Who, What, Who
I know; it's supposed to be who, what, where, and we'll get there too. But the 3 most important things to pay attention to when reading Scripture is who is being spoken to, what is being spoken about, and who is doing the speaking. Luther said all heresy could be traced back to not paying attention to these.
Who is being spoken to in our text? It's not tax collectors or notorious sinners. It's the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Not all Pharisees were teachers of the law, or scribes, but virtually all scribes were Pharisees. The Pharisees were opposed to Roman rule and controlled the popular piety outside of Jerusalem. They were the conservatives of the day. The Sadducees controlled the Old Testament church hierarchy in Jerusalem and were supportive of the Romans. They were the liberals. Scripture says the Pharisees were hypocrites, lovers of money, and sought to justify themselves. The scribes, sometimes called lawyers, were also called hypocrites, and Jesus pronounced woe on them because they weighed men down with the law and lifted not one finger to help them.
Our text gives us other details about the Pharisees and scribes being spoken to in our text. They're grumblers; they mutter; they complain against Jesus. This is the Greek word for that with the preposition added to it. The idea is that the grumble goes throughout the ranks of the Pharisees and scribes. Read your Old Testament. When the church is grumbling against Moses this is the word.
What does it specifically say they are grumbling about? "This man welcomes sinners and He eats with them." First, "this man" is a derogatory way to refer to Jesus. We would say, "This fellow." They don't even deign to mention His name. And what is He doing that is so reprehensible? He welcomes, receives, accepts, sinners even to the point of eating with them. A Pharisee would not even eat out of a dish owned by a Samaritan; he wouldn't eat food that hadn't been tithed. Eating meals with someone was a sign of friendship and fellowship. We don't attach the same significance to everyday meals, but we do to testimonial dinners. If you attend one, you're testifying to your admiration and approval of someone.
Who is being spoken to is fleshed out in the rest of the text. It's those who don't rejoice over what heaven does. That's a serious charge. You bring up a kid short who laughs at something that ought not to be laughed at. You do the same to the kid who grumbles about what he should be happy over. When you're out of step with your fellow man that says something about you; when you're out of step with heaven that says even more.
So we're clear on who is being spoken to. Are we clear on what is being spoken about? What is spoken about is the lost. The first meaning of this word translated lost' is destroy, ruin, kill. In the 3rd parable in this chapter, the Prodigal Son, it's used in the sense of perishing and parallel to the word dead.' So the lost sheep is as good as dead. That's the point. It's a matter of life and death that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about.
Another thing being spoken about is the One who lost not giving up. Here you have to read all 3 parables. The One who has lost something in all 3 cases is the Jesus figure in the parable. Contrary to how many preach this text the shepherd is not described as going through brambles and thorns, up and down hills, wading creeks until he finds the lost sheep. No, he's described as simply going until he finds it. Now in the Lost Coin details of the search are provided: lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and "search carefully" are specific details.
You would expect that the Parable of the Lost Son, would have even more details about the search. Nope, the Father doesn't go into the Far Country at all in search of the Prodigal. He does go out to find the Elder Son who won't come into the house where rejoicing is going on because the Prodigal Son has been found. All 3 parables picture looking for the lost, looking for those being destroyed, a shepherd journeying, a woman sweeping, a father waiting, but what is the reality they are all picturing?
The reality is stated in the opening words of our text. "Now the tax collector and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus." The reality of the seeking, sweeping, and waiting picture is Jesus looking for the lost with Words. Words that can be grumbled about; words that can be ignored; words that appear weak. Whenever and wherever the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the Good Shepherd is seeking, the Bride of Christ is sweeping, and the heavenly Father is waiting.
The focus of this text is the One who receives sinners and eats with them. Look at contemporary worship. They speak of people seeking, of people in need, of people hurting, but I've never been in a contemporary service where the people say as we do I am a "poor miserable sinner that deserves punishment today and in eternity." I've never heard them say as we in effect do: I deserve to walk out of here and be struck by a car or lightening or cancer. Or I deserve today to have God's wrath break out against me. No, they don't say that. That's too depressing, hopeless, frightening. So the church of today makes people feel that they can get by with just a little help from their friends; that they get knocked down but they can get up. But the One in this text is only gathering sinners; only eating with sinners who can't help themselves.
Who is being spoken to? The Pharisees and scribes, anyone who grumbles about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them, anyone who doesn't rejoice like heaven does at the lost being found. What is being spoken about: the lost perishing and the One who lost them not giving up but seeking lost sinners with His Word, seeking even for the ones church leaders think unsaveable. Finally, who is doing the speaking?
The One who has since 9:51 "set His face to go to Jerusalem." The word "go" is the same one in our text "go after the perishing sheep." The One doing the speaking is on a journey to betrayal, rejection, suffering, damning, and dying to find the perishing. Stories from Greek mythology about a hero descending into Hades to get someone are compelling. But the One doing the speaking in our text actually did this. He's on a journey to save sinners. To do that He must not only journey on the road they were supposed to stay on, i.e. keep the Law in their place; He must go to where their sins take them. Past suffering, past dying, all the way into damning.
This message attracts tax collectors and sinners and repels those who seek to justify themselves. Here is One who does what I am always falling short of. Here is One who has not only walked a mile in my shoes but my whole life being tempted in every way I am yet didn't sin. Here is One who didn't let me go when the wrath of God landed upon Him in full; who didn't let me go when the shame of all my sins came home to His heart; who didn't let me go when the eternal flames of hell roasted Him like a marshmallow.
This is the One doing the speaking. The Jesus who does over the top things to save me. Almost all parables have an over the top element to them to convey to sinners the depths, the lengths, the heights, the widths our God goes to save us. You can read commentaries on this text. They'll tell you that of course the shepherd who left "the 99 in the open country" really would have made provisions to take care of them. But Jesus says He leaves them in the wilderness and doesn't bring any back to town but the lost one.
No good earthly shepherd forsakes 99 to find one. He goes by percentages. Not Jesus. He gives His soul, His life, His all for just 1 out of a 100. What Jesus does in the realm of the spiritual can only be described in the realm of the material in foolish, silly, over the top terms. To find you, just you, the Good Shepherds forsake all else to carry you home to heaven.
The One who speaks does the over the top thing of leaving 99% in favor of the 1% in the first parable. In the 3rd parable the One who speaks does the over the top thing of receiving back into full son-ship the lost, dead son who had wasted all His living. What's the over the top element in the middle parable? The One who is doing the speaking describes Himself like a woman who has lost 10% of her coins and searches until she finds it. Where's the over-the-topness here?
Lighting a lamp seems reasonable; sweeping, and searching carefully seem reasonable, but what do you do when you know where you have lost something? I don't waste a whole lot of time looking for it. I say, "It will turn up." I leave to happenstance the finding of 1 dollar out of 10. Not the one speaking. Even though a person is lost in His house, He keeps looking. He looks by continuing to speak of sin, death, and devil, of forgiveness, life, and victory in His name. This searching by saying, by preaching, by teaching, by sermonizing goes on till the Last Day of this earth or a person's last day on this earth.
The One who is doing the speaking is the One who has done and still does over the top things for us men and our salvation. Notice how the perishing sheep and perishing son both go away from the One doing the speaking. Notice how the Elder Son is lost in His Father's house and doesn't know it. Notice how the Lost Coin is lost in the Church's house and can't know that or help to be found because it is inanimate.
There is over-the-topness here. Jesus finds those who don't even know they're lost because they are dead to reality. The precondition of being found by Jesus is not to know you're lost but to be lost. St. Paul didn't know he was lost but Jesus found him. David, after committing adultery and murder, didn't know he was lost but God's Word found him.
Who in reality is being spoken to in this text? The whole lost world. What is being said? The Lord Jesus is looking for you with every syllable of His Word. Who is doing the speaking? None other than God Almighty. Finally, just where is all this going on? Wherever the Lord's Word is proclaimed. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20160911); Luke 15:1-10