September 15, 2019, Repentance Is on the Way (Luke 15:1-10) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000153
Today the Pharisees and the Scribes come to Jesus with yet another complaint. This time, it’s about the company he keeps. Not only is Jesus friendly with tax collectors and other unsavory characters, but he even eats with them. How can a man who claims to preach the word of God contaminate himself by tolerating and even befriending these lowlifes and scoundrels, people whose messy, lawless lives are an offense to God and to his Law?
And Jesus answers them with the two stories we just read, about a man who loses one of his sheep, and a woman who loses a silver coin. It’s something anyone can relate to; we’ve all lost something valuable at one time or another. Jesus describes how, when we have lost something we care about, we leave everything else to focus on finding it, and we don’t rest until we have. And then we party, we rejoice, because we are so happy to have found what was lost. It’s like that in heaven, Jesus said; it’s party time for the angels of God, when one sinner repents.
Clearly, one thing Jesus wants to teach is the value that God places on each and every person. Those sinners and tax collectors that the Pharisees and Scribes find so offensive, so beneath their notice – if just one of them: if one tax collector, if one prostitute, if one alcoholic, if one petty thief, repents, there is rejoicing in heaven. I can’t imagine that even the religious elite of Israel would disagree with that. A sinner is to be avoided, but a repentant sinner is tolerable. We can all understand that. In fact, we make a big deal about people who have a particularly sinful past, and who have turned their lives around. What is more impressive than a former drug addict or a killer on death row who finds God? The stories of lives transformed from gutter to glory; we love to hear them.
But if you have ever listened to these parables, of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and identified yourself as one of the ninety-and-nine boring-but-good sheep hanging out in the open country, or one of the nine silver coins sitting snug in the woman’s purse, you, along with most of the Scribes and Pharisees, have failed to notice two of the most important points that Jesus was making.
First of all, listen to what Jesus is really saying about the ninety-nine good sheep. “I tell you,” he says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” For anyone who has read the Bible the phrase “righteous persons who need no repentance” ought to sound all the alarms and all the warning flashers and all the sirens. If air quotes had been invented in the first century, Jesus would surely have put air quotes around it. “Righteous persons who need no repentance.” Suddenly the parable is less about those poor lost sinners who need to be found, and more about the smug, self-satisfied people who haven’t even realized yet that they are lost.
Because the teaching of Scripture is clear; there are no righteous persons who need no repentance. King David writes, in Psalm 14, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; there is none who does good, not even one.” Paul writes, “You have no excuse, O man…For in passing judgment on another person you are condemning yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” And John, the one Jesus loves, writes, “If we say we have no sin, we’re fooling ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But if we say we haven’t sinned, we’re calling God a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Suddenly the ninety-nine righteous persons begin to look like the emperor who has no clothes. They are fooling themselves at the very least, and at the worst, they are condemning themselves, because in pointing the finger of judgment at the tax collector and all that rabble, they have actually ended up pointing right at themselves. It’s like Charlie likes to say, when you point a finger at somebody, look down and you’ll see there are three fingers pointing right back at you.
But Jesus is doing more than just condemning people for their self-righteousness. His warning to them is urgent, because as long as they think they are righteous they are in danger of refusing what he came to offer. And he doesn’t want them to miss it. We just read what Paul said, in his letter to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Jesus said it himself, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, I came for sinners.”
And at another time, when Jesus had restored the sight of a man born blind, much to the consternation of the religious people who were offended that he healed on the Sabbath day, he offended them still further by accusing them of spiritual blindness. “Are you calling us blind?” they sputtered. And Jesus answered, “If you were really blind, you wouldn’t be guilty. But as long as you insist that you can see, your guilt remains.”
You can’t understand these parables until you know that you are the foolish sheep, shivering out on the ledge far from the sheepfold. You can’t hear what Jesus is teaching until you know that you are the coin that slipped down a crack in a dark corner of the room. You will never understand what Jesus is saying if you don’t know that we are all sinners in need of repentance. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah writes, “every one of us has turned to our own way.”
But then, there is something more, something wonderfully hopeful and encouraging and good that we have to not miss. Look at what Jesus has to say about repentance in these stories. The sinner who repents in the parable of the lost sheep does nothing more than blunder along until the shepherd finds her and gathers her into his arms. The sinner who repents in the parable of the lost coin does nothing more active than sit in his dark, dusty corner until the woman shines her light his way and sweeps him up joyfully. Amazingly, Jesus seems to be saying that the main action involved in the whole repentance thing is the action, not of the one who is lost, but of the one who is searching, diligently, passionately, tirelessly, until the lost sheep, or the lost coin, or the lost human being, has been found, safe and well. And then, the joy!
I say amazingly, because so often we have been taught that repentance is something we have to do on our own. We get lost in the sin that besets us, whether it is something dramatic and horrifying like drug addiction or pornography, or something tedious and commonplace like gossiping or unforgiveness – lost is lost, and it really makes very little difference what road we have taken and why, if it has taken us away from God. We get lost; we all get lost. And so much religious teaching, from Sunday School on up, has told us over the years that repentance means freeing ourselves from our sins of whatever size: rejecting them, feeling sorry about them, getting ourselves back on track, and finding the way back to God, who after all that is ready to forgive us. It’s the good old American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mindset masquerading as theology.
But the truth is, just like a lost sheep, sometimes we get tired out and we just can’t find our way back. Sometimes we are hurt and angry about something for so many years that we give up trying to forgive any more; we just become exhausted. Sometimes we get worn out trying to resist the pull of an addiction, or a habit, and finally we run out of strength and we give in to it. Very often we find that we can no more repent on our own strength than a lost coin can find its way back into the purse all by itself.
But Jesus gives us a very different picture here of what is going on when someone repents. When that silly sheep wanders off, the shepherd drops everything to go and find it and bring it home. When that silver coin rolls off into the corner, the woman lights a lamp and gets out her broom. She’s not going to stop sweeping until she finds her coin.
I can remember very clearly a terrible day when one of our children wandered off, though it was more than forty years ago. We were at a church gathering in a park in St. Louis. Emily, who is our first child, must have been about two and half. And all of a sudden we realized that our little girl, who had been playing happily and quietly beside us, wasn’t there any more. I don’t know if I have ever felt as afraid as I did at that moment. We all spread out and began asking the groups of people picnicking all around if they had seen a little girl with blonde hair. But nobody had seen her. It felt like we were searching for hours – though it was probably only a few minutes. And then, at last, we found Emily, playing all by herself in a little pile of sand. And there was much rejoicing, on earth as well, I am sure, as in heaven, that she had been found and was safe and well.
Can you even imagine if a child were to wander off, like Emily did; can you imagine that the parents would sit there waiting and hoping that their child would find her way back? They would be the most monstrous of parents. How can we imagine that our heavenly Father would do less than we human parents would? When you are lost – and we all get lost from time to time – never for a moment think that God is just sitting around, watching and waiting, just hoping that you find your way home, hoping that you will finally repent so he can forgive you. Know without a doubt that he is searching for you, diligently, tirelessly, passionately. We love because we have been loved already. We repent because we have been found. And when we are lost, we can be sure that our Father will not rest until he has gathered us safe in his arms again.