Luke 15:1-10 Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
There were two distinct groups of people around Jesus that day. There were the “sinners”—people known in their community for their sins. And then there were the self-righteous—people like the Pharisees and the experts in the Law who looked down on everyone else who didn’t quite measure up in their eyes. “Sinners” and the self-righteous standing in the presence of Jesus-- and their responses to Jesus and to his words could not have been more different.
The sinners were drawing near to Jesus to listen to what he had to say and the self-righteous were standing apart from Jesus grumbling about what he had to say. Two distinct groups of people—two distinct reactions to Jesus.
And believe it or not, the sinners actually had a spiritual advantage over the self-righteous—because at least they knew the truth about themselves. They couldn’t hide their sinfulness under a façade of piety. Their neighbors knew, and they knew, just exactly what they were—they were sinners. And that was a distinct spiritual advantage when it came to benefiting from Jesus’ message.
To recognize that we are sinners is still a spiritual advantage—because then at least we know we need forgiveness. We begin each Divine Service confessing the reality of our own sinfulness—we enter into the presence of God already acknowledging that in thought, word, and deed we have not done the good he expects of us and instead have done the evil that he forbids us to do.
The sinners around Jesus knew exactly what they were and so did their neighbors and so when they heard Jesus preach and teach about forgiveness for their sins and a new life in the Kingdom of God for all of those who were sorry for their sin and came to him in faith—they wanted to hear more--and so they drew near to him and listened to what he had to say and many turned from their sinful ways and came to faith in Jesus.
The self-righteous were actually in worse shape spiritually than the notorious, public sinners because they didn’t recognize their sinfulness—not because they didn’t know the righteous requirements of the LORD written in the Law—they did, better than the sinners knew the Law by far—and not because it hadn’t been preached to them—it had, countless times as they attended synagogue and temple worship.
But rather than take God’s Law to heart, as a word spoken to them too--they took God’s Law—a word of divine judgment that always condemns even the best that humanity has to offer to God--and they twisted it into a word that approved of the way they lived their lives. They worshiped on the Sabbath. They tithed. They didn’t blaspheme or murder or commit adultery. They were outwardly righteous.
But they had either forgotten-- or chosen to ignore-- the fact that God doesn’t only care about the outside of our lives—but also cares deeply about what’s on the inside—about what’s in our hearts and minds.
And that’s where they had a real problem. Jesus said that they were white-washed sepulchers (graves)—white and clean on the outside but dead on the inside—standing in need of forgiveness and new life--no less than the public sinners.
And so Jesus, out of love for them too, taught them that it wasn’t only the one living with another’s wife who was guilty of adultery- but also the one who lusted in his heart. It wasn’t only the killer who was guilty of murder- but also the one who was angry and bitter towards one another. It wasn’t only the pagan who was guilty of breaking the first commandment- but also the worrier and greedy.
He taught them what they should have already known from the Old Testament: that God expects holiness of us through and through—inside and out. Hard words of law to be sure—but they were spoken by Jesus to bring them to repentance.
We are not immune from this sin of self-righteousness—and we ought to take it seriously for it can imperil our souls. Very few people are as close to committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit as are those who persist, unrepentant in self-righteousness.
Why is that? Because so long as we continue in self-righteousness-- we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to convict us of our sins through the preaching of the Law and we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to bring us to faith and convince us of our need for a Savior through the preaching of the Gospel. Self-righteousness denies our sinfulness on the one hand and denies our need for a Savior on the other—and is spiritually deadly.
The self-righteous that day were in such a profound state of denial regarding their own spiritual condition that they were grumbling against the Savior who had been sent to save not only the notorious sinners—but the outwardly holy as well.
So where do we find ourselves in that crowd around Jesus? Are we the sinners or the self-righteous? Do our sins grieve us-- or are we among the self-righteous, believing ourselves a little bit better in God’s sight than everyone else?
At some point in our lives most of us have probably spent a little bit of time among both groups and that is why it is such Good News for us today that no matter which group we are in—the sinners or the self-righteous—Christ loves us all and wants to forgive us of our sins and self-righteousness and the parables he told were meant for all us—sinner and self-righteous alike.
So Jesus told them this parable: "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.' "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.'
These stories are simplicity itself. Both of them tell the story of searching for and finding a lost thing and the joy that comes from finding it—something that we all have experienced—earthly stories we can connect with—but with a heavenly meaning.
The first parable describes Jesus’ gentleness with lost sheep. For the first 15 years of our married life Caroline and I had this orange and white English Pointer named Hemingway. A better dog you could hardly ask for UNLESS he got out the front door and then he was off—running like a madman through the neighborhood. I would like to say that when I finally caught up with him I was like the shepherd in the parable, gently carrying him home-- but I wasn’t--and he got it.
But that’s not the way of Christ. He gently takes that wandering sheep of a sinner in his arms and carries it to his flock and cares for it as a shepherd. For those of us who are sinners--this is the best possible news of all. We don’t have to be afraid to come to Christ for forgiveness and new life, wondering what kind of welcome we will receive. Turning from our sins in sorrow-- and believing in him for salvation and forgiveness-- we can be certain that he will welcome us with gentleness.
The second parable describes a woman’s persistence in finding a lost coin. When Caroline and I were dating, I bought her a little pair of shell-shaped 14k gold earrings. Tiny little things that didn’t cost much. She dropped one in the carpet one day putting them in and we spent hours looking for that earring until I finally gave up. But she never did. I told her that I would buy her more-- but it didn’t matter—that was the one she wanted –it was hers--and she kept on looking for it for years. She finally found it the day that we were packing up to move from that house to another.
For those who are sinners, our Lord’s persistence in seeking us and finding us is the best possible news of all. Not only have we wandered away from him- but we have done it again and again. Not only have we sinned- but we have done it again and again. Not only have we stood in judgment over others- but we’ve done it again and again. And we can’t help but ask ourselves: Won’t Christ get tired of seeking us and finding us? Won’t he simply give up on us at some point along the way? NO! Jesus calls us to come to him again today and promises that he will receive us.
And why does he do that? Why is he so gentle and kind to sinners who have done wrong? Why is he so persistent in seeking us out even when in our self-righteousness we don’t think we need seeking out? It is because we belong to him—like sheep to a shepherd and like money to a homemaker—we are his.
God the Father has given us our earthly life--God the Son has laid down his life for us on the cross—and God the Holy Spirit has given us new life through the Gospel. We are the treasured possessions of him who seeks the sinner with gentleness and persistence.
Those were the parables that Jesus spoke to the sinners who drew near to him that day but the self-righteous also heard these words and the parables were intended for them too. And so what did Jesus especially have to say to them as they stood off to the side grumbling about the company he kept? The words that were especially spoken to them were these: Rejoice with me-- for what was lost has been found—Rejoice with me here on earth and know that heaven shares my joy over these sinners who have come to me. He said:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
For the self-righteous that day this had to be stunning news—that this attitude of Jesus towards those who were sinners wasn’t some kind of moral laxity on his part-- but also the attitude of heaven --and their self-righteous grumbling stood in sharp contrast to the righteous rejoicing of God and his angels in heaven over those who repented.
Jesus loves the self-righteous no less than he loves the sinful and he spoke these words to get them to see the truth about themselves: that their good works and their piety and their religiosity was not able to save them—that they needed his perfect righteousness that only comes by faith in him and we know that some of the Pharisees eventually did become his followers.
The charge against Jesus that day was that he welcomes sinners and eats with them—and that’s absolutely right—he did—and still does. To all who are sorry for their sins and put their faith in him for forgiveness, Jesus says come to me—enjoy this feast of forgiveness that I have set before you today. Amen.