisees were so concerned with their own behavior and so focused on their own righteousness that they were blind to the gift of the community of believers. But there was great rejoicing in heaven when the coin and sheep were found, not simply because they were no longer lost, but also because they had been reunited with their other coins and sheep. What a joy for us to be part of such a community on earth today. What a blessing for us to be gathered together today as those who have been found by Jesus, those who have been brought home by him through his Word and Sacrament. What a joy for us to continue to live in communion with him and with each other.
What was inconceivable to the Pharisees is indeed glad tidings of great joy for us. We were lost in our sin, dead in our sin, alone in our sin, laying there like a lifeless coin, surrounded by the wolves of Satan like a sheep who has wandered from the fold. But our Lord came and found us. He paid the price for us with his own precious blood shed on Calvary’s cross, and now we belong to him. He has brought us into the community of the baptized, joined us with his body of believers on earth. And there is joy in heaven. There is joy in heaven because we have been brought home. There is joy in heaven because of the gift of repentance that Jesus has given us. So let us rejoice here on earth as well, rejoice not in what we have done, but rejoice at all that has been done for us. We have been found. We have been claimed. We have been brought home to our Lord. In His Name. Amen.