Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus Seeks and Saves

Luke 19 zaccchaeus-the-publican

“Jesus Seeks and Saves”

Luke 19:1-10 – September 1, 2019

Do you know anyone who is really unpopular? I mean, so unpopular that people turn their backs and ignore them when they come around? That is just the sort of person we are going to talk about today: a particularly unpopular, even despised person.

The Gospel of Luke chapter 19 tells us of the tax collector Zacchaeus and the encounter he had with the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus had been in ministry for almost three years, and I suspect that He was a celebrity in the Jewish population. Perhaps even of rock-star-status, given Jesus had healed people, cast demons out of people, and performed all sorts of other miracles for the past three years. It’s no wonder Jesus attracted such a crowd wherever He went!

When you or I read about tax collectors during the first century, we might think they were simply unpleasant people tasked with an unfortunate job. Because, someone had to do it! The Roman Empire occupied a huge territory, including the region of what is now Israel and Palestine. The Roman army was the occupying force that policed the region. The conquered Jewish people were a subjugated people. But, that was not all.

No one likes to pay taxes. And, taxes are even worse when they are being collected by an occupying force, like the Romans. Except—the Romans were fiendishly clever. Some of the native population was used to collect taxes. Here’s what happened. The taxation system the Romans used was ripe for abuse. The Roman government farmed out the collection of taxes and sold off the right to do tax collection to the highest bidder. All that was necessary was that the Romans receive their assessed financial amount at the end of the year. Any money over that amount could be kept by the native-born tax collector. And, boy, did they collect the money! As I said before, this was a scheme sure to be abused. Talk about a shakedown racket!

Was it any wonder that these tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews? These Jewish shakedown artists collaborated with the Roman overlords, besides being seen as extortionists for collecting double, and even triple the amount stipulated by the Roman tax assessment.

Some people think the United States tax code is punishing. They haven’t seen anything, compared to these tax collectors who were backed up by the force of the occupying Romans. In other words, just in case any Jewish person was even thinking of not paying taxes, the Roman army could come knocking at the door and drag them off to prison for tax dereliction. What is more, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, in charge of all the other tax collectors in the region. He must have been simply rolling in dough.

There is more, in terms of social consequences. Even though he was very wealthy, Zacchaeus had lost his place in the local synagogue, was not permitted to attend worship services, and was totally ostracized from all “decent society” in town. I mention all this to let everyone know what a scandal it was.

On top of everything else, Zacchaeus was extremely short, and probably felt even worse because of his little stature. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that “Zacchaeus wanted to stand out to gain recognition, but the result was that he was isolated and rejected. He felt compelled to set himself above people because, alongside them, he felt too small. So perhaps there was a vicious cycle of insecurity, exploitation of others, loneliness, and rejection at work in Zacchaeus’s relationships in the community, or, more accurately, his lack of relationships.” [1]

But, no matter what, this guy really wanted to see the Rabbi Jesus!

We know what happened. Reading from Luke 19, Zacchaeus “wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.” Can you just see Zacchaeus, his head and shoulders poking out between the branches of a sycamore tree? What about the Rabbi Jesus? He called Zacchaeus by name! Can you imagine? Calling a hated tax collector by name, and even proclaiming that He would eat dinner at that tax collector’s house that evening?

What a scandal! What a horrible thing for a respectable Jewish Rabbi to do! Can you imagine what all the “decent folk” in Jericho had to say about that?

Yet, isn’t this just like Jesus?

Again and again in the Gospels, especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus side with those on the margins, those who are the least of these, those who are disrespected and dismissed. Jesus comes alongside of the down and out and those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. “While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out.” [2]

I follow the social media account Invisible People on Twitter. This account regularly posts articles and photos of those people who are invisible to society at large: the homeless. The vignettes and stories are heartbreaking, on a daily basis. The followers who read Invisible People meet person after person who had a job and lost it, or had a spouse and lost them, or had an extended health reversal and lost their apartment, or any one of a dozen other sad scenarios. These people teetering on the poverty line, or even below it, pull at anyone’s heart strings.

Yet, to many people across our country, any mention of the homeless or those in shelters or camping in the woods because they do not have any other place to stay is certainly similar to mentioning “tax collectors” in first century Palestine. These “invisible” friends are despised by many “decent folk,” many who have money, education, experience, or moderately good health.

These “invisible people” of today are on the margins of society, similar to the tax collectors of the first century. Reading from Luke 19, we get some indication of what the onlookers said: “Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” 8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

Jesus responds in typical, loving, caring Jesus-fashion: He lets everyone know that Zacchaeus is just as good as any of the “decent folk.” 9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”

Who has a corner on perfect righteousness and standing before God? Which of us is not lost and wandering, at times? Don’t we all need to be found and restored to God’s loving embrace? Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, the wandering, the people on the margins and the outskirts of society, as well as “decent folk.” Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome each of us, no matter what.

Surely it is God who saves me—God has arms open to save all of us. Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/power-persistence-alyce-mckenzie-10-28-2013.html

“The Power of Persistence, Part 3,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2968  October 30, 2016

David Lose

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Have You Met a Pharisee?

“Have You Met a Pharisee?”

luke-18-pharisee-and-tax-collector

Luke 18:13 – October 23, 2016

I’d like to start with a question: has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

The Pharisees were professional “religious folks.” They were the moral bookkeepers of Jesus’ day, keeping track of right activity and wrong activity. The Pharisees kept an exact mental ledger, and were meticulous about having as little in the “wrong activity” column as possible. They were not only meticulous about their own activity, and went over their own business with a fine-tooth comb, but they gave recommendations to the rest of Israel on how to live, as well.

As this passage mentions in verse 9, righteousness was VERY important to the Pharisees; so much so that “certain ones” even went so far as to trust in themselves that they were righteous, and looked at others with contempt.

I ask again—has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

Jesus mentions one Pharisee in particular in this parable. From my study and reflection on this text, I see this particular Pharisee being acutely concerned with external activity—wrong activity that was obvious to anyone. Let’s look at verse 11: ”God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people—swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector .” What can we see? EXTERNAL activity, where this Pharisee looks judgmentally with his lip curled at other people’s external actions. May I suggest that this Pharisee had his eyes focused on the external, visible part, on the wrong-activity part of people’s lives?

If we take a look at the Bible, at both the Old and New Testaments, we can see wrong-headed, external actions being committed time and time again. Over and over and over again. People at the time of the Bible just did not learn. I have a feeling that people today are in a similar situation, making mistakes and wrong decisions on a regular basis.

Certainly, our actions are important to God. Wrong-activity goes against everything we have ever been taught in Sunday school, from the pulpit, in seminary, about sanctified living, and how to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. But, a subtext I see here in this passage concerns INTERNAL attitudes and activities: the inside job.

When we talk about the inside job, the internal attitudes and activities, it does not matter whether we consider Bible times or today. People mess up. They have messed up for thousands of years. People not only do bad things, they say and think bad things. They miss the mark.

The Pharisee from this passage in Luke 18 looks at externals, and says to himself, “Gee, I’m not so bad. Matter of fact, I’m pretty good. Come to think of it, I’m doing all right!” See what his thought-process is here? He’s making himself out to be better, superior to other people. Verse 9: “Trusting in himself that he was righteous!”

This “super-righteous guy” was—in reality—anything but. So busy looking at other people’s outsides that he never did a reality check of his own life. Such a self-serving, prideful prayer! He was blind to his own shortcomings, and his own not-so-wonderful position before God. As long as he considered himself to be pretty good, more-righteous-than-thou, that was good enough for him. So much better than the sneer of contempt he expressed for all of the “sinful people.”

What about the contempt and scorn that Pharisees today express for others? Let’s take a similar situation: the one of a high-and-mighty bully on the playground. “You’re not as (good, fast, smart, pretty….)  as me!” Or, “You’re just a (jerk, baby, loser, …) And what about names that belittle – “shorty, four eyes, tubby, pipsqueak, etcetera.” [1]

You get the idea. Let your mind wander to add labels used in your workplace, school, community center, or neighborhood.

We all can feel what is hurtful about these names and labels, even if we cannot rationally identify it. And, these are not the only kinds of phrases Pharisees—those snide, blustering bullies—use. Just reminding us: we need to think ahead about how to handle similar belittling terms, and even worse terms with racial or sexual connotations.

I ask again, has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

I am not sure whether you all know this, but at seminary, almost everyone who attends classes for a Master of Divinity degree takes at least one preaching class. We learn how to preach, how to bring a sermon to a congregation.

While I was in the Preaching class at seminary, I ran into one of my professors in the cafeteria. He and I periodically talked about my theological background and where I came from, theologically speaking. As we put our trays on the conveyor belt, I mentioned to him that I was working on a sermon for Preaching class. He asked me which text I was working on. I told him, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, from Luke 18.” His question—”which are you?” My response—”Oh, the tax collector, of course . . . I’m a reformed theologian.” The professor roared with laughter; he really appreciated that. (That’s theological humor for you.)

But it’s true. I do identify with the tax collector. The tax collector here KNEW he was a sinner. He didn’t have any illusions about himself! He knew what the Hebrew Bible had to say about external activity, and how to approach God. He KNEW that he missed the mark. He was conscious—oh, so conscious–of his sin. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, we ALL have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. We have turned, EVERY ONE, to his, or her, own way.

But, the tax collector does not stop at just wallowing in sin. Neither should we!!! No–he falls at the feet of God and claims God’s mercy. As Jesus says in this parable, “I tell you, this man went to his house justified.” The Pharisee in this parable couldn’t even see where he had missed the mark. The tax collector recognized his sin, and he knew where to go. He knew he was powerless over sin. He knew his life was unmanageable. He knew where to flee for help and mercy!

Could the contrast between the two men possibly be more clear? Could the difference between the two prayers possibly be more extreme? What about you and me? Are there places where we have not done what God wants us to do? Are there impatient or unkind words that we have said? What about nasty, mean thoughts that have gone through our minds?

The Pharisee trusted in his own flawed and erroneous righteousness; we can certainly learn from his mistakes. The tax collector knew his own sinfulness very well! He threw himself on God’s mercy and forgiveness, wholeheartedly.

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, Pardon there was multiplied to me. There my burdened soul found liberty—at Calvary!” We can thank God that God does not use a balance sheet for our accounts.

As I say each Sunday, we are forgiven! If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. We can go to our houses justified, through the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What better news can we possibly receive than that? Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-proper-25-30th-sunday-of.html ; Worshiping with Children, Proper 25, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)