Lost and Found
Our text contains two parables dealing with the common experience of lost and found. Just as the parable 2 weeks ago was not about how to give and go to banquets, so these parables aren't about how to find lost sheep or lost coins. These parables are the answer to the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttering, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Jesus answers this accusation by talking about the experience of loosing and finding that everyone knows. When preaching this parable, some pastors give vivid portrayals of the shepherd pushing through briars, walking narrow canyon trails, wearing himself out searching for the sheep. They picture the sheep as stranded on a cliff. This makes for entertaining preaching, but it's not true to the text.
The point is that a shepherd knows when one of his sheep is missing and goes looking for it. The sheep doesn't know it's lost. You've probably seen that with a pet. The dog bursts out your front door and down the street. You find him sometime later happily moving from scent to scent without a care in the world. In case you doubt this is the point, consider the lost coin. A coin is an inanimate object; it doesn't know when it's lost or when it's found.
The sadness of losing is all on the owner's part. He knows when something belonging to him is lost. Even if no one else realizes or cares about the loss, the owner does. Doesn't it pain you when you lose a favorite pen, a particular piece of paper, or even your car keys? The Pharisees and teachers of the law didn't care that sinners were lost to God. They didn't feel any pain over them. No these open sinners were reaping the harvest of their sinful sowing. The rabbis that the Pharisees and teachers of the law followed had a saying, "There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world."
Jesus has sadness for all lost souls because they belong to Him. Jesus came into the world "to save sinners" said Paul in the Epistle reading. At the time our text takes place Jesus was on His last journey to Jerusalem. He knew He would be rejected by the Church, crucified by the State and die because this was the price to be paid for the sins of the world, this was the price to satisfy God's wrath against sinners. In the text, Jesus is in the midst of purchasing and winning the souls of all sinners. He is buying and paying for sins with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He is paying for the sins of sheep that are lost but happy in their sins. He is paying for sinners who are so dead in their sins they don't even know they're lost. Jesus is pained by all lost souls or even just one because He came into the world to save them all.
Jesus was even pained over the lost in the Church itself. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were prominent churchmen. Ordinary church goers were in awe of their piety and devotion. If anyone could be saved the Pharisees and the scribes would be. That's what they thought too. They thought their devotion, piety, and doing the best to keep the law would get them into heaven. They were wrong. Jesus several times described them as trying to justify themselves. You are either justified by what Jesus did in your place, His keeping of the law, His paying for your sins, or you're not justified, forgiven, or found at all.
Jesus is saddened by the lost in the Church. The parable right after our text proves it. It's called the parable of the prodigal son, but it's really the parable of the 2 sons. The prodigal is the open sinner who is lost to his father's house because he leaves. The older brother is the one who is lost in His father's house because he sees his father as a taskmaster. He is the one who complains about giving parties for prodigals when they're found.
In lost and found, you always have the owner upset over his loss, and you usually have an anxious search. What is lost doesn't anxiously seek to be found. The owner does. He may enlist others to help, but the burden of finding is only on the owner. You've probably had this happen to you. Someone you know loses something, and they enlist your help in finding it. After awhile, probably not all that long, you're ready to give the item up as lost. What is lost isn't as important to you as it is to the owner.
It would be wrong to picture the Pharisees as not searching for lost souls at all. They looked alright, but only with the law. "Reform or be damned" was the message they preached to sinners. There had to be a change in behavior before the lost could be found. Repent now and that would cause God to forgive you. Of course, if this is the case your salvation, your being found is only as sure as your repentance. And how sure is that? Focus on anything going on in you repenting, believing, loving, and it quickly withers. But doesn't Jesus too say the found are those who repent? It's not repentance that's the issue, but the place of it. If repentance is what causes God to forgive than Paul was wrong when he said, "While we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly. While we were still enemies Christ died for us."
The Pharisees and scribes searched for the lost with the law saying, "Repent; be different, then you can be saved." Jesus searches for the lost with law and Gospel. He came saying, "Repent," but His next words were not "change your behavior," but "the kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus left no one living in their sins; He gave no one permission to continue in slavery to sin. But He did go to where they were. He put Himself under the law obligating Himself to keep what no sinner can and to pay what they owed. The sins of tax collectors, prostitutes, gossips, thieves, unbelievers all had to be paid for. Jesus went to the cross bearing the guilt of them all, of us all.
The Pharisees of all ages preach for sinners to leave their sin behind; then they can come. But where does the power to leave sin behind come from? From us sinners? From being scared so badly by the fires of hell you'll leave anything? No, says Paul in Romans 3, "It is the goodness of God that leads you to repentance." It's the grace of God in Jesus that gives people power over sins. It's Jesus calling, "Come unto Me" just as you are without one plea - even the plea to do better that attracts sinners.
When you've lost something, you are sad at the lost, you search for it diligently, and you have joy in finding. Jesus depicts the owner of the lost sheep inviting the whole community to celebrate with him when he finds it. The same is true with the woman who finds her coin. Again this is not instructing us to give special dinners when new members are received. The point is joy and celebration is the natural reaction for anyone who finds what they thought was lost. We do that even with ordinary objects. Not just the expensive glasses we find, but the cheap pen that we like. Not just with the valuable piece of jewelry, but the bolt we dropped in the grass.
So how come the Pharisees and teachers of the law mutter at the lost being found, mutter at Jesus eating a meal with them? How come they not only won't do as the angels in heaven do over one lost sinner being found, they don't even do as ordinary people do over finding lost items? Can you see this is the question that hangs over the whole text? It's not about a good shepherd climbing over hill and dale to find the poor terrified lamb. It's not about how scary or hopeless it is to be a lost sheep. If that were the point, why tell the parable about a lost inanimate object?
With every Bible text, you have to pick your place in it. From where will you hear it? Are we to put ourselves in the place of the shepherd or the woman looking for the coin? There is really not much there. It is truism that shepherds look for lost sheep and people look for lost coins. Are we to put ourselves in the place of the lost sheep and coin? You could do that. But again the reaction of the lost sheep or coin is not even a point let alone the main point of the parables. Their point is that heaven rejoices over lost souls being found, so how come the Pharisees and teachers of the law don't?
How about you? Put yourself in the place of the Pharisees, see yourself in this text muttering, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." And once you see yourself there, realize that you must also put yourself outside of heaven. That's how both stories end. All heaven is rejoicing at sinners being found. If you're not rejoicing, you're somewhere else other than heaven. This was true for the Pharisees and teachers of the law in our text, and that's the irony of it all. They thought, and so did the ordinary people, that they were certainly in heaven. They were inside of heaven because they detested sin and sinners, but they weren't in God's heaven where sinners are welcomed and dined with.
How about you? I'll tell you where you're getting tripped up. You are zealous to defend the Lord's honor. You don't want it to appear that He condones sin. Of course not, but consider the Pharisees and scribes muttering. They mutter, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Now then, does Jesus welcome you and eat with you at this table to leave you in your sins? Does He give you His Body and Blood so your body and blood can stay enslaved to sin? Does Jesus welcome you into His arms to leave you filthy and unwashed? No, no, and no.
Even as a found sheep is washed and a found coin is polished, so found sinners are washed and polished: that is they are sanctified. Daily they pick up their cross and follow Jesus. Daily they lose self. Daily they put off the old Adam and claim the new. But, and here's the point, none of this is where the joy is. The Lord's joy is not in what sinners look like after they've been cleaned up. The Lord's joy is in finding lost sinners and eating with them. May His joy be our joy. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost 17 (20070923); Luke 15:1-10