by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
We continue today with our sermon series called The Character of a Christian. And this series examines the essential qualities of Christian living – what does it take to be a true follower or Jesus? What qualities define us as Christlike?
(What are the characteristics you would add? To be a Christian a follower of Christ, we must be….what?)
Some would point to the generous, giving heart of one person; and someone else would emphasize the ability to praise God, even through times of struggle; You may point out the tenacious curiosity of a bible scholar and I may appreciate the childlike joy of a kindergartner…. All of these qualities are good for us to use in our Christian lives, but in this series, we are looking for the qualities to which Jesus directs his disciples.
“Listen to this story,” he tells us, and then highlights a character he would like them to emulate. “Be like this woman who loses one of her ten coins and then rejoices and throws a party when she finds it. Be like this father who rejoices when his ungrateful son returns home!”
Today’s scripture is familiar: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and in it, Jesus tells us about how God rejoices when one sinner returns to the fold. This idea of “returning to the fold” is the character of repentance. “To repent” is to turn around, to turn toward God, to turn away from our former lives and turn toward the new possibilities God has to offer. The prophet Ezekiel explained it like this.
“Repent! And turn from all your transgressions, so iniquity will not be your ruin.
Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed; and get a new heart and a new spirit. For why will you die.
For I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies,” says the Lord GOD. “Therefore turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30-32)
The Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts” composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett, speaks of repentance in this way: “To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
To repent is to turn: to turn away from our former life and to turn toward God.
Repentance begins with our acknowledgment that something is off, something is wrong, something in us or in our lives is wrong and needs to be made right. Repentance begins with confession, but it does not end there…. Repentance is acknowledging the problem and then working to fix the problem; CONFESSION then ACTION!
And we all are sinners! There are no saints here, no one above mistakes, no one who’s not hurt people we love; no one who hasn’t wronged another…. But when we encounter Jesus in Luke, chapter 15, we are again confronted with religious leaders who believe they are not sinners… and Jesus is again in a familiar situation: He is modeling the behavior God wants of us, the actions and activities of forgiveness and compassion and mercy, but he encounters resistance.
1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 3So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
This parable is familiar to us and is usually used to explain the extreme love God has for each of us: that God cares enough about us as individuals that he would leave the 99 righteous and search for the one sinner.
When we put ourselves in the role of the lost sheep, it is a great story! Look how much God loves us, despite our sin!
But the sheep is not the only sinner in the story. Jesus is directing his lesson to the religious leaders who believe (mistakenly) that they are not sinners…. Jesus says: “Look! God loves this one sinner and THAT’S why I eat with them. Because they are valued members of God’s family – as you are – and furthermore, you should rejoice with me that they have joined our family!”
But we don’t rejoice. We, the 99 sheep, stayed in our place. We did the right thing, think the Pharisees. We followed the rules and were good sheep. Why should we care if this one foolish sheep wandered off? Jesus calls to them and to us: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” But we don’t.We are indifferent because it doesn’t concern us, or we are jealous that God is paying to much attention to others, or we are angry because God loves even the one that messed up and that’s just not right.
But Jesus calls us, through his parables and through his action to welcome those despised by the world. To invite them into our community. To love them as God does.
Now Jesus is employing here a method he used in the gospel of Matthew: In Matthew 5, Jesus cites various Old Testament laws and then amends them for a new time, for a new way of being: In each phrase he begins, “You have heard that it was said…” and then he cites a known and beloved law and then he does something amazing: he amends the law.
For example: Matthew 5, verse 38:
38‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
43‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?”
In his actions, through this parable, Jesus demonstrates to his followers, “You have heard that it is said, do not eat with the unclean, but I say to you, “Just as the Good Shepherd loves each of his sheep, so God loves the sinner and the tax-collector and so should we.”
Now, Have you ever wondered why the evil ones of the day are described by their professions? Why tax-collectors? What was so bad about them?
At the beginning of the Christian Era, the Jews of Palestine regarded themselves as slaves, as a kept people, oppressed by the Roman government. The Roman tax system was dependent on collecting tolls from all those who lived within the borders of the Roman Empire, and the work of toll collection was farmed out to locals in each region. Jews were hired, therefore, to collect taxes from fellow Jews. But the sums were excessive, often used to pad the pockets of the Roman officers and the Jews who “farmed” the taxes. (1)
The tax collectors at the time of Jesus not only participated in this system – gaining wealth for the foreign conquerors – but literally ROBBED the poor: Taking the hard-earned pennies from their fellow Jews and either keeping the pennies as their own or passing them along to the oppressors. Tax collectors were those who took advantage of the poor. Despicable people.
And “sinners” are those who actions defy our beliefs: those who do things we detest, who think and act differently, those who don’t value what we value, those who don’t look like us, think like us, speak like us, smell like us. And Jesus invited them to the table; honored guests at the table of the Lord.
Who are the tax-collectors (those who take advantage of the poor) and the sinners (those who don’t believe as we do) of our day? And why are they not at our table? Notice I included us in the 99 righteous, but really we – in our own ways – are the LOST, too. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all been the one who is outside the “norm.” And we ALL are welcomed into the family of God. Lost sheep, despicable tax-collector, sinners on the margins of society: Each of us has a place in the family of God.
Several centuries ago in a mountain village in Europe, a wealthy nobleman wondered what legacy he should leave to his townspeople. He decided to build a church, a beautiful extraordinary cathedral for the whole community to worship God. No one was permitted to see the plans or the inside of the church until it was finished. At its grand opening, the people gathered and marveled at the beauty of the new church. Everything had been thought of and included. It was a masterpiece.
But then someone said, “Wait a minute! Where are the lamps? It is really quite dark in here. How will the church be lighted?” The nobleman pointed to some brackets in the walls, and then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship.
“Each time you are here'” the nobleman said, “The place where you are seated will be lighted. Each time you are not here, that place will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God’s house will be dark.”
Each one of us is a part of the family of God, and each of us has a light to shine within the walls of our church and outside in the world, and that light is the LOVE of our amazing God. LOVE is the message of Jesus. LOVE is the mission of God. LOVE is the binding element that links us together as brothers and sisters.
There are so many voices in our world convincing us to hate those who don’t look, or think, or act like us. So many voices shouting to hate the “other”, and so few voices reminding us that we are the other too. And God loves us all: the black and the white; the brown-skinned in their many hues; men and women, boys and girls; all of us have a light to shine in this dark world and all of us have a place in the heart of God, even us sinners. Let us, turn and turn, ‘til we come round right; Let us turn toward God; let us bring the light of love to others in need, remembering the God who loves us all.
- Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, R-Z, Nashville: Abingdon,1962, p. 522.