Monday, July 21, 2008

Lost Sheep and Coins

Since I'm sitting at the mechanic's awaiting repairs, it seems like a good enough time to do some more blogging. And there was much rejoicing (yay!). Last time we looked at the setting of Luke 15, that many people were coming to Jesus, repenting of their sin, and turning to faith in God. The religious leaders, so overjoyed at seeing desperately lost sinners embracing the hope of the gospel, declared a feast throughout the land to proclaim the goodness of God and celebrate his grace. Er, no, that's not right. They actually hated what they were seeing, and started slandering the Lord in an attempt to discredit his ministry. Instead of being overjoyed at the sight of sinners repenting, they were resentful, spiteful, and even jealous. After all, they had worked their whole lives to show how good they were, while these sinners had been... well, openly sinning for so long. Yet Jesus, obviously a man of God, looked past the Pharisees (or even spoke to their condemnation) to bless the 'sinners' who simply repented. How unfair!

Jesus overhears their grumblings, and decides to make a decisive statement showing the full extent of their evil and folly. And he decides to do it by telling a series of parables which illustrate the way God treats repentant sinners - and highlights the wickedness of the Pharisaical response. Today we'll look briefly at the first two, before diving into the last in greater detail later.

So he told them this parable: "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? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his 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.

First up, a lost sheep. This parable is pretty straightforward: a shepherd loses a sheep, not an unusual occurrence seeing as how sheep are spectacularly stupid creatures. This would be a pretty clear illustration for the listeners, some of whom would be shepherds, and the others would at least be familiar with the profession. They would no doubt know what you do when a sheep gets separated from the herd: it will never find its way back on its own, so you leave the herd someplace safe and go find it. And when you do find it, you celebrate.

The lesson is obvious. If this is what you would do for something as insignificant as a single sheep out of a herd, and nobody would think it the least bit odd, how much more will God rejoice when something as valuable as one of his lost children is recovered?

One thing in this parable that often gives people problems is the mention of "ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Who is Jesus talking about here? From the context, it's clear he's talking about the Pharisees and scribes. But were they really righteous? Of course not, and this is shown very clearly later. At this point in the discourse, Jesus is saying it as a rhetorical device, and possibly sarcastically - they clearly thought of themselves as righteous, and saw no need for their own repentance, so Jesus for the moment takes their assumption and uses it against them. We see him doing the same thing in Matthew 9:10-13, where they complain about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responds that since they're apparently well, they don't need a doctor, but these sick people do. Again, Jesus is simply pointing out that, according to their view of things, they have no need for repentance or mercy, so why should they be surprised when he spends time calling those who do need it?

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? And 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 before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The second parable makes the point even more clearly. In this parable, the woman is most likely a widow, and all the money she has left is ten coins. Losing one coin - 10% of her entire net worth - is it conceivable that she wouldn't search for it like crazy? And when she finds it, how ecstatic must she be? Nobody would begrudge her for having tremendous joy and sharing that joy with others - she had lost something of tremendous value to her and found it again! How much more should we expect there to be joy when a lost sinner repents and returns to God?

And how wicked must a person be who would see this woman celebrating finding her lost coin, and instead of being happy for her, ridicules her for her joy, or hurls insults at her? Yet this is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with Jesus, who openly celebrated when sinners came to faith. And so in these two short parables, the Pharisees were shown to be thoroughly illogical, and utterly wicked as well.

Next time: we look at possibly the most famous parable (one so famous, people who have no idea what it's about refer to it all the time!), the Prodigal Son. Until then, a few questions for thought. What is your reaction when you see someone truly repent and come to faith? When you hear of thriving ministry at a different church - are you jealous more than you're joyful? Perhaps most importantly, do you remember that you were once the lost sheep or the lost coin, completely hopeless of ever returning to God? Have you forgotten that you once needed to repent every bit as much as the worst tax collector or sinner Jesus ever encountered? If you've come to faith, do you remember that, but for the grace of God, you'd still be lost and helpless, or have you started to think of yourself as if you were never lost and never needed to repent like "those people" do?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Divine 2x4

Do you ever get the feeling that God is trying to subtly get your attention on something by smacking you across the face with a divine two by four? Those times when the same topic comes up several times in rapid succession, and you get the feeling that maybe there's something God wants you to learn right now, and you can't move on until you do? Several weeks ago, my awesome hot wife and I were talking Bible, and somehow it got to Luke 15. That week I had an out-of-town job, and while waiting at the airport as my return flight kept getting pushed back, I went into a bookstore and started reading John MacArthur's A Tale of Two Sons, and exposition of Luke 15. That weekend we went to church to discover that the sermon was on Luke 15. So brilliant man that I am, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was something in there I needed to get hammered into my skull.

And that seems like a good place to kick off this shiny new blog, while it still has that new-blog smell.

Turn with me in your Bibles or interwebs to Luke 15. Jesus has been in public ministry "preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people", proclaiming the message "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mat. 4:23, 17). His message is one of repentance, forgiveness, and a call to radical discipleship. Contrary to the Pharisaical message that we are accepted by God on the basis of our good obedience (and the "sinners" are in such debt they might as well give up), Jesus was preaching the gospel - that we are all unworthy sinners, but in his incredible grace God has provided forgiveness, demanding repentance from our sin and embrace of the Son.

So we see that the "tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him". 'Sinners' refers to your general low-lifes; your drunks, prostitutes, and the like. Tax collectors were so low, they aspired to someday be considered sinners. These were the people who sold out their Jewish heritage and aligned themselves with the foreign conquerors, who used the threat of Roman force to extort money from their neighbors. They weren't exactly the most popular folk in Israel. And these were the people who, more than any other, were clamoring to get near to Jesus.

Now why would that be? Perhaps they had been so beaten down by the Pharisees and the reigning religious paradigm that they had given up hope. They knew they were such wretched sinners that they could never make themselves acceptable to God. So when Jesus came preaching the gospel, it gave them hope. Hope that they could be forgiven, accepted by God not of their own accord, but out of God's grace and mercy. For those who had been convicted of the depth of their sin (and make no mistake, there were plenty of tax collectors and sinners who could self-justify and couldn't care less about being forgiven, just as there are today), the gospel was the power of God unto salvation. The hope of forgiveness brought repentance and a joyful embrace of the Son. And when the religious leaders saw all these sinners, the lowest of the low, repenting of their sin and returning to God with such joy and enthusiasm, their response was...


Uh, yeah. Resentment. The Pharisees looked on this outpouring of grace, the forgiveness of sinners, the repentance of tax collectors, and they couldn't have been angrier. They began to grumble and complain, and try to discredit Jesus and his ministry. So Jesus told a series of three parables aimed at showing how ludicrous and evil their way of thinking was, each with the themes of loss, recovery, and joy. The final one, the Prodigal Son, adds another element: the resentful self-righteous brother. Next time, we'll look at the first two parables to see what Jesus has to say about heaven's reaction to the repentant sinner.