Saturday, September 3, 2016

The scandal of God's welcome

It is interesting that chapter 15 of the gospel of Luke starts with the grumbling of the Pharisees who say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," but is filled with stories of the lost.  Indeed, the two lost ones in Luke 15:1-10, the gospel reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, are not sinners at all; they are a sheep and a coin.  Clearly the focus is not on their sinfulness, but on their lostness.  The question for us becomes, "When we see people outside of our religious communities, do we see sinners or lost ones?"  It's an important question.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  If you wish to understand more about this genre of preaching, my book is available through or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is pure gospel; it shows us the extravagant love of the Father.  The Father's love compels God to scour the wilderness and the whole house to find the one who is lost.  Clearly the lost ones are the treasure of the Searcher.  Clearly the love for the lost is beyond human capacity.  Clearly no thought is given to the cost or the effort required to find the lost.  God's great love is announced with gusto in this text.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The law is quite absent here.  When the Word functions as law it says, in effect, "You need Jesus."  It is clear that when we are lost, as the sheep and coin are, we need Jesus, but these parables do not lift up our need, but rather the love of the One who seeks us.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question, because the Word addresses the Pharisees - those who grumble at Jesus' welcome to all.  Knowing that it is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses, we might well be advised to identify with the Pharisees.  Another possibility exists, however, and that is the sheep and the coin.  We are the lost ones.  We are the ones Jesus is searching for.  Of course, it is worth considering that the grumblers are also the ones who are lost.  That might be a strategy worth pursuing.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Here there seems to be a call to obedience implied in the description of the Pharisees' grumblings.  The implied call is, "You follow Jesus when you invite sinners into your midst."  The parables don't dwell on this, however, so the text doesn't seem to be mainly about this invitation to sinners.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets are suggested by wording in the text:  grumbling/rejoicing; losing/finding.  Another one that comes to mind: indifference/extravagant love.

6.  Exegetical work?  I like Amy-Jill Levine's description of the searching shepherd in the first parable:  "The parable presents a main figure - the owner, not the sheep - who realizes he has lost something of value to him.  He notices the single missing sheep among the ninety-nine in the wilderness. For him, the missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete.  He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself, and then with his friends and neighbors." (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 41)  Kittel's extended article on amartolos (i.e. sinners) is also very instructive for this text. Here are a few excerpts:  "[Jesus] never contested nor avoided the distinction of the people into sinners and righteous."  "Jesus thus accepted as such those who were regarded as sinners by the community.  It was just because they were sinners that He drew them to himself."(Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. I, 329).  Also in his discussion of tax collectors - the other despised group - Kittel points out that Jesus never said that tax collectors and sinners weren't lost.  Indeed he was very clear that they were, and deserved to be.  It is precisely because of the extent of their sins that there is so much joy in heaven when they repent. (TDNT, vol. VIII, 104).

Blessing on your proclamation!

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