Don’t follow me – I’m lost too

Posted: September 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

11 September 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Luke 15.1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

Once again, we see a teaching situation where the people around Jesus are divided
– scribes and Pharisees on one hand, tax collectors and other outcasts on the other
The so-called sinners flock to stand next to Jesus
The so-called righteous stand apart, and judge him for welcoming the sinners

The teaching Jesus gives here shows us he knows exactly what is going on
– exactly what is in the hearts of the different people around him
He teaches all of these different people something about themselves
– as well as something about who he is

There are three parables in Luke 15, of which we heard two
Those three parables are collectively known as the ‘parables of mercy’. They are:
– The parable of the lost sheep
– The parable of the lost coin
– The parable of the prodigal and his brother

The messages of the first two parables are stated clearly in the text
The message of the parable of the lost sheep is, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The message of the parable of the lost coin is, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents

The parable of the prodigal son and his brother has no explicit moral like either of these
The message we probably read from the parable is that it is easy for the host of heaven to rejoice over repentant sinners
– much easier than it is for flesh and blood human beings

The parable also begs the question, who has the authority to decide who is righteous?
Who has the authority to brand someone a sinner?
Who has the authority to decide whether or not someone’s repentance is genuine?

What sticks in our minds at the end of that parable is the rejoicing of the father
But it actually ends with the grumbling of the older brother
– his refusal to celebrate his brother’s return
– his rebuke to his father for his generous forgiveness

The parable of the prodigal ends this way for a reason
The difficult ending brings us back to the setting of this teaching
It makes a link between the parables, and the audience

The elder brother’s grumbling echoes the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees
The way they stubbornly stand apart from Jesus
So Jesus has once again created a teaching situation where the reaction of part of the audience reinforces the lesson he wants to give to the others on the scene

Does anyone in this scene really have the right to call themselves righteous?
We might feel sympathy for the tax collectors and the other so-called sinners
The people in the crowd probably had a lot of respect for the scribes and the Pharisees
But as Jesus himself says later, in Luke 18.19, No one is good, except God alone
How can we stand before God with confidence? What attitude do we need?

To answer that question, we have to think very hard about what happens in these parables
The endings of the first two parables are simple
The shepherd finds his sheep; the woman finds her coin
They both rejoice with their neighbours

But the ending of the parable of the prodigal is unclear
And the ending of this whole episode is also unclear
We know neither whether the brother in the parable joins the celebration, or whether the real-life scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus

The endings of the first two parables are simple – you might almost call them too simple
It’s easy to rejoice when the lost sheep is found
It’s easy to rejoice when the woman finds her coin

But how did these things come to be lost?
There’s nothing to suggest the man is a bad shepherd
There’s nothing to suggest that the woman is careless
We can’t blame the sheep or the coin

And that’s where the first two parables are different from the last
We keep in our minds the image of rejoicing in heaven over the saving of the lost
But we introduce the complexity of a situation where human beings refuse to share the joy that is celebrated in heaven

Because we can blame the prodigal son
Perhaps we can also blame the father who lets him go, and welcomes him back
Although if we do, we do a very harmful thing
We place ourselves in the position of the resentful elder brother

The fundamental difference between the tales of the lost sheep and the lost coin on the one hand, and the tale of the prodigal son on the other, is this
– The lost sheep was probably grazing quite happily when the shepherd found it
– The lost coin was lying in a dark corner, in the cobwebs and the dust
– Of the three things that were lost, only one had the capacity to realise that he was lost
– Only one had the capacity to search for his rescuer

That is the point for the crowd around Jesus, for the scribes and the Pharisees standing apart, and for us sitting here today
We are not the ones giving directions – we are the ones who are lost
We are not the ones deciding who should be saved – we are the ones in need of rescue
So we should not be the ones dispensing judgement – we are the ones who have to beg for mercy

Jesus is only here for the lost sheep of Israel – the people who admit they are lost
The lost are the ones who recognise the voice of their shepherd, and flock to be near him
They recognise the voice of Jesus as the voice of their rescuer

The scribes and the Pharisees are not the lost sheep
– because they are too proud to admit they are lost
– in fact they are the bad shepherds, responsible for the loss of the flock
They do not recognise the voice of Jesus as the voice of our rescuer
– because they will not admit they need to be rescued
– and because they will not admit that there are others God wants to rescue
Their denial of their need is a denial of Jesus himself

There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents
– The one who admits to being lost, and asks Jesus to show the way

There is joy on earth when someone who was lost is found
Is there anyone else we know who deserves to share that joy?

Because to seek and save the lost is the task we have been left with
And no real joy is possible for us in doing anything else

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Comments
  1. How can we bring the lost home if we’re lost too?

    • Someone who knows they are lost is hoping to be found – unlike the religious experts in the passage, who declare themselves to be ‘found’ by labelling others as ‘lost’. Their arrogance betrays how lost they truly are, and arrogance is the trap the story intends to help us avoid. ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ doesn’t quite capture it – we are always getting lost and needing to be found. Knowing and confessing this makes us more likely to be able us to help others who are lost.

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