Readings: Micah 7:18–20 | 1 Peter 5:6–11 | Luke 15:1-10
Text: Luke 15:1-10
There are times in Scripture where we can see the truth of God’s work on the lips of His enemies. Consider how Caiaphas spoke of the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Jesus in John 11:
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:49-52)
God used this significant statement for His praise in spite of the desires of speakers. And a great example of this is here in Luke 15:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling against Jesus because, of all things, He was receiving sinners and eating with them. What was offensive to them came to be that very thing which Christians have rejoiced in! It is such glory for us, that we joyfully sing, “Jesus sinners doth receive! Oh, may all this saying ponder!” (LSB 609:1)
The Pharisees had the wrong idea about Jesus’ person and work—and in that they also despised the very work of the Lord God among the sons of the promise made to Abraham. They refused to believe that Jesus was the Promised Seed of Abraham, the Son of David, sent from the heavenly Father. They refused to believe that one Man is able to make atonement for the sins of many. Even more troubling, they failed to understand the depravity of human nature. A pious Pharisee would never dream of calling himself a “sinner.” Such religious people behave like the chief of sinners—that is, those who consider themselves the exception to God’s rules and choose their own way—but they would never dream of calling himself chief of sinners.
But it’s not just a problem for the Pharisees, as much as we might like to distance ourselves from their practices. Pastor Scott Murray recently wrote,
“Some years ago while doing door-to-door evangelism, I met a woman who claimed that she hadn’t sinned in the previous two years. To my Lutheran years such a claim itself seemed to be a sin: the sin of pride. However, I had the wisdom (or the cowardice) to keep my opinion to myself. This woman’s self-view contradicted Scripture. St. John puts this claim to moral purity to flight in 1 John 1:8: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ Note we remain sinners. John includes himself with his readers. Christians remain sinners. This is why the church constantly prays, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’” (Memorial Moment, June 27, 2022)
Thinking reasonably, who would want to be a sinner, much less spend extended time in their company? Aren’t they the cause of all the trouble in the world? When we dream of a utopia in the world, we imagine how much better society would be without creeps, cheats, unfaithful, and the disobedient. Wouldn’t the world be better off without such people? Oh wait, where do you stop?
The other scandalous thing about Jesus is that He actually seeks out sinners in order to eat with them. A Holy God and Savior who seeks sinners is ridiculous! Sinners should seek salvation, shouldn’t they? They should recognize the wrong they’ve done, the hurt they’ve caused! Isn’t that what we wish about the people who have hurt us?
But that is not God’s way. Instead, our Lord teaches us about God’s heart with these parables:
4 “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? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 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.’…
8 “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? 9 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.’
If we follow the logic of the parable, it would be easy to fault the sheep for wandering off, or in the parable that follows, fault the son for his foolishness. But what about the lost coin? These parables are all together because the point isn’t the will of the sinner. The heart and will of every sinner is hopelessly lost until God our Savior comes and seeks us out. Rather than find fault in the thing lost, it’s to show just how powerful sin is over a person. It can distort everything like a funhouse mirror—a twisted version of God and a twisted version of ourselves.
Sin makes people wise in their own sight, which is precisely why they don’t see their need for a Savior. In fact, those without faith look at repentant sinners found by Jesus Christ and taunt them. Secular therapists just can’t understand why Christians would be so obsessed with things like sexual purity, duty, or forgiveness toward those who mistreat us. Just as the Pharisees looked down on Jesus and the company He kept, they see God’s mercy in Jesus Christ as foolishness.
Jesus indeed receives sinners. God works in the lowly to shame the wise. God uses the folly of the cross in place of the ways the world expects Him to work. The world expects God to break into our world to work some sort of showy, flashy event. Even in our estimate, those repentant sinners ought to get it together and stop sinning by sheer willpower. But Jesus is not the sort of Savior who just gives us the “buy-in” to salvation. He is with us to take us the whole way through this life, there with His grace and goodness, His power to save us even in the continued struggle against the weakness of our sinful flesh.
From our perspective, it’s a mess. Jesus seems to pick lousy company, this lot of people with messed up pasts, failures day to day, hurting each other and being hurt. But yet, He receives them. He receives us. Foolishness, the world says. Foolishness, the pious Pharisee says.
By these parables, Jesus invites all of us to a view from above. It’s a view that’s so far above none of us could ever dream it if He hadn’t told us about it:
7 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…10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Joy in heaven? Angels rejoicing? Can it be that the halls of heaven ring out in celebration over sinners? Yes! For every sinner whom Jesus finds—washing them in His precious blood, covering them with His spotless robe of righteousness, rescuing them from a thousand perils (including pride) that would send them to destruction—there is joy before the Father’s throne.
What brings joy to angels, like we see in the cover picture from ceiling of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome? It’s not the room being filled with thousands of skilled singers, the most beautiful adornments, or even the number of people who were in attendance. It’s the person on his or her knees saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
That is not at all what we on earth expect to be the theme in heaven. As it is in heaven, so is God’s desire on earth. What do we expect to find in the Church? Who are these people who are sitting next to us, behind and in front of us? They are sinners, just like you. They have hurts and shames, faults and flaws, just like you. It is Jesus, the friend of sinners who has brought us together in this congregation. We have come to the right place—the only place—for relief from our burdens and to be healed from our sin. So, as the angels rejoice at sinners who have come to Jesus, God teaches us to rejoice in every brother and sister we see here. This is not a congregation of perfect saints (save that hope for the Last Day), but a bunch of misfits who have been called by the Gospel to know God’s mercy found in Jesus. And with that vision of the Church, our merciful Father is teaching us to have mercy for one another.
Not only does Jesus receive sinners; He eats with them too. And that is what the Lord’s Supper is which we receive this day. Our Lord is inviting us once again to His table, where it’s no potluck. He is the host, and He will serve the meal, for all we bring are empty hands, fainting hearts, and the faith which God the Holy Spirit has put in us. What does He say to us? No matter how many times we have failed, He says to our repentant heart:
“Take; eat. This is My Body given for you. Take; drink. This is My Blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of our sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me.”
Jesus receives you, and dismisses you with heavenly joy.
This is also why it’s so important that the Lord eat with us at least every week. Each time, we come with our burdens and griefs, our longings and hopes. All of these things are very real: the pit in our stomach, the ache in our heart, the strife we are in the midst. They are all we see and feel and touch through the week. But then we come here, and the Lord gives us a perfect cure which we can see, feel, and touch: a tangible proof that Jesus receives sinners and eats with us.
Even though the unbelieving world may scoff at it, and our sinful flesh fight against it, it the truth by which we live: Jesus sinners doth receive. Do not disbelieve, but believe [John 20:27]. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.