“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” And the Pharisees were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” There is a clear tension happening amongst the crowd in today’s text and a tension that is evident throughout the Gospel of Luke. There are the “insiders” who seem to be confident in their understanding of all the ways God’s kingdom works, and there are the unrighteous “outsiders” deemed unclean by those on the inside.
Today’s tension is a common theme in the Gospel of Luke; “insiders” of God’s kingdom upset and uncomfortable with Jesus for welcoming and showing gracious hospitality by sharing meals and mingling with societies unclean and sinful “outsiders". In fact this is the third time in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for spending quality fellowship and conversation with sinners.
As we seek to understand more clearly the gospel lesson today lets explore more the sinners that were in the crowd in today’s Gospel story. The first ones were obvious…the tax collector. A person who works for Caesar and takes money not for God but for politics. Tax collectors were despised by Religious leaders and others because not only would they collect a tax for Caesar but they had the right to add an additional rate to collect money for themselves and take advantage of others. They also dealt with Gentiles and because of this were seen as unclean in the eyes of religious leaders.
Throughout the gospel Jesus finds himself preaching to other sinners from adulterers to people who break religious laws. So the Pharisees, the ones who are the gold standard of righteousness and the way you are to faithfully live your life towards God, are over it. In their eyes these unrighteous outsiders do not deserve to hear preaching about repentance and righteousness, they are lost souls not worth saving. They are upset with the radical hospitality of fellowship that Jesus is showing these sinners.
For many reasons the tension in this text of insiders and outsiders is a reminder of the diverse group of sinners present in the crowd. Sure the tax collector has fallen short in devoting their life to God, but so has the righteous Pharisees. These religious leaders have become so focused on righteous living that they not only judge but sinfully shun those who are struggling with their own life choices. There is no desire by these righteous leaders to allow these sinners who want to hear and follow Jesus be a part of the righteous community.
As scripture proclaims in 1st John, “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The truth is we all fall short in loving God and loving neighbor. The professions and lifestyles might be different today than in Jesus’ day but sadly the reality of our sinful nature remains. In our community and nation we even have the same tension, there are “insider” sinners with power and prestige and “outsider” sinners shunned to the margins. For this reason, I am always grateful that Every Sunday after we sing our opening hymn we enter into a time of confession. We lift up together a corporate prayer of confession naming all the ways we as God’s children have fallen short of living a faithful life to God and to one another and humbly reminding ourselves that our words and actions hurt others and all God created. We all find ourselves sinful, even those who consider themselves righteous.
Jesus uses this moment of tension between those lost in their different sin to lift up an important message of God’s love and grace for this diverse group of sinners. Jesus explains God’s love and grace in economic terms that one would value in 1st Century Palestine. Sheep were a shepherds source of income, and coins were something a person worked and scraped and saved to feed families. In the parable the sheep and coin are extensively sought after, but also once found there is profound rejoicing that they are no longer lost.
But Jesus also chooses to use the parable in ways that challenges the insider and outsider world. Jesus likens God to a shepherd. While shepherds were crucial to 1st Century Palestinian economy they were seen by religious leaders as apathetic and thieving…right up there with the other sinners like tax collectors. Yet Jesus makes it known that God’s love seeks out God’s lost children like a shepherd to a lost sheep. God is also radically portrayed to this diverse group of sinners as a woman searching for a coin. Women were outsiders to men, yet Jesus makes it known God will search and search for the lost like a woman searching her home for coin.
Every Sunday in worship we hear this Good News for God’s faithfulness and diligence for the lost sinners. After we come to God in humility and offer our prayer of confession on Sunday mornings there is a hopeful declaration of forgiveness. A reminder of the Good News of God’s grace and love that tirelessly seeks out the broken and sinful. A grace and love that offers us all new beginnings. For all of us diverse sinners these words of scripture are some of the most comforting words that lift up a proclamation of hope to those feeling lost and isolated from their sin. Today’s declaration of forgiveness comes from 1 Timothy… “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Hear the good news! In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.” Some other declarations of God’s Grace you might hear after confessing your sinful nature are words from Psalm 103 “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” or from Isaiah 43 “Do not fear, says the Lord, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. I am about to do a new thing, it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Whether we feel we are a unrighteous sinner or a righteous sinner, an insider or an outsider the good news of today’s Gospel story as explained through a parable is God through Christ has revealed God’s love looks like towards us sinners. A love that looks tirelessly until the one who is lost is found. God’s love reaches us in the places we hide when we have strayed from the fold into the wilderness and God’s love reaches us and finds us if we feel we are exiled and lost in a corner of society.
There is one more layer to unpack in this teaching moment for a diverse group of sinners. After each story ends, whether it is about a sheep or a coin there is a statement made that there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. We all know that neither a sheep or coin can repent. So this parable to a crowd of sinners is not actually about sinner’s repentance but to invite the diverse group of sinners to join God in the celebration. In this crowd there are those who want to judge and shun and there are those who are afraid how their repentance will be accepted. Today’s parable is a lesson that all who are lost are not only found by God’s grace but when the lost are found there is great faithful rejoicing in heaven.
As Jesus preaches to a world of insiders and outsiders, those overly confident in themselves and their faith and those anxiously on the margins he is asking the crowd to seek, find, and rejoice together. Just like the crowd listening to today’s parable, we are a group of sinners. While none of us are perfect, we are able to approach God and one other and name our sin, AND we also are able to rejoice together as we remember God’s love for us. We can lean on each other and support one another and be a shepherd to those who feel like lost sheep. Let us be honest with this fact about our community, when someone in our community is lost, it effects us all. If we join in the seeking, finding, sweeping and help those who are lost be found, we can join God in the faithful rejoicing.
Even though we live in a broken and sinful world, let us all remember we do have lots to rejoice about. The Good News of the gospel tells us about God’s persistent graciousness through Christ for all of us broken and sinful people. Every Sunday worship service after our confession, after hearing the declaration of forgiveness we stand together and sing a Gloria. A song of praise and rejoicing that we were lost but through God’s love and grace we are found. We stand and sing the Gloria together because even though we have had moments where we sinned and rebelled against God and others we remember those faithful words about God from the Brief Statement of Faith, “God Loving us still, makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.” Let us rejoice and find hope in this Good News of God’s Faithful Rejoicing. Alleluia Amen!