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June 28, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for the third Sunday after Trinity comes from our Gospel text, where Luke records Jesus’s words, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 46 times: context is king. In order to best understand our text, it is important to know why and to whom Jesus is speaking. In this case, we’ve got a familiar sight: Pharisees and scribes grumbling against Jesus. What’s the reason this time? He has the gall to be in unsolicited (though not unwelcome) close proximity to tax collectors and sinners. You can almost hear the collective snobbish gasp as they say to one another, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” It is in direct response to this pretentious display of elitism that, in our text, Jesus tells the first two of three parables: the “lost” sheep and the “lost” coin. The third parable not included in our text is about a certain “lost” son.

These parables are perhaps the best known that Jesus tells. That said, in recent times they have been used in … peculiar fashion. These days, when Christians speak of “the lost” they are often referring to those outside the Church. That phrase, “the lost,” is used especially when talking about mission and evangelism. The Church, it is said, is to seek “the lost.” To be missional is to focus our efforts beyond the walls of St. James Lutheran Church and School, beyond the people gathered here and more toward reaching “the lost.” Rather than “preach to the choir” or concern ourselves only with “the ninety-nine,” a church that is faithful to its mission must foster a “zeal for the lost,” so that “our hearts would feel a burden for the lost.” You’ve probably heard these parables taught this way before; I know I have.

On the one hand, it’s a legitimate concern. We Christians are called to lift our gaze to those who are outside the Church, to those who are hurting and have nowhere and no one to whom they can turn. We are called to reach out beyond our walls to those who need to hear the gospel, to stop looking exclusively inward, directing all our efforts toward self-sufficiency, and to look to those who have not heard of Christ Jesus, crucified and resurrected. We are called into a sacrificial, self-emptying existence, looking always to those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who are … lost. The problem, however, is that when this phrase is used exclusively in this manner, we start to draw lines in strange, and arguably, dangerous places.

Again, consider the context. Jesus is telling these parables as the answer to the Pharisees and the scribes who are offended that He should receive sinners and eat with them. He tells them, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

Next comes a similar, but distinct parable: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” In both cases, Jesus concludes these parables by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The “lost” in these parables—the sheep, the coin, yes, even the son from the subsequent parable not included here—are clearly these people that are drawing near to Jesus in order to hear Him—tax collectors and sinners, whose repentance brings joy into the heavenly places. And who are the “ninety-nine”? Who are those that Jesus leaves behind? They are the “righteous persons who need no repentance.” They are the Pharisees and the scribes, those that grumble against Jesus’s association with the lost. These parables are set to condemn them, to make their grumbling stick in their throats.

The line between the lost sheep and the ninety-nine, the lost coin and the other nine is not between Christians and non-Christians, between churched and unchurched. The line is set between those who, on the one hand, draw near to Jesus to hear Him, those who repent, those who need Jesus and know they need Jesus, those with whom Jesus chooses to have fellowship; and, on the other hand, those who have no need of Jesus, who feel no need to repent, who are secure in their own righteousness, who think they are just “fine.”

We make a serious error when we speak as if the line simply divides church members from non-members. It is a strange ecclesiology (perhaps a profoundly arrogant one) that asserts that we can know who is “in” and who is “out” of the Church—that we can identify who are the “lost” and who are the “found.” To the contrary, Jesus continually challenges any attempt to label and categorize people for the sake of governing our attitude toward them. Earlier in Luke’s gospel account, when the lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus would not allow him to use the label on others and instead, through the parable of the Good Samaritan, answered: you are the neighbor, you go be the neighbor, so that everyone is an object of your love.

Simply put, we are not God; far from it! We are not omniscient, and thus we are not privy to the thoughts and intentions in the hearts of others. As such, we mustn’t draw lines and categorize—“us” and “them,” “churched” and “unchurched,” “in-reach” and “outreach.” We are the lost, the imperiled, the endangered who need the Good Shepherd to rescue us from the perils of our own stupidity and vanity. We are those … whom Jesus has come to save. We are to repent and stand alongside the world—not over against it—and bear witness to this Jesus who has come only for sinners. Week in and week out, we rightly confess that we are broken sinners in need of forgiveness – and the hosts of heaven issue a cry of thunderous praise and joy as we repent of our sins, and hear God’s life-giving absolution. Jesus came to save the lost, and we’re counted among that number. When we are oriented in that mindset, the world may look at the church and begin to see … in our midst … “this Man who receives sinners and eats with them.”

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tags: Luke 15:1-10