September 15, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Now the 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.’”
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” That is the complaint leveled at Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes don’t like the company that Jesus keeps. They give them and Him about the equivalent of “We don’t serve that kind in here” comment found in the old Western movies. Having the tax collectors and sinners around make the scribes and Pharisees more than uncomfortable; it makes them mad.
But why all the anger? Why such grumbling? It isn’t a purely practical concern, like there was only so much food and now all these guests are going to eat everything. No, it’s nothing like that. The anger and grumbling bubbling out of the Pharisees and scribes have their source in what they thought about the people hanging around Jesus and their thoughts about Jesus Himself. They disagree with His welcoming such people. In their minds, Jesus was giving the tax collectors and sinners a status that shouldn’t be theirs, something they had forfeited.
Think about what the tax collectors and sinners had been doing. They were Israelites, individuals who belonged to the Covenant that the Lord had made. But their actions had chucked that identity out the window. Their works revealed an identity opposite of the one that the Lord had given them. The tax collectors were Israelites who helped the Roman government oppress their fellow countrymen. They were making money off of the plight of their kin. And the sinners—well, they took one look at the Lord’s Law and the boundaries it set, and flouted it. All the limitations on sexual behavior were ignored.
So the condemnation of these two groups was right. The Pharisees and scribes were correct in marking them as living contrary to the Lord’s Covenant. The behavior of the tax collectors and sinners was out-of-bounds. As leaders of the religious community, the scribes and Pharisees had shown them the red card and sent them to the dressing room. And there is nothing really to disagree with in that decision…until a change occurs.
The actions of the tax collectors and sinners recorded in the Gospel Reading reveal a change in them: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].” That’s how the entire episode began. And it’s very important to note that it started that way. What did they want to do? They wanted to hear Jesus. They considered that He had something important to say. And what was Jesus saying? We know that from the earlier portions of Luke’s Gospel, even from His first sermon in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That message constantly flowed from Jesus’ mouth to the ears of all who would hear Him. It was the content of His preaching throughout Galilee and Judea. The tax collectors and sinners had heard it and believed it. They drew near to receive the teachings that Jesus was bringing, even His pointed instructions to repent, change ways, and follow Him. So they came to be in His presence. That was the intended result. That was what the Lord desired to take place for His people: these lost children of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been restored.
Because this is what the Lord desired, it makes the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes unwarranted. They are whining and complaining about the Lord’s Will being done, when their greatest claim was being the best of the Lord’s people. Their objection was antithetical to being the Lord’s people. If a person belongs to the Lord, how can he not want the Lord’s will to be fulfilled? But that’s the position that the scribes and Pharisees had taken against Jesus with their grumbling statement: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus tells the parables and summarizes their point with those famous conclusions: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy is the proper response, not grumbling.
So why is this event recorded in Luke’s Gospel read with frequency by the Church—either annually or every third year? Because this incident reveals what continually takes place among those who are the Lord’s people. Like the Israelites of old, the Church has been brought into a covenant relationship with the Lord. He has granted all who belong to the Church an identity, placing His Name on them, calling them to His way of life, making great promises to them, connecting them to the salvation found through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is what He has made you to be.
But like the Israelites of old, the Church also has individuals who stray from it. The Church has members who fit the descriptions spoken by Ezekiel: lost, strayed, injured, weak. There are people who have become tax collectors and sinners. Sheep from the Church’s paddock have wandered off into all sorts of ditches and ravines. Coins from the Church’s purse have fallen behind the bed or under the dresser. But that is precisely when the Lord works, fulfilling His promise made through Ezekiel: “Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out.” The acts described by Jesus take place: “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?...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?”
The intended result of these acts is to bring about the same reaction in the Church as happened in First Century Palestine: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].” For when Jesus is again heard, the forgiving and restoring takes place, so that the lost and found, the strayed are returned, the injured are healed, and the weak are strengthened. That only happens when individuals are present to hear Jesus’ words of grace, to receive His good news of salvation delivered through the words of absolution, the words of proclamation, and the words of institution. These deliver the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. And when all of Jesus’ people are hearing them, then all is back to the way it is supposed to be: the full complement of sheep or coins is present.
Jesus wants His people to draw near and hear Him. He takes people from great error to great faith, like the example of Paul, whose self-description you heard: “I thank Him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent…. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the foremost.” That is what is meant to happen in the Church, even in our congregation.
In the next several months, you will begin to see a reviving of the Caring Deacon program in our congregation. While some of the aspects of that program are not really topical to today’s Scripture Readings, one aspect definitely is: the effort to have some of our lost sheep return and lost coins picked up. We want them to draw near to hear Jesus, to receive the gifts that He brings through His words of grace. These individuals are lost, strayed, injured, and weak. Our desire is that this would be changed. Now some may not change at all. Some may end up being like the salt that Jesus described in last week’s Gospel Reading: salt that has lost its taste and is thrown out. But there will be others who do draw near to hear Jesus.
But what will the reaction be? What will you who haven’t wandered off do? Will you act like some of the sheep that Ezekiel described—“push[ing] with side and shoulder, and thrust[ing] at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad”? Will there be grumbling at seeing these fellow members of Christ’s Church return? If so, then you need to hear again the Lord’s words of judgment spoken through His prophet: “the fat and the strong I will destroy.” If so, then you need to listen again to Jesus’ parables and their conclusion: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Those are the words meant for you.
But there is the other reaction. It is found among the friends and neighbors of the shepherd: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” That is the reaction that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wishes to share with you whom He calls His friends. But that reaction isn’t just shared. It’s more than “I’m happy for you, Jesus.” No, the joy is what the Church itself has, the wife of Christ who finds her coin: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” We will be glad for what has happened among us and those who belong to our company.
The joy present in heaven when a sinner repents is the same joy you are meant to have. It is to be yours for eternity. For the Lord Jesus says to you and all the other sinners that He has made to be His people: “Come near and hear the good news: I have come into this world to save people just like you. Be part of My kingdom. Be My guest at My banquet. I have diligently sought you, now you are found. It has happened just like I wanted it to be.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.