Luke 15:1-7 March 15, 2020
As we continue through Lent, I want to see how easily we misdiagnose our personal short fallings … the reasons we fall short of expectations.
You see, it is our natural tendency to see our personal short fallings only as moral failings.
Why is that an issue?
Because how you define a problem determines the tool you will reach for to fix it.
So, if we define our problems only as moral failings, we will buckle down and try harder.
Of course, trying hard is a good thing, but for some things it’s insufficient and if it doesn’t solve my problem then it reinforces in my mind that I’m a moral failure.
On the other hand, when we understand our underlying problem as sin… meaning separation from God …. then we see that what we need most is a savior.
Jesus addresses this in today’s parable from Luke 15.
The Pharisees were not bad people; they were devout, and they cared deeply about God.
These men were concerned that accurate teachings be presented by the rabbis, and that their children be well trained.
Without doubt, the words of Proverbs 14:7 were on their lips:
Proverbs 14:7 Stay away from a foolish man, for you will not find knowledge on his lips.
So of course, they raised an alarm about Jesus.
In their culture, whom you dined with was a sign and seal of your full approval and acceptance of them.
Dining with sinners or tax collectors would be okay … but only if had Jesus had first been assured of their repentance.
Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to emphasize forgiveness; that was nothing new.
But others had always taught forgiveness came after someone changed their ways.
The scandal was that Jesus wasn’t doing that.
He was eating and drinking with unrepentant sinners, practicing tax collectors, and others whose lives were abhorrent to God.
They must have been particularly concerned that he was attracting an ever-larger following.
Luke 15:1-2 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Who were these tax collectors and sinners who caused so much distress?
The tax collectors were detested, but not in the IRS kind of way.
First, many were known collaborators with Rome; one wrong word from them and you might be arrested or worse.
They were feared and they were hated.
Second, the tax system crippled the average person, siphoning off money for basic living to support lavish building projects and arrogant armies.
Those who collected these harsh taxes were not paid civil servants; they made their living by adding their profit on top of what the government demanded.
It was even rumored that one of Jesus’ inner circle, some SOB named Matthew, was himself a tax collector.
Now here sits this radical rabbi joking around and passing the spiced lamb down the table to tax collectors.
Luke 7:34b Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”
The Pharisees saw Jesus as thumbing his nose at everything decent and holy – everything taught in scripture about honoring God.
Of course, it is easy to look back from the safe distance of 2000 years and be critical, but this episode may also cause us to ask:
How are we Christians like those Pharisees?
Whom do we choose to welcome?
By what standards do we judge who is holy and worthy?
Anyway, Jesus takes this potentially explosive encounter and turns it into a “teaching moment,” by telling a parable.
Luke 15:4 Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.
When I was a kid, our family had pigs, and pigs have minds of their own.
If a pig decides that he is going to venture off, he will find a way to go.
Pigs will wait for an opportunity to get free – like when a ten-year-old boy is a tad lazy about closing the pigpen gate – and wham, they’re gone!
But sheep aren’t like that.
In the first place, sheep aren’t too bright.
We had sheep, too, and I can tell you that they were two French Fries short of a Happy Meal, if you know what I mean.
Sheep don’t grasp the big picture – they just follow their nose and meander toward whatever grabs their attention at the moment.
Put yourself in the sheep’s hooves in today’s parable.
You’ve been walking all day, bumping against all the others in the flock, up and down steep and rocky hills.
When you’re grazing in the middle of the flock, it gets a little stinky, and the grazing gets to be slim pickings.
Then you happen to glance off to the side and spot a scrap of lush green grass that’s been missed, so you hold back and chew on it for a moment.
Oh, there’s a clump of clover, so, you drift over there.
Now there’s a beautiful nibble of grass over there.
You might wander over to the shade of a bush for a moment’s rest.
And pretty soon you are a long way from the oversight of the shepherd.
It’s the shepherd’s job to see the big picture to know the terrain and to foresee the dangers so he can guide you to fresh water and green pastures … more than a clump of grass here and there.
It’s his job to protect you from the predators always lurking in the shadows for a lamb who wanders away.
We are like that.
We don’t start out with plans to sin through the day … but we are easily distracted:
- We’re feeling frustrated so we take a hurtful shot at our wife over breakfast;
- We do a little meaningless flirtation with the secretary;
- We make an arrogant remark about the lazy homeless instead of helping the guy shivering on the corner;
- At lunch we join with the guys bad mouthing a colleague;
- At home we become so involved with the newest episode of The Voice that we brush-off our child instead of listening to her hurt feelings from school;
- An argument flares up from the bad feelings our wife has carried all day from our breakfast argument;
- Then rather than resolve it, we fold our arms, send her to bed while we stay up and watch Stephen Colbert.
You see, we wander into destructive behaviors – each seems innocent at the moment, but they snowball until we end-up isolated and in a precarious condition.
In Jesus’ parable, two unexpected things happen.
First, Luke 15:4 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?
Actually, no shepherd in his right mind would leave 99 vulnerable sheep in open country to go find one wayward sheep.
That’s the first surprise.
No telling how long it would take to find the lost one.
There would be ravines and hills that could hide a little sheep, and while the shepherd is gone half his flock could scatter, or be attacked by bears, or maybe stolen by rustlers.
Chances are the stray has already been killed and eaten.
But this shepherd cares so little about the foolishness that caused the lost sheep to drift away, that he risks it all to find her.
You may be ashamed because you drifted back into some destructive habit, that you can’t imagine being lovable anymore.
Maybe you can’t forgive yourself for not stopping your anger soon enough, and for slamming the door on a loved one.
Maybe you can’t forgive yourself for not living up to your potential, or for not disciplining your eating, or for running up the credit cards … but the shepherd risks it all to find you.
Even when you’ve given up on yourself, the Good Shepherd risks it all to seek you out and find you.
The second surprise has to do with the attitude the Pharisees would have had about Jesus’ making a shepherd the hero of his parable.
The metaphor of God the shepherd had been occasionally used in the Hebrew Scriptures – most famously in the 23rd Psalm.
But over the hundreds of intervening years, shepherds had moved to the fringes of society and had earned a bad reputation as being a shiftless, thieving and trespassing underclass.
So, here’s Jesus sitting with despised tax collectors and sinners while telling the respectable community leaders about an equally despised shepherd, whom he apparently compares to God.
Anyway, the reckless shepherd takes off to find the lost sheep.
If you were that wayward sheep – you might not even notice at first what a precarious position you had put yourself in.
But when it hits you, you would start running this way and that looking for the shepherd and flock.
Frightened sheep often run in circles, lowering their head and charging this way, then changing their mind and charging that way.
It is exhausting running in circles without a shepherd to lead us.
When we have reduced our problems to moral failures, thinking that we will fix our life if we just try harder, read the right self-help book, keep a New Year’s resolution then we, too, charge around in circles.
Baa. We go this way.
Baa. We go that way.
But our underlying problem is not a moral failing and no matter how hard we try, left to our own devices, we will always wander away.
Our problem is sin … separation from God.
Moral failings take discipline and effort to overcome, but sin requires a Savior.
In some ways, this was the problem of the Pharisees.
They were convinced that if they just enforced their legalism, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” then they could make their communities holy.
But, of course, it didn’t work.
The Apostle Paul, himself a Pharisee, taught that the ultimate gift of the Law was that it taught us that we can’t keep from straying.
Meanwhile, the Good Shepherd knows we will get lost yet he never tires of bringing us back home.
As we recognize and trust his voice he will lead us through all the valleys, hillsides, and riverbeds, through the green years and draughts.
Confession is our admission that once again we have become lost.
Confession is no longer pretending that we’re okay, that we can find our own way home, that we can fight off the predators.
Confession is saying to God, I’m lost.
I need my shepherd … you can look for me right over here, between that rock and a hard place.
While some sheep just run in circles, others will call out in distress.
That is the shepherd’s best hope of finding them.
We call that prayer.
Putting yourself again in the hooves of that sheep, it’s getting cold and the shadows are lengthening.
You hear the howl of wolves growing louder.
Baa! I’m over here.
And suddenly strong, warm arms reach out and lift you.
Luke 15:5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders.
You’re safe. You’re loved. You’re brought back into the flock.
And the shepherd celebrates.
Notice that Jesus does not celebrate the Pharisees – the good people who try so hard to be respectable.
Instead, he celebrates finding the one lost lamb …. and then he invites the Pharisees to drop the façade and to celebrate with him.
Luke 15:6b -7 Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” 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.
“Who do not need to repent.”
That, of course, is irony, because the only ones in the gathering that day who do not think they need to repent are the murmuring critics of Jesus.
Lent is the season to take note of where we have wandered and then to call out to the Savior … I’m lost, but you can find me right over here.