The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
One day some Temple officials decide to join the crowds and check out Jesus for themselves. They’re the “righteousness police” and they’re concerned Jesus is in violation. They scan the crowd, and their “righteousness” alarms go off. Numerous “unrighteous,” assorted sinners and tax collectors are gathering to Jesus. Whispers begin: “You do know, he welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” No righteous person would sit in the same room with a known sinner, let alone eat at the same table with one.
Overhearing their whispers, knowing their hearts and dispositions well, Jesus seizes on a teaching moment. You’d think the scribes and Pharisees would have learned they can’t hide thoughts from Jesus. And you’d think by now Jesus would have learned those with closed minds can’t be taught a thing.
Here comes a parable. In Jesus’ hands, a parable’s main character reveals an aspect of God’s nature. A shepherd has a hundred sheep. The number 100 represents completeness. But one sheep wanders off. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine on their own to go find the lost sheep. The shepherd takes a risk to restore completeness. Finding the sheep, he’s so overjoyed he throws a party for friends and family. That’s great – a little over the top, but good. Scribes and Pharisees politely applaud, while the rest of the crowd cheers wildly. Temple leaders do welcome sinners – if they first repent, confess their sins, and offer a sacrifice. Then they can stand beside the righteous. But sheep can’t repent, confess a thing, and usually are the sacrifice themselves. Yet hasn’t Jesus just plainly said God goes out to bring the lost home, who are greeted with a heavenly chorale singing the “Hallelujah Chorus?” That’s blasphemous. Besides Jesus says the righteous are supposed to join in such a party and celebration for an unrepentant sinner and gets carried home. Sounds like Jesus doesn’t take sin and the law seriously.
Jesus doesn’t stop here. He has another story – a woman with ten silver coins losses one. Again, the number ten signifies wholeness, or completeness. She tears her house apart looking for the coin. It must be valuable. When she finds the lost coin, she, too throws a party for family and friends to celebrate her joy. Now who gets so excited over finding a lost coin? Sounds as if God does – and heaven joins in the joy when what’s lost gets found. Sounds again as if God’s nature is to find the lost and bring them home. Sounds like God sets the table, and invites the righteous to join with sinners and tax collectors for a wildly joyous celebration. Maybe hearing we’re loved, wanted so much, and God will find us when we’re lost, is enough to draw sinners to Jesus, in fact, it’s life changing.
Depending on which group you identify with – the righteous or the unrighteous, you’ll hear and react differently to Jesus. Are his ideas about God too extreme? If he’s right, why bother acting righteous, repenting, offering sacrifices? “Repent first, get certified acceptable, and we’ll let you in.” If the righteous are right, then Jesus is wrong and he must be silenced. But the unrighteous group hears Jesus say that God’s love sends out a search team to bring them home. Heaven goes wild with joy. Sinners will join the party they were told they’d never get near. Sinners and tax collectors are attracted and drawn to Jesus. They must believe him that divine love reaches for them. They stay. The grumbling, righteous ones leave.
Jesus turns our worldly values and religious convictions upside down. Those who are already found, and won’t join heaven’s rejoicing when a lost one comes home – turn out to be the really lost ones. Jesus makes it hard to keep up with who’s lost and who’s found. Honestly we are all, in some way, a bit lost and unworthy. God will eventually find us all, even those who think they are too well connected to be lost. That’s news you just can’t make up. That’s why we say at St. Paul’s, All Are Welcome. We trust Jesus is right.
So let’s keep our party clothes ready. Jesus still searches and finds the lost, brings them home – maybe some of them will come to us first. Rejoice and be glad – that’s a sign we’re on God’s side, too!