Isaiah 55:6-13, Luke 15:1-10
August 5, 2012
So, are you watching the Olympic games? I always love the Olympics, even though this year I haven’t been able to see much of them. I did see the women’s gymnastics team win the team competition the other night. I also saw the U.S. woman win the gold medal in Judo for the first time ever. And I saw the race where Michael Phelps became the person with the most Olympic medals in history! It was very exciting!
Well, the Olympic Games is a sporting event that’s all about winners. There can be a lot of good stories and exciting moments in the Olympics, but in the end it’s all about who won the gold, and who won the silver and the bronze! Those things are so much the focus of the Olympics that we now have a “daily medal count.” And while no one has actually said it yet, it’s almost as though that has become an indication of which country “won the Olympics.” Medals have become so important the words “medal,” and even “podium,” have now become verbs! You’ll here the commentator say, “Michael Phelps medaled in this event 4 years ago.” I’ve even heard them say something like, “Lindsay Vaughn podiumed in the Giant Slalom in Vancouver.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds weird to me! But that’s the Olympics. It’s all about the medals!
I once actually wore an Olympic gold medal. Friends of our family had a relative who was a wrestler and who won the gold medal in Montreal in 1976. One day we met him at their house, and he had his medal with him. And, of course, when he was showing it to everybody I had to put it on! Well, let me tell you, I felt like a winner! But I’m sure that was nothing like the feeling an athlete has when they stand in front of the crowds wearing it, seeing their flag raised, and hearing their national anthem!
Those things are great! Winning can be amazing! We’re thrilled when our favorite team wins. (Remember those days!) We’re proud when our kids and grandkids come in first in their sports or school efforts. Those are great things. But, at the same time, we have to remember that in the Gospels, Jesus gives us a different way of thinking about things. He gives a different vision who’s first, and who’s last, and a different understanding of the value of people, and of who’s important. And our story for today is one of those visions.
In our passage for today, the Pharisees were complaining. (Yeah! Go figure!) Maybe we should say, the Pharisees were complaining – again! As I read this, I think we have to start there, or this whole chapter – including the parable of the “Prodigal Son” – does not have the impact I believe it was meant to have.
The Pharisees were complaining. And their complaint was that the tax collectors and sinners were “drawing near to Jesus.” Notice how those two terms “tax collectors” and “sinners” were often used together! They were almost synonymous! The tax collectors were sinners! They were sinners of the worst kind! They were Israelites who were employed by the Romans to collect the Roman taxes. So they were considered to be traitors to the nation! And the people hated them!
Well, the Pharisees were upset that these “despicable” people were drawing close to Jesus. And I don’t think we can really get the impact of that! So they murmured. There was a lot of murmuring in the Bible! We talked about it with the Pharisees before, and about the people murmuring against Moses in the wilderness. Maybe that was the translation of the Hebrew word that meant “whining.” (I’ll have to check that out!) So the Pharisees were whining. They said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” Or if this were translated into twenty first century speaking, it might say, “He’s hanging around with “losers!”
Don’t miss those words, “and he eats with them!” They were very important words. Eating with someone was considered to be an act of acceptance and even intimacy. It was a big deal to share a meal with someone. And that’s true in our day, too. Isn’t it? Sharing a meal with someone still carries that same understanding of acceptance and intimacy. Think about the various ways we use meals in our lives! Think of our meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Think of our fellowship dinners here at church. And of course there’s our family meals. Those are all very important “bonding” times, aren’t they?
Well, to these people, it was even more so. There was a “survival” component in it for them. Their food supplies were not as “secure” as ours. They were subject to famine and insects and weather. The people had to produce food, or the means to obtain it, or they would starve. So sharing a meal was, in a way, like surviving together. And that was powerful! It was also a means of helping others in need. When a traveler came to a town, there often wasn’t any other means for them to have meals, other than to eat with a local family – whether they knew them or not.
That’s why the Pharisees were upset. Jesus was extending that kind of acceptance to the wrong people. “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” “He’s hanging around with “losers!” So Jesus turned to them and told this parable, which we call “The Parable of the Lost Sheep.” And in it, he turned around this idea of who the winners and losers were!
As we look at this parable, and it’s very short, the first thing I want you to notice is how Jesus drew them into it – with this first question. That’s the sign of a good story teller. A good story draws you in right away! Jesus did that. He asked, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one until he finds it?”
They would have done that! All of them! Sheep were valuable! That was probably a rhetorical question! Maybe we could relate more to the lost coin, because that’s what we tend to value, but this was a simple for them. They would go and search because of the value of the sheep. Jesus had them at that point. But not only was this a simple matter of what was valuable, but Jesus was using a very important metaphor here. There were some very important scriptures which referred to the people in these terms. Think of it. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Those people would have known those scriptures! Jesus invoked all that imagery and faith history with that one question!
The other thing he did, in that one sentence, was to transferred their concept of wealth and value to people – to all people. The shepherd searches because something of value has been lost. This is a great little question he asked them. And I don’t know if it helped those Pharisees to accept his words, or whether it just made them more angry, but there was no doubt that Jesus was referring to those tax collectors – those “losers” – as being the “lost sheep.” And he was saying that they were valuable to God! Do we ever forget the value of another person because of something they have done or something we don’t like about them? Do we ever forget that that other person is valuable to God? It’s easy to do that, isn’t it?
Jesus takes this further. The story is not over in one sentence. He goes on to describe the rejoicing over that which is found! And he makes a point of repeating that in both of these little parables. God rejoices in the finding of the lost. And God rejoices when we recognize the value in others – especially people who no one else values. That’s when we truly experience his love. Look what this shepherd did. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And he calls together his friends to rejoice with him.” When I was at Neshaminy Warwick Presbyterian Church, they had a stained glass window, right behind the pulpit which depicted this scene, Jesus with the lost sheep laying across his shoulders. That’s the mental picture I get when I read this passage.
So, Jesus has taken the first part of this parable, which is the rhetorical question about the shepherd seeking, and he has taken his listeners to the point where God is now in the role of the shepherd – just like in those psalms! And he has showed us the heart of God, that he is one who seeks the lost, and who rejoices over the lost being found. That’s beautiful! In a very brief story, Jesus has given them God’s understanding of the value of people. He has shown them that, to him, there are no “losers,” at least not the way we think of that word. He shows us that, in God’s eyes, everybody is a winner! To Him, everyone has great value. And he describes how God rejoices when we find our way back to him!
That’s amazing! And we if we are people of God, we need to see that same value in others. Because that’s too easy to forget, isn’t it? When we don’t like someone for one reason or other, or they don’t like us, we can easily forget that. We need to be reminded how valuable all people are to God. And if we remember that, they can become valuable to us.
Then the last thing we need to remember is that we are valuable to God. That can be the hardest thing of all, can’t it? Often we are the hardest on ourselves! So if we’re not sure of our value in God’s eyes, or of others’ value, we can look to this sacrament. Here at this table we see the depth of God’s love for us. (Even though we’re only just scratching the surface!) In the symbols of this meal, God shows us his love. Here all earthly notions of winners and losers, and valuable and not valuable fade away. Here there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor. Here we are all truly one in Christ Jesus. And if you think about it, here, in this meal, Jesus still dines with sinners. But he shows that we sinners are of great value to him!
Our Heavenly Father, we know that you love us. We know that we are valuable in your sight. Help us to know that about ourselves, and help us to see the value in each other. Deliver us from the temptation to rate one another and to see some as better than others. We know in your kingdom the first shall be last and the last first. Help us to love as you love, that your kingdom may truly come on earth. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.