This sermon was delivered on September 15, 2013, at Lufkin FUMC.
15 All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
I mentioned last week in my biased rant against math that I love English, and while that’s true, it’s not the whole picture. The thing that I really love more than English is language, and the art that language can produce, be it story, poem, speech, or whatever else. Everyone has a chosen medium from which they can produce art. For some it might be math—who’s to say that math can’t make art? For others it might be music, or painting, or sculpting. It could be acting, it could be mechanics, it could be science—it could be anything. For me, though, my chosen medium is that of language and words.
Words are, basically, ideas given shape by a sound. The way we think is often shaped by the way we talk, and vice versa. As such, many words can have two or more meanings, because really a word is given its meaning by us. Think about it for a second. If I started calling a fork something else, like a sploof or something, you might think me insane. But perhaps if I said it for long enough? And enough people started calling forks “sploofs”? Pretty soon everyone would be calling them sploofs, and then, over time, the word would get into the dictionary because it has been made a part of the language. Granted, the definition would simply be “another word for fork,” but that’s just the thing—how many words do we have for the word a shoe? Sneakers? Loafers? High heels? Flats? Sandals? How do you think these words got started when they could easily be replaced with the word “shoe?” Like I said, enough people started saying it for long enough until it was generally accepted. And now you know how words are born.
My love of words, the emotions they can conjure up, and the art they can create, greatly informs my reading of the Bible. The bible is a work of literature that takes the form of narrative, poetry, history, prophecy, among many other genres. As such, I read it like a work of literature, and I cannot tell you how much this affects in my understanding of the Christian faith. A key part of reading literature is to take into account not only just the words used, but also perspective. Who is speaking? From which point or points of view is this story taking place? Who is this meant for? And how am I supposed to feel as I read this from these?
There is very little story to this passage in Luke; it’s all parable, save for very first part. It’s told in third person from Luke’s perspective, and if you didn’t know, Luke is characterized by a very matter-of-fact style, similar to that of a historian or a journalist. So, as the story goes, we learn that Jesus is teaching, and surrounding him, according to Luke, “are all the sinners and tax collectors.” Off in the back, the Pharisees are grumbling to themselves, judging Jesus for the kind of company he keeps and for the people he eats with.
Eating is no small matter in Middle eastern culture, then and now. In our culture, we could possibly eat with someone we don’t know and not feel terribly uncomfortable, but in Jesus’s culture, who you ate with meant a great deal. It meant that you were associated with that person, and more than that, you were friends with that person. Therefore, eating with the right kind of people can mean everything, especially if you are someone notable, someone who is in the public spotlight. Someone like Jesus. For Jesus to eat with tax collectors—notable cheats and friends of the invading empire—and sinners—not just your average Joe blow but notorious sinners and outcasts of society—would be tantamount to committing social suicide. It makes the Pharisees grumble and gossip. It makes the sinners and tax collectors have a little more joy in their lives. It makes them feel like they are welcome, that they belong. That they’re loved. There are few words that can capture the kind of reaction one might have from both sides of the perspective coin. In this case there is one: Audacity.
Audacity has two meanings, one more positive, and one more negative. On the one hand it means “the willingness to take bold risks.” That’s the positive one. The negative? “Rude or disrespectful behavior.” It would not surprise anyone to hear the Pharisees say “The audacity of that man! Why on earth would he ever eat with such sinful, unclean, unrighteous people!? He speaks such truth, but how can he debase himself to eat with people unworthy to even be on the same road as he, let alone at his table.” Meanwhile, among those who he eats with, it could just as easily be positive. “Oh wow! I can’t believe it, I get to eat with this brilliant, caring healer! He’s got a lot of audacity to eat with us, and I for one am thankful. Hey, pass the hummus!”
What Jesus did in eating with these people was audacious, in both senses of the word, and that’s precisely why he did what he did. It was bold, and it was “rude.” It was incredibly brave, and yet in a way, incredibly foolish. Words have a way of forming the way we think, and this one perfectly encapsulates what Jesus is teaching to the people around him, as well as us today. It’s the kind of lesson that Paul so aptly describes in 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent.[a] 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. In all honesty, the message of the cross is audacity writ large, grace big enough to forgive even the most sinful among us, no matter their social status.
We see Jesus bearing the scorn and grumblings of the Pharisees, as well as the joy and gratitude of his lunchmates. Jesus decides, as he often does, that this is the perfect opportunity to explain himself, and what better way than to do it in a parable? (Actually I can think of a lot of better ways, but Jesus was interested in doing more than just explaining himself!) He launches into 2 of the more famous parables of the scriptures: the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Both are very similar in set up: someone loses something, someone drops everything and searches for the lost item, and when recovered, that someone rejoices and throws a party. On the outside, this all looks fine well and good, and we sit back, and say “wow, what a good story!”
All our lives we hear this story, and we get it into our heads that this is reasonable, sound logic, that anyone would do, because Jesus says that it’s what we would do. Then we wait a second and think about what Jesus said. We realize that Jesus introduces these stories by saying “who among you wouldn’t do this? What shepherd wouldn’t do this? What woman wouldn’t do this?” The answer of course is: Nobody would do that, are you crazy? Why in blue blazes would a shepherd leave 99 sheep unattended, unprotected to go look for one lost sheep? Why put himself and his livestock at risk? Now, the woman losing a coin and searching for it makes slightly more sense, but why throw a party, possibly costing as much or more than what she regained in the search? It just doesn’t make sense Jesus!
For Jesus, and for us, that’s precisely the point. It is crazy. It is reckless. It’s completely irrational to go off in search of that one sheep. It’s loony to throw a party for one regained coin. And that’s the lengths that God goes to find us. That’s the insanity that leads Jesus to eat with sinners and tax collectors. It’s lunacy, stupidity, socially uncouth, rude, courageous, foolhardy, and absolutely audacious. That is how much God loves you. That is how crazy Jesus is for us, to be in a relationship with us, to be willing enough to eat with people nobody would even dare to eat with, to speak with people who do unspeakable things, to die for people who wouldn’t so much as cross the sidewalk to help someone. That’s the logic of the cross. That’s the audacity of grace.
It’s so easy to simply look at the cross and see a piece of wood that is a symbol of our religious persuasion, and so much harder to remember what it really stands for. We wear it on our necklaces, paste in on our car bumpers, and embroider it on our handbags and wallets, and we forget that that simple piece of wood might as well be a guillotine or an electric chair. That cross should remind us that we are the lost sheep. We are the lost coins. We are the ones that God looks for. God’s crazy to look for us, but God does it anyway! And God goes so far to search for us that God came in the person of Jesus Christ to continue the search, and finds us! He finds us where we are, and he eats with us, and talks with us, and challenges us, and shows us the way. And yet, there is one place he needed to go to complete the work, a place Jesus feared to go, but went anyway. That lost coin, that lost sheep, lies in the grave, and audaciously he went to look for us, and returned triumphantly! The message of the cross is risk. The message of the cross is foolishness to the wise, and makes the wise foolish. The message of the cross is audacity.
If we think about that word, and think about what it means to us, it should shift the way we think about grace. Grace is not only a gift, but a risky gift. The love of God is bought and paid for with foolhardy courage and boldness, and thus we ought to live out that love with equal courage, equal boldness. We will be thought foolish. We will be laughed at—who in their right mind would want to help the lowest of the low? Who would be crazy enough to eat with sinners, and associate with people that everyone knows are evil, everyone knows are unclean and impure; everyone knows are not worth spending time on? Jesus would. So should we. Our grace, our love, was given to us with audacity. It’s up to us to share it with the world with that same audacity. Amen.