A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
September 15, 2013
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (NRSV).
Last week we took a slight detour to celebrate the end of our year-long, every-member mission trip, but this week we are back on the road with Jesus, listening to every word he says, watching every move he makes, and walking with him through this long section of Luke’s Gospel known as the Travel Narrative, from chapter 9, verse 53, through chapter 19, verse 27. Today we begin chapter 15, and we begin with the news that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, and that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Last week there was at least one person in worship who had never been to church in her life, so let me make this just as simple as I can. On one side there was a group of people coming near to Jesus to listen to him and on the other side there was a group of people who didn’t like that at all. You don’t have to know much about sinners and tax collectors or scribes and Pharisees to understand that. If Luke had said the Democrats were coming near to Jesus to listen to him and the Republicans were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes Democrats and eats with them,” you would get it. Or if he had said the Hokies were coming near to Jesus and the Wahoos were grumbling you Virginians, who know something about the rivalry between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, would get it. But if you had never been to church and never read the Bible you might wonder: who were these scribes and Pharisees, and who were these sinners and tax collectors, and why couldn’t they get along with each other?
So, let me give you a little bit of background.
Do you know how Christians are divided into all kinds of denominations—Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians? Well, the Pharisees were like that. They were a denomination of first-century Jews who were trying extra-hard to keep the Law of Moses—all 613 rules. And they spent a lot of time with the scribes because the scribes were experts in the law; they knew exactly how far you could walk on the Sabbath day or how much wood you could carry. And the Pharisees wanted to know that, because they didn’t want to break the law in any way. As much grief as we sometimes give them they were “the good guys.”
The sinners and tax collectors on the other hand, were not, at least not as far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned. I probably don’t even need to explain to you why they didn’t care for the tax collectors. You probably don’t either. But Alan Culpepper explains that the tax collectors in this story were actually toll collectors who “paid [the Roman government] in advance for the privilege of collecting tolls, so the system was open for abuse and corruption.”[i] They would sit in their toll booths and charge whatever they wanted, and since they weren’t usually natives of the area where they worked they didn’t care what the people thought. They only cared about getting rich, or at least that was their reputation. And as far as the sinners in this story are concerned, Culpepper says they would have included “not only persons who broke the moral laws but also those who did not maintain the ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees.”[ii] In fact the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word parash, which means “to separate.” They separated themselves from anything unclean or impure, which would have certainly included those sinners who were gathering around Jesus.
But I want to take a closer look at the word sinner, the way they used it then, and the way we use it today. The word Luke uses is hamartaloi, from the verb hamartano which means, literally, “to miss the mark.” Maybe you can picture somebody pulling back a bow, aiming the arrow at a target, letting it fly, and missing the bulls-eye by a good two feet. It’s not like he was trying to miss it; he just did. Some of us are sinners like that. We are trying really hard to be good, Christian people, we are aiming our lives in that direction, but often, in spite of our best efforts, we miss the mark—we sin.
But let me tell you something about sin.
I don’t want to say too much, because I’m planning to preach a whole series in March called “Taking Sin Seriously” and I don’t want to give it away. But if there is one thing that seems to have been true about sin from the very beginning it is this: sin separates. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, when they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, what did they do? They hid themselves. God came looking for them in the Garden but he couldn’t find them anywhere. It almost breaks your heart to think of him calling out to his old friend, “Adam? Adam! Where are you?” And who knows how long that went on before Adam finally blurted out, “Here I am.” And God said, “What were you doing? Why were you hiding?” And Adam said, “Well, I heard you walking in the Garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” And God said, “Who told you you were naked? Have you eaten the fruit of that tree?”
And then it all came out into the open.
But notice that God didn’t hide himself from Adam and Eve when they sinned; they hid themselves from him. That’s often how it is for us. When a child does something his mother told him not to do he might hide himself from her. Even if she doesn’t know about it he does, and he’s not eager to face her. He’s afraid she’ll see it in his eyes (mothers seem to have that ability). And then, when we get a little older and do something God told us not to do we might hide ourselves from him. Even if we could fool ourselves into thinking he didn’t know about it we do, and we are not eager to face him. We might stay out of church for a long time just because we’re afraid that if we went somebody would see it in our eyes. Sin separates. It separates us from God and it separates us from others. When Jesus said the Great Commandment was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself I think he might have added that sin is anything that keeps you from doing that—from loving God and loving others. It could be a little thing, just the point of a wedge going into one end of a log, but if you keep on hitting that wedge with a hammer, eventually it splits the log apart. And so it is with sin. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be a little thing. But over time those little things come between us and God, us and others, until eventually the relationship splits apart.
And some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There is someone you used to be close to you are not close to anymore, and you might not even be able to explain how it happened. A hurtful word here, a thoughtless deed there, and before you know it there is so much distance between you that you can’t imagine how to find your way back again. You are lost to each other. And sometimes it happens with God. Maybe there was a time when you felt especially close to him, when the two of you would take long walks together in the cool of the evening. But then you grew up, went your own way. Other things began to seem more important. And then one day you look up and realize you are miles away from God. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees grumbled. “Oh, no,” Jesus said. “You don’t understand. These people aren’t sinners. Not like that. They’re not unclean or impure. They’re just people who have gotten lost.”
But that’s not the way he said it.
Luke says that he told them a “parable,” which is a clue that Jesus is talking about the kingdom, and what makes perfect sense in the kingdom may not make perfect sense in the world. This, for instance: “Which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The answer of course is that none of them would do that. It would be foolish to leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness where they could easily wander off (or worse, be eaten by lions and bears) just to go running after one lost sheep. But in the kingdom it makes perfect sense, because the king of this kingdom doesn’t want anyone or anything to be lost. And so the shepherd goes tearing off across the hillsides calling for his little lost sheep, and when he finds it he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. “Look!” he says, “I found my sheep!” “Just so,” Jesus said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
And then he told the story of a woman who loses one coin out of ten and lights a lamp, sweeps the floor, and practically turns her house upside down to find it. When she does she invites her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her, and probably spends as much on the party as the coin was worth. “Just so, I tell you,” Jesus said, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And if you read on in Luke 15 you will find the story of a boy who got lost, repented, and came home, and whose father celebrated with the biggest party that had ever been thrown in those parts because his son, who was as good as dead, was alive; his son, who was lost and gone forever, had been found.
It’s only a parable, but again, when Jesus starts telling parables he starts speaking the language of the Kingdom, and what makes sense in the kingdom doesn’t always make sense in the world. This, for instance: throwing a huge party for a boy who has squandered his inheritance on riotous living. Or throwing the doors of the church open to sinners, to those who have somehow gotten lost from God and don’t know how to find their way back again. Or going out into every side street and every back alley in the city looking for them, searching frantically and never resting until we find them. That sort of thing doesn’t make much sense in the world, but it makes perfect sense in the kingdom, and if we are serious about bringing the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we will have to engage in just that kind of activity because the king of this kingdom doesn’t want anyone or anything to be lost.
And especially not you.
When I was in seminary I used to sit on the front pew of the chapel, so I could hear every word of the sermon, so I could get the “good stuff” as it came down. And once I heard a little, old, world-famous preacher named Fred Craddock talk about his sister. “We used to play hide-and-seek in the summertime,” he said. “Just about dusk, when the shadows were getting long. One time she was “it,” and I hid under the back steps of our house. Because I was small I could scrunch all the way up under there where my sister couldn’t see me. But I could see her. I peeked out through a crack and watched her walking around, looking for me.
“She walked all around the house, looked behind the bushes. I saw her walk down the path to the barn, look inside the barn, walk around behind it, and as she came back up the path I thought to myself, ‘She’ll never find me. She’ll never find me!’ And then, all at once, I thought, ‘She’ll never find me!’ So I stuck my toe out just enough for her to see, and when she got to the top of the path I wiggled it.
“She said, ‘One-two-three on Freddy!’ and I came out from under the steps pretending to be disappointed. ‘Aw, shucks,’ I said. ‘You found me.'”
And then Fred Craddock looked out at all of us who were sitting there in that chapel and said, “But what did I want? What did I really want?” And I knew the answer. Sitting there on the front pew it was all I could do to keep from shouting it out loud. “To be found!” I thought. “You wanted to be found!” And then it seemed he looked right at me, pointed his finger and said, “The same thing you want!”
And I almost burst into tears.
Either Fred Craddock knew me better than I thought he did or there is something in every one of us that is more lost than we know.
And more ready to be found.
[i] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 127.
[ii] Culpepper, p. 295.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.