17th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 15:1-10

Today’s passage in Luke seems to find Jesus once again as the subject of criticism and complaining for the religious leaders of his day. He’s been hanging out with sinners, healing people on the Sabbath, and saying crazy things about what it takes to be his disciple, and they are not happy.

So Jesus does what he so often does, and tells a parable. The first part involves a lost sheep and the second, a lost coin. Each part is structured similarly:
he first focuses on the “one” thing lost,
then on the seeker of the lost thing,
then on the call for friends and neighbors to rejoice once the lost thing has been found,
then concludes with the comment of there being joy in heaven over the sinner who repents.

These are simple stories about lostness and the remedy of repentance. Or are they? They could certainly be about how happy God is when a sinner repents but that left me with a bit of a disconnect if they are really offered in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling against him because he welcomes sinners and eats with them.

If Jesus is trying to address their complaints, I don’t think he’s trying to say, “Hey guys, we’re on the same side. I’m trying to get people to repent too.”

The first reason for this is because of their vastly different ways of viewing God. One theologian I’ve been reading says that we see things not as they are, but as we are, so it shouldn’t surprise us that repentance for the religious of the day was about getting it right by following the Law. They focused on sin so they would know what to repent of before God. God was a being demanding subservience not restoration.

Jesus on the other hand has a completely different view of things. In his stories he gives examples of two people going to ridiculous extremes to recover what was lost. The shepherd leaves his flock of 99 unprotected and goes off in search of the one. The woman loses one tenth of her wealth, diligently searches until she finds it then calls together her friends and neighbors to help her celebrate, which we can assume would cost her some of the money she just found.

Notice Jesus has a completely different take on how God operates. He’s not off in the distance keeping score of how many times someone blew it. He’s the one actively engaged in looking for the one that is lost. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the next story in this chapter is The Prodigal Son.

The theme seems to be pretty clear. It’s not about what we can do to get God to forgive and restore us. It’s about God initiating whatever it takes to come get us and bring us back. This of course, would not sit well with the professional religious because it challenges their entire system of how to come to God.

Not only that, but Jesus takes it one step further and says not only is God out there actively searching for us but is primed and ready to party when we are found. That is a huge change in perspective. God is not someone merely to be appeased. God is the one initiating and then rejoicing when a sinner is found.

Now it sounds like God is doing everything for us but then why does Jesus say at the end of each vignette that the joy in heaven is over the one sinner who repents? Good question, glad you asked.

To quote another favorite theologian: repentance can indeed be the mending of one’s ways and moral reform, but the chief characteristic is a turning around, a change in perspective, a recognition, to bring us full circle. Now who in this Gospel reading is Jesus trying to give a different perspective to? Well, that would be the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders, the ones who have it all together and are the righteous (at least in their own eyes).

Maybe being lost is about more than whether or not we are the sinner or the righteous one. Maybe being lost is less about what we do and more about who we are. If being lost is the prerequisite for God to mow down everything in his way to come find us, and then when we’re found to throw a party that makes the angels dance, then let me be one of the lost.

Now look I’m not saying that what we do and how we live isn’t important; it is. But what if our perspective changes from doing what’s right because we’re going to get punished if we don’t, to doing what’s right because God is crazy in love with us and just itching to throw a party every time we come home. And PS, when we can’t find our way home, it is God that comes to get us.

One way feels heavy and kind of impossible. The other way feels joyful and like we can’t really lose, unless of course, we decide that we don’t need God to come find us, or don’t want him to. Bottom line though, there’s one thing I want you to walk away with today and it’s not whether you’re a sinner or whether you’re righteous; whether you’re lost or not.  It’s the image of God looking for you, not ever giving up until you’re found, and then throwing a party for the sheer joy of having you back. If that’s a change in perspective, a recognition, a turning around from what you thought before, then it is by definition repentance. May we all be willing to do so! Amen.