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First Impressions: Luke 15:1-10

September 8, 2010

I am struggling with this week’s text because I want to preach about the joy of God and all heaven when even one who was lost has become found.  How can I express the joy of God and angels in a way that does not seem sickly sweet?  Is it even possible for the preacher to enter into the experience of God’s joy, let alone share that with the congregation?  Besides, I am a preacher.  It is much easier for me to conjure up images of sorrow and angst than joy.  I have simply had more practice at doing the former.

My second problem is that I don’t know which point of view the sermon should take.  Do I preach from the perspective that we are the grumbling observers, upset that Jesus’ time and energy is taken up with undeserving rabble?  From this angle, I might encourage the congregation to come on into the house to enjoy the party.  Or should I call the people to hear the sermon from the point of view of the lonely sheep or hidden coin?  In this case, I might want the listeners to know that God is not the vice principal with the paddle hanging on the wall behind his desk, but is the parent bawling uncontrollably with relief because the lost child is finally discovered to have wandered off toward the toy department.

15:1-2 These verses help us to understand Luke’s purpose for these three parables (including, of course, the one from verses 11-32).  Jesus continues firmly with his topsy-turvy image of the kingdom of God, where the poor are made rich, the rich become poor, the lost are found, and those that always assumed they had been in the right place are actually lost.

15:3-7 Fred Craddock shares an excellent and brief discussion about why the owner of the sheep (not described as a shepherd) is not engaging in an “act of frugality” by seeking the one lost sheep.  The 99 are left in the wilderness, not in safety.  He writes, “Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep and will risk everything, including his own life, until he finds it” (Interpretation: Luke [Louisville: John Knox, 1990], 185.).  There is a sense of recklessness in the owner’s actions since he could, for the sake of finding one sheep, lose the other 99.  That speaks to love and not to wise business practice.

I can certainly imagine the shepherd’s relief at finding the lost sheep, but I cannot understand the rejoicing.  I have never called my neighbors around to celebrate such a thing.  “Tom, Marie, come to my house tonight.  I found my dog, and we’re having a party!”  No doubt there are some who would celebrate the discovery of a beloved pet that had become lost, but how many of you would attend such a party?  “It’s great that you found your sheep, but I’m watching Jeopardy right now.  Could you call back later?”  Clearly, the rejoicing of God and heaven is beyond my own understanding.  There is a sense of over-the-top exuberance that seems (humanly) to far outstrip the significance of the finding itself.  Craddock is correct to describe it as love.

A colleague in my Lectionary study group suggests that verse 7 is a sarcastic dig at the Pharisees, scribes and any self-righteous folk who would be offended at Jesus’ choice of dinner guests.  “Of course,” Jesus is saying, “you perfect and holy people don’t need to repent, but perhaps just once you can allow God to celebrate the return of those awful sinners.”  Jesus did not need to state the obvious, a foundation of biblical theology that is stated clearly in our psalm of the day.  “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3).

15:8-10 The second parable is briefer, and perhaps less dramatic, but identical in purpose.  The woman’s lost coin represents one-tenth of her store, rather than the one-hundredth portion represented by the lost sheep.  Also, the remaining nine coins are not likely to be in danger while the woman searches.  Nevertheless, the rejoicing is the same.  Friends and neighbors are called to gather around for the celebration.  (Please, if you find a lost twenty dollar bill, don’t ask me to come over unless you’re planning to serve beer.)

It has been said that the woman might have thrown a party for these friends, and the party would have cost more than the lost coin itself.  It certainly fits in with the point of the text, that of unrestrained rejoicing for the finding of that which was lost, but I do not think the text says that clearly.  There is no mention of a party, only rejoicing.  Surely, the two can go hand-in-hand, and I won’t argue with you too strenuously if you do speak of such a party in your sermon.  I just don’t see a party in the text.

There is, however, great joy in these parables, and I don’t know how to preach them.  I suspect I may use William Willimon’s words as a guideline.  “The implication is that, to be with Jesus, we must also be able to celebrate the finding of the lost” (Look Who’s Having Dinner with Jesus,” Pulpit Resource, vol. 38, no. 3, p. 46.).  I guess I have to do a better job learning how to enjoy a good party.

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