The 15th chapter of Luke is a pivotal and compelling bit of storytelling because there are three stories told sequentially, each illustrating the same lesson. In many ways, Luke 15 has been considered “a gospel within the gospel” because it so typifies the message that Jesus embodied.
The three stories he told are in response to how he is received by the Pharisees who note that, ” … a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently … the Pharisees and religion scholars growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.'” (Luke 15:1-3)
The notion of grace and forgiveness is uniquely divine. Only in the mind of God could such an idea come among us. It’s not in our nature to think up the idea of grace. In order to see that the divine message of grace gets shared, we have to treat the subject with care so that our own fallen natures don’t corrupt that which is divine.
The church has always wanted to intervene with the idea of grace and forgiveness by making the church a ticket booth to God’s grace. In order to receive grace, you need a ticket that only the church can dispense.
That’s the human twist we give to grace: We take that which is free and liberating and we make it cost something. In order to obtain the ticket of salvation, you must meet the prior approval of the church. We question whether the grace of God is enough for certain sins. We expect that you clean up appropriately before receiving God’s grace and afterwards that you meet our expectations of behavior and belief.
That’s why Jesus had to tell these stories about a lost coin, a lost sheep and ultimately a lost son. Why, we’ve even gotten the nature of the stories confused. They are not stories of things that are lost; they are stories of things that are found.
Jesus wanted in the deepest way possible for the Pharisees to discover how they had missed the point of the message. The point was God is out on the front porch looking for any sinner who realizes they need acceptance and forgiveness. He is out there waiting and willing to offer grace to them all, no matter how lost they have been. He has already paid the price for their sins … all they need to do is simply come home and receive it. That’s our message, too, if we are willing to hear it for ourselves.
We see ourselves mirrored in the lives of the two sons. We’re either the younger lost son who took everything that was due him and left, or we’re the older son who obediently stayed at home and yet resented the father who gladly welcomed the wayward boy.
We’re both lost and broken and we come to realize it, or we’re lost even while we’re obediently trying to earn our acceptance by being good enough. I guess ultimately in the good grace of God, there is even a grace for us lost older sons who are lost in our goodness, our niceness and our morality.
That’s what Robert Capon calls, “being a bookkeeper.” He says, “The human race is positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores.” You stay at home, near God, where it is safe and predictable. What you don’t realize is that, given time, your bookkeeping behavior has, in fact, become your god, and you, too, are far away from “home.”
Grace is a kind of mercy that we in the church have had a notoriously difficult time handling. We’ve taken that which is free and we’ve made it something to earn. It’s sad in a way because we first come to God seeking forgiveness and the desire to be whole. And then, after experiencing the liberation that only God can bring, we go out and get lost all over again.
Seminary Professor Tom Long tells of one of his seminary students who went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and his father, who was a pastor in the inner city, related experiences of his own with his son.
About halfway into their run, they decided to call a local pizzeria to order their lunch to coincide with their arrival back home. A phone booth (remember those?) was on the corner and as they stopped, a homeless man approached them and asked for spare change.
The father reached into both pockets and pulled out all the change he had, offered it to the man and said, “Take what you need.”
The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “Okay, I’ll take it all,” and scooped the coins into his own hands.
It only took a second for the father to realize he now had no change for the phone so he called out, “Pardon me, I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?”
The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins and said smilingly, “Here, take what you need.”
Long claims we’re all homeless prodigals and beggars. “Head home,” he says, “and expect nothing. Be astonished beyond all measure when the dancing begins, the banquet table is set and the voice of God says, ‘Here, take what you need.'”
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.