"there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Lk.15:10
Sinners Lost and Sinners Found.
This chapter contains some of the best known and most loved stories that Jesus ever told. There are three stories in this particular chapter though they ought really to be taken together as they form just one parable with one clear message.
And what is that message?
It is that sinners are lost but Jesus wants to find them and will do what it takes to do so! That alone should make us want to pay careful attention for the Bible teaches us that we are all spiritually lost we all need finding.
Of course not everyone is prepared to admit that and some people will go to extraordinary lengths to try to maintain that they are OK, that they are fine as they are. Such folk will miss out on the love and grace that Jesus offers them – don’t be like them but rather listen to what Jesus has to say and accept the salvation he offers you.
The Circumstances of this Story-telling Episode
Sometimes the chapter divisions in our Bibles help us and sometimes they don’t – you know trust that there is nothing inspired about these divisions they are simply a way designed to help us find our way around our Bibles. Archbishop Stephen Langton is thought to have been the first to introduce the chapter divisions that we have in our Bibles today – he did so in the 12 th century. It was not until the 16 th century that these chapters were further divided up into verses.
The very last phrase of ch.14 helps explain just why Luke chose to record Jesus’ stories.
Jesus had wound up his teaching on the open road with the invitation:
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Now here in ch.15 we are immediately confronted with two contrasting groups: one group want to hear what Jesus has to say while the other if they listen at all it is only to pick holes in what he has to say.
The first group was made up of what might look at first sight like very unlikely candidates: it was made up of tax collectors and sinners
Tax collectors worked in harmony with the Roman occupying forces and generally exploited their own people collecting more than was necessary and lining their own pockets with the excess. You can imagine how popular they were for such disloyal practice – they were the Quislings of their day. They were lumped together with another category of folk simply called "sinners". These were ordinary folk who had given up any pretence of righteousness – they weren’t perfect and they didn’t pretend otherwise. The more religious classes looked down on them and despised them for making no effort to be any different.
This group of unsavoury characters heard about Jesus, heard some of his teaching and wanted to hear him again and again. They didn’t simply draw near to him on one occasion but this had become a repeating pattern – they kept on drawing near to Jesus to hear him.
And what was more as they came they found themselves welcomed and valued. They had never felt that from their self-righteous religious leaders who avoided having any contact with them as far as they could. But this man was different. Jesus received them and was happy to eat with them – they had not come across a spiritual man like him and they couldn’t hear enough from him.
The second group of people consisted of some Pharisees and some of experts in religious law. When they saw this type of crowd coming to Jesus and him not trying to avoid them they were horrified and they began to grumble and complain among themselves. Their grumbling was derisory and negative and yet what they said was true, wonderfully true!
"This man receives sinners and eats with them."
That’s what they said and they thought it was awful. But how wonderful it should be for us all to know that Jesus receives sinful men and women! Let us realise just how wonderful it is that Jesus is called the friend of sinners!
Jesus welcomed sinners! Of course he did! Wasn’t that the very reason why he had come? And if anyone wanted to be in sympathy with heaven, like these Pharisees for example, then he would want to do exactly the same thing!
The Pharisees thought Jesus condoned sin when he welcomed the sinner but that was not the case. When Jesus welcomed sinners he was not somehow expressing approval of their wrong behaviour but he was reaching out to seek to transform broken lives.
Do you remember what Levi the tax-collector did when Jesus called him? He didn’t feel encouraged to go on living in the same old way but we read that "he left all and followed Jesus" (Lk.5:28).
Later we will come across the story of another dishonest tax collector who went by the name of Zacchaeus. When he met Jesus and Jesus ate with him in his home Zacchaeus was never the same again – greed and selfish dishonesty gave place to uprightness and joyful generosity.
Over and over it was the same story – a genuine encounter with Jesus led to radical and fundamental change in a person’s life. Yes, Jesus welcomed sinners, not to leave them in their sin but to bring about new life. An essential element in all three stories that Jesus was at pains to point out is the matter of repentance. It was important then and it remains important today.
What, if anything, do you know practically of genuine repentance in your life?
In short Jesus saw sinners as people who needed his transforming power and he could only do them good if he came into real contact with them.
The self-righteous on the other hand saw them as a lost-cause to be shunned and ignored and they were horrified that Jesus did not share their opinion.
It was this that prompted Jesus to tell the parable that fills this chapter – it is a three-fold story all about lostness.
This morning we will look together at the two shorter stories – the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin – leaving to a later occasion the third story about the Lost Sons or, as it is better known, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Lost Sheep
The story is a simple one and easy to understand isn’t it?
Jesus doesn’t content himself with telling it as it is here but invites his hearers to think for themselves. If they put themselves into the story he was telling would they act in any other way from the principal actor? Would you?
Here are the details:
A man has a flock of 100 sheep. At the end of the day he counts them and gets to 99. One of them is missing. He probably did a quick recount to be sure and yes, there were only 99 one was definitely missing.
He was faced with a couple of options now. On the one hand he could say well, I’ve still got 99 let’s not worry about the other one. Or he could do as he did – he could set out to look for the one that had got lost.
Wouldn’t you do that? Jesus asked. And surely the answer is yes. We don’t like to lose things and generally make quite considerable efforts to find lost things don’t we?
So he leaves the 99 in the open countryside and heads off to track down just that one sheep that isn’t there.
The search may have been long and protracted but he won’t give up. At last he finds the sheep and he’s so pleased. It’ll require further effort to bring it home but he ties its feet together and lifts the animal onto his shoulders – what effort that takes but he doesn’t mind for he’s overjoyed to have found his lost sheep.
The shepherd who had initiated the search now carries the sheep back home and as soon as he gets there he’s calling together his friends and neighbours to celebrate with him. Why? Because the sheep that was lost has been found! It is a time for rejoicing.
Parables are simple stories with simple themes illustrating greater truths. Jesus point is that as the return of a lost sheep was a cause of joy to its owner and his friends and neighbours so the return of a formerly lost sinner, just one repenting sinner, is a cause of great rejoicing in heaven. God is pleased!
v.7 "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."
If there was such rejoicing in heaven over the return of just one sinner then surely that was all the justification Jesus needed for welcoming sinners. After all he had come to seek and to save that which was lost and save them he would even if it meant hard work and even if it exposed him to the criticism of others who didn’t see things as he did.
But what are we to make about that reference to those "ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance"?
It is clear from the context that Jesus is contrasting the returning sinner with the Pharisees who considered themselves to be righteous. Jesus knew that there no such "righteous person" who had no need of repenting. He and he alone was without sin and he had come into the world precisely because if he hadn’t none would ever have been saved. Jesus knew that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags"; he knew that even our very best was flawed. But sadly many refuse to believe what the Bible says so clearly at this point. The human heart longs to believe that it can please God by its own unaided efforts and these Pharisees had convinced themselves that was exactly what they had done. And so they were righteous in their own eyes and they didn’t think that they needed to repent of anything. They didn’t reach out a helping hand to struggling failures but rather thinking they had achieved their own safety by their own efforts it was up to others to do the same.
There will be no rejoicing in heaven over such.
Let me ask you a question. Do you think there is rejoicing in heaven over you?
If you come repentingly to Jesus then yes but if you refuse and continue to plough your lonely "I’m good enough for God" furrow no-one will ever rejoice in heaven over you!
The Lost Coin
Well if the story of the lost sheep concerned a man who went out to look for his lost sheep the story of the lost coin was about a lady.
Again Jesus invited his hearers to decide for themselves whether the course of action he was about to describe was appropriate, surely they would agree that they would behave in the same way.
Instead of one sheep lost from a hundred the details of this story talk about one coin lost from a collection of ten and the value of that coin was significant.
If you checked your coin collection and noticed that one was missing wouldn’t you want to look for that missing coin too? So the woman in the story takes the necessary steps. The interior of a house in the ME in Jesus’ day would generally be pretty dark with only small windows so what does she do? She takes a lamp and lights it. Then she takes a broom and sweeps hoping to dislodge the coin and make it visible to her searching gaze. It’s not just a cursory glance she casts but she is serious about this and she pursues her task diligently until... she’s found it. And just like her male counterpart in the earlier story she is filled with joy. In her turn she invites her lady friends to join her as she rejoices – friends and neighbours join in.
Yes, it’s the same lesson. Joy at the recovery of what had been lost. And Jesus doesn’t hesitate to drive home his point. His stories are about more than sheep or coins they point to something of far greater value and worth – the recovery of a lost person, a sinner is brought safely back into the fold. Just one repenting sinner causes great joy in heaven.
Don’t get bogged down with how a coin or a sheep can repent – these are evocative stories designed to make a point and make that point they do very well indeed.
The first two parts of the parable highlight the effort that was made to retrieve the thing that had been lost. We are meant to understand the effort that God in Jesus is prepared to make in order to find a lost sinner. For Jesus this entailed leaving the comfort of heavenly glory to live in a rotten sin-sick world. It meant putting up with indifference and growing hostility as he pursued his search. It meant rejection and suffering. It meant death on a cruel cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. That was the effort Jesus made to find out and save lost sinners. Are you worth it? Have you responded to such effort?
"Which of you...?" Jesus asked as he began each of his stories.
Which of you will repent and return to the fold? We don’t have to do the seeking – Jesus has done that. We don’t have to engage in some diy spiritual makeover project to try to make ourselves acceptable to God. But we must come in repentance and in faith.
Repentance means telling God that we have finally realised that he was right all along and it was we who had gone astray as we each deliberately chose our own path to follow and got ourselves hopelessly lost. We tell him we’re sorry and humbly ask for forgiveness.
And can we be sure of how he will respond to us?
Yes, we can! He loves it when lost sinners are found. There will be rejoicing in heaven because Jesus receives sinful men and women.
Praise God that he does! Make sure that he receives you.