A sermon, based on Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2019
All the tax-collectors and sinners came to listen to (Jesus). The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
“A man is known by the company he keeps.” So, wrote the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop.(1) Centuries later, the olden English proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
These wise words, when stated positively or, at least, neutrally, make pretty much the same point. People of similar interests and characteristics tend to associate with one another. But usually the interpretation is more negative; more in line Benjamin Franklin’s observation, “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”(2)
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, the religious leaders vilify Jesus for the company he keeps, the birds with whom he flocks, the dogs with whom he lies and, thus, the flies with which he rises.
Now, we, as followers of Jesus, might rush to our Lord’s defense, pushing back against those Pharisees and scribes and any in our time who, with shrill voices and sternly pointed fingers, cast judgment on “those people.” For we, steeped in our Christian doctrine, know, as Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”(3) Thus, in the words of Jesus, we dare not judge any other, lest we be judged.(4)
However, in Jesus’ day, there were those who were believed to have violated God’s ways so habitually that their transgressions were considered not merely circumstantial, inadvertent acts at given moments, here or there, but rather characterological, inevitable expressions of their nature. And, in particular, tax-collectors – who, selling-out as collaborators with the Roman Empire, imposed and collected monies from their own people, at times, more than was due and pocketing the difference – were judged as arch-sinners. (And, not being a betting man, but I’m willing to bet that each of us, now, in our day, could name someone or a type of someone whom we might consider to be an arch-sinner.)
Nevertheless, more to the point, Jesus can take care of himself. For Jesus, characteristically, doesn’t change the subject. He elevates it. Taking the issue, the argument to another, higher plane to the divine image of life and relationship as God intended. A life and relationship where all are kindred spirits, for all are created by God. A life and relationship of care and compassion among like souls; for all are made in the likeness of God. A life and relationship in which none is least, last, and, surely, never lost, for all are loved by God.
So, Jesus tells two parables of a shepherd with a hundred sheep, who, losing one, leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the one, and of a woman with ten coins, who, losing one, searches for the lost coin. Both, finding the one lost, call together friends and neighbors who rejoice.
the shepherd, scrambling over the hilly Judaean hillside, braving the encounters with predators, in a desperate, perhaps, in the light of reason, hopeless, against all odds search for one lost sheep…
and the woman, lighting a lamp, for night had come, not waiting until morning light, and sweeping her house in search of one coin…
– is the quintessential image of God who always has the Divine eye open, looking for the lost.
I must digress, for a sudden thought occurs…
For the past forty-seven years, since my sophomore year in college, I have read and studied the Bible daily. Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me how I always can find and see something new (or, better said, through God’s Spirit, “something new” is revealed to me!). And, sometimes, the “something new” is old, that is, I noticed it before, but not in a newly understood way of meaning.
This morning, as I read our passage from Luke, I noticed what I consider the most important word: When!
“When (the shepherd) has found (the sheep)…”
“When (the woman) has found (the lost coin)…”
No one – not ourselves, even at our worst and not any other soul or group of souls, even when we point our fingers of judgment considering them to be at their worst…to be the worst – ever is wholly lost. For our God, the Lover of the lost, is an ever-searching God. And when God searches, there will come that moment when what…when who is lost will be found.
And for that, let us say, “Thanks be to God!”
(1) Aesop (c. 620-564 BCE), credited with composing a number of stories, collectively known as Aesop’s Fables.
(2) Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790); attributed to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (published 1732-1758).
(3) Romans 3.23, my emphasis
(4) Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7.1-2).
The Shepherd’s Lost Sheep, Harold Copping (1863-1932)
Parable of the Lost Coin, James Tissot (1836-1902)