Luke 15:1-10; 1 Peter 5:6-11; Micah 7:18-20
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther famously wrote in Latin “pecca fortiter,” which, in English, is commonly translated, “Sin boldly.” Now, it is true that many Christians have misinterpreted Luther’s meaning in these words as being an endorsement, even an encouragement, to sin. Indeed, the saying can be found upon numerous t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers, and is heard uttered by too many a Lutheran in justification of their beer, scotch, and cigar smoking habits, or worse. However, all of this is to entirely miss Luther’s point. For, pecca fortiter, sin boldly, is not an endorsement or an encouragement to sin, but it is, rather, a confession that one is a sinner – a confession made in steadfast faith that it is only sinners that can, indeed, be saved.
That Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them,” is what the Pharisees and scribes were offended by in today’s Gospel. Therefore, Jesus told them three parables about how important, how precious, and how dear the lost truly are to His Father that they, too, might confess their sins boldly and find mercy and forgiveness that makes the angels of heaven rejoice.
Jesus’ first parable is quite simply absurd. He asked, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” The answer is simple: No man would do that! No man would do that because, a man is going to count his cost and conclude that it is better to keep what he has than to worry about the one that he has strayed away. But, God’s ways are not man’s ways, and His thoughts are not man’s thoughts. God doesn’t view you as His possessions, but as His children. He doesn’t want to own you and have your obedience because you are a slave, but He wants you to know and to receive His love, and to love Him in return by being obedient and by loving and serving others.
You see, the Pharisees and the scribes were the undershepherds of the children of Israel. It was their job to care for God’s people by teaching them His commandments and by guiding them in repentance to forgiveness. But, for the most part, they were bad shepherds, for they were most interested in merely keeping enough of God’s sheep in the flock that they could feel good about themselves and look good before the eyes of others. They were not at all concerned with those who strayed or fell away. Thus, when Jesus had the shepherd in His parable leave the ninety-nine to go and seek for the one that was lost, they were surely offended and thought Him absurd. And, when Jesus said to them, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” surely they were outraged, thinking, “What kind of heaven must this be, where the righteous are disparaged and sinners are exalted?” For, they considered themselves righteous and worthy of higher regard, and they understood all too well His meaning.
Jesus told this parable that they would see themselves as the shepherd who had lost the LORD’s sheep that were entrusted to their care. He wanted them to see the great responsibility that they had been given, that the sheep, the people, over whom they had been given charge, were not their own, so that they would become humbled and confess their sins in repentance, that the angels of heaven might rejoice over them too. For, it would be humbling for a shepherd to make a big deal of the fact that he had lost a sheep. As absurd as it would be that he would leave the ninety-nine to seek and find one lost sheep, even more absurd it would be for the shepherd to announce this publicly to his friends and neighbors when it was found. Jesus wanted the Pharisees and scribes, His undershepherds, not to boast in their righteousness and good works, but, rather, in confession of their sin and weakness. He wanted them to sin boldly – to boldly confess their own sin and lostness – that He might rejoice over them and carry them safely to His Father’s home as their Good Shepherd.
Then, immediately thereafter, Jesus launched into another parable of absurdity, though absurd in a somewhat different way. This time it’s a woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins. It should be understood that these coins were very valuable, each one equaling a day’s working wage. Moreover, it would have been most unusual for a woman in Jesus’ day to have responsibility for that kind of wealth – the implication being that her husband put great trust in her to keep it safe. These cultural insights come from Kenneth Bailey, and, assuming that he is correct, they shed much light on this woman’s predicament and her diligent searching of the house when she lost one of those precious coins – for, she had lost an entire day of her husband’s working wage. What would he say when he returned home? Would he throw her out of the house and disgrace her? He trusted her, and she had failed him so badly. This would be a scandal, not only in her home, but in her community, for she would bring disgrace, not only to herself, but to her husband and their relatives for his misplaced trust in her.
With this understanding, it’s not so absurd that the woman lit every light and the house and searched and searched until she found the coin that she had lost. Instead, what is absurd is that, when she found it, she called all her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” What is absurd is that she did not try to hide or cover over her guilt and shame, but, rather, that she shouted it from the rooftop, saying, “I failed! I lost my husband’s wage with which he trusted me! I sinned! But, I have found the coin that I had so foolishly lost! Come, rejoice with me!” To put it another way, she sinned boldly – the woman boldly confessed her sin and lostness. And, once again, Jesus adds, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
As it goes, all three of Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 are about repentance: The Lost Sheep; The Lost Coin; and The Lost Son (commonly known as The Prodigal Son). Indeed, they are much less about that which is lost, the sheep, the coin, and the son, as they are about the one who has done the losing and the humbling, public, and even absurd actions they took to find what they had lost, and then, the selfless rejoicing in the presence of everyone that they had found that precious thing or person that they had lost.
In His third parable, which was not read today – though which, ironically, is most appropriate for this Father’s Day – the parable of The Lost Son, the main figure is not the lost son, as is commonly supposed, but, rather, his absurd and prodigal father. Indeed, the father in the parable of The Lost Son is the consummate example the sacrificial selflessness and humility to which God has called all His children. From the beginning, and throughout this parable, the father does the most absurd things imaginable. First, he gives his younger son the inheritance he demanded. No first century Middle-Eastern father would do this. The request itself would be an insult meriting disownment by the father and banishment from his house. Nevertheless, though his son treated him as though he were dead, and though he had no regard for his older brother as the rightful heir, the father gives the boy what he asks. Then, after the boy squandered everything that he had and, effectively, sold himself into servitude in a foreign land doing unclean and disrespectful work, the father received him back into the family and restored him fully to all honor, rights, and privileges as his son. Jesus even heightens the absurdity of the father’s actions by having him see the boy coming from afar, run to him, and embrace him, clothe him, receive him, and restore him upon his confession of his sin, but before he could offer any pledge of work or service in return. Then, lastly, the father held a feast in celebration of the return and restoration of his lost son. It was the grandest of feasts to which the entire household and community were invited. He sent his servants to tell them all, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Who would do such an absurd thing? No one, according to man’s values and wisdom. And yet, this is precisely the kind of Father and Good Shepherd we all have in God. Reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness He showers upon you with no thought for Himself and with no concern for what men count as righteousness. Seeking and saving the lost – that is God’s kind of righteousness. That is why the angels of heaven rejoice at one sinner who repents, for that is the way of God and the nature of His kingdom. And, this was Jesus’ lesson to the Pharisees and scribes in His parables, and this is His lesson to you today: In Jesus, God the Father has come seeking His lost children. Therefore, the only way to be found is to be lost – that is, to confess that you are a lost, poor, and miserable sinner; that is, to sin boldly, to confess your sin boldly, with no care for how you are seen by others, but with confident faith and trust in the reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of your God, Father, and Shepherd in Jesus Christ.
For, in this last parable, we have a father who is looking to find not 1% of his flock, not 10% of his coins, but 100% of his two lost sons (Yes, there were actually two lost sons in that story!). Surely the Pharisees and the scribes knew well who the first lost son was, the scoundrel who treated his father so poorly and lost everything – they are the tax collectors and sinners that they despised. However, did they understand who Jesus implied by the second son, the son who self-righteously said to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends?” For, that elder son was meant to describe themselves, who took their heavenly Father for granted and despised the lost children of Israel whom the Father loved. They made excuses for their behavior and justifications for their lack of compassion and mercy. They clothed their dark hearts and deeds under a veil of false-righteousness. They did not sin boldly, but they sinned under cover of darkness, convincing themselves that they were not sinning at all.
All of this is to cause us to ponder the words of the Prophet today: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins in to the depths of the sea.”
Children of God, I encourage you to follow Luther’s exhortation and sin boldly. Do not sin in order to be forgiven – that would be an absurd blasphemy – but confess your sin boldly, in bold and confident trust and faith in God your heavenly Father who showers upon you reckless, foolish, absurd, and scandalous love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness through His Prodigal (that is Exceptional) Son Jesus Christ. Sin boldly as did so many whom Jesus forgave and healed as they cried, “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” For, only sinners can be saved; only the lost can be found. And, your Good Shepherd Jesus is present with you now to care for His sheep, to tend His sheep, and to feed His sheep, even as He is the self-offered fatted calf, sacrificed by His Father, that you may partake of the feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation, as a foretaste today, and but eternally in heaven. For, “This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.” This is most certainly true.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.