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Not Even Close (full article)
Imagine a student ringing their parents after freshers week and saying this:
“Hi mum and dad. Uni is amazing, there’s so much to do, I feel so free and alive! Let’s talk about the elephant in the room; when you guys die, me and my brother will get half of everything you have. The only issue is I don’t want it when I’m 50 or 60, I want it now whilst I’ve got the time, the options, the energy and the looks to make the most of it! If you guys, could downsize your house, sell a car and few other luxuries and give me my share asap, then that would be amazing.”
Click here for the sermon audio.
It’s a similar scenario that Jesus sets out in his powerful parable in Luke 15 that has for centuries been known as ‘the parable of the prodigal son’. However, if we rewind to the start of the chapter and have a look at who Jesus was telling this parable to, we’ll see that there’s much more to the story than we first think.
The scene is set with two simple sentences:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying,“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
There are two main groups mentioned here. Let’s take a closer look at them:
Tax Collectors and Sinners
Though the Jewish people in Jesus’ time would have accepted that everyone is sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness, they still labeled a group of people as ‘Sinners’. These were people for whom their sin was the thing that defined them. They were regarded as the lowest class of society who deliberately and persistently flaunt the rules and expectations that held the community together. They were people in a dangerous downward cycle of harmful behaviour; like prostitutes who felt unable to escape from their means of scratching out a living - trapped by how others perceived them. Tax Collectors were lumped together with the ‘Sinners’; though they were educated, professional people - they had chosen money over community, and were regarded as traitors who did the Romans dirty work of collecting tax. In that place of feeling like things couldn’t get any worse, it became easy to cheat and defraud their fellow Jews to skim some money off the top.
Stuck in this downward spiral with their sin defining them, they were drawn to Jesus because he looked at them and spoke to them in the same way as he spoke to everyone else. There’s no partiality in Jesus, and he is drawn to those who want to hear.
Scribes and Pharisees
In contrast the scribes and Pharisees hadn’t come to ‘hear’ Jesus, they had come to critique. These guys get very bad press amongst Christians, and that’s often justified; but it’s important that we don’t tar them all with the same brush, Jesus didn’t. Sometimes Jesus is very blunt and harsh with them in response to their arrogance and self-righteous attitudes (Matt 23:23-24), on other occasions He takes time to reason with them and steer them towards the truth. The Pharisees were ordinary hard-working people, with normal jobs, who had risen through the ranks by studying hard and didn’t believe that people should be in positions of power just because of their wealth or who their parents were. They also believed that all the laws in the Old Testament about holy living weren’t just for some religious elite, but were for everyone. So far, so good, but where they went wrong was to try to motivate people to live holy lives by ‘showing them up’; setting lots of little rules and living is such a pious way that other people felt bad by comparison. Unlike being a Pharisees, being a scribe was a full-time profession. They main duties were to write legal contracts and teach the Old Testament law in synagogues.
Jesus hears their grumblings about eating with Sinners, and turns tell them three parables, wanting them to see that they are not even close when it comes to understanding what’s wrong with the world and the only way that it can be solved.
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:3-10)
It’s Worse Than You Think
These parables are a passion appeal from Jesus to help the scribes and Pharisees see that people can’t be changed by setting rules and making them feel guilty for not keeping them. That would be like giving a map and a complex set of directions to a lost sheep.
The problem is far more complex than they knew. In giving three pictures of lost things, Jesus is sharing a multi-dimensional understanding of what is wrong with people. Take for example a man who is regularly angry and abusive towards those closest to him. Why is he like this? Is it…
1) Because of genetics? There’s something in his DNA that has means he reacts angrily because of a chemical imbalance in his brain - as in the sheep who is hard-wired to seek grass even if it means going half-way down a treacherous cliff to get it.
2) Someone’s elses fault? Maybe it’s because of poor parenting or abuse as a child - in the same way the the coin was ‘mismanaged’ by its guardian.
3) Something spiritual? Maybe there’s something wrong with him that doesn’t have a physical root or explanation. Is there a selfish pride that leads him on a downward spiral of poor decisions that harm others - as in the rebellious son in the third parable?
By telling them three parables, Jesus is saying that sin is deeply complex. It is inborn in you, it is magnified by sinful treatment, and it is deepened and shaped by your own choices. Moreover, Jesus is telling them that the fatal wound in people can’t be self-cured; people can contribute about as much to their salvation as sheep or a coin can to their rescue.
It’s Not Just ‘Them’
In painting the picture of lost people being like lost sheep, Jesus would probably have made the scribes and Pharisees think of Isaiah 53:6:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Gently, Jesus is helping them to see that he’s not just talking about ‘younger brother’ rebellious types. He’s also telling these ‘older brother’ religious types that they are just as lost. As He gets to the second parable about the coin, it’s clear that Jesus is drawing the attention away from the lost things and towards the owner and rescuer.
The God of Grace and Joy
I love the line in the first parable that describes the Shepherd as one who will search for the sheep ‘until he finds it’. Until he finds it; full commitment; failure not an option; nothing held back.
The only way for us to be rescued from the complex sin that holds in a death-grip, is for someone, motivated by love, to put everything on the line in order to search and rescue.
Jesus is shepherd who was willing to take the full weight and burden of our rescue on his shoulders; giving everything for us, enduring the cross and bearing the wrath so that we would never have to. Salvation is given to us as a free gift, dependent on Jesus’s work alone.
In hearing the grumbling of the religious leaders, Jesus must have been grieved. People would have looked to these people to understand what God is like, and here they are skulking around as miserable grumblers. I think that’s why Jesus mentions joy and rejoicing so much in these two parables. A short time after telling these parables, Jesus knew that he would have to endure the cross, but as Hebrews 12:2 says he was happy to do this ‘for the joy set before Him’. He was looking ahead to a time when sinners could be made new and enjoy the love and fellowship that He had been enjoying with Father and Spirit for eternity. He wants people to realise that God is a happy God. The Father gives us the joy of adoption with ungrudging delight!
Once lost, now found. Jesus is the God who brings out complete change and new identity in an instant. All we need to do is hear with faith, express this faith in repentance, and then we receive the joy of adoption and the incredible indwelling of The Helper - the Holy Spirit who empowers a new life where our sin now longer defines and confines us.
1) Is there anything from Sunday that God really highlighted for you or that you’re not sure of?
2) Are you or have you ever been defined and confined by a bad reputation?
3) What defines you most now? Your job? Your relationship/family status? Your identity in Christ?
4) Are the broken and marginalised attracted to you? Are you drawn to them?
5) Do you tend to fixate of small things or slip into trying to earn your salvation like the scribes and Pharisees? (read Matt 23:23-24 if you have time)
6) Do you regard God as a happy God? Do you know in your gut that the Father rejoices over you? Can others see evidence of this joy in you? (read Zephaniah 3:17 if you have time)