Proper 19 • Luke 15:1–10 • September 11, 2016
By Erik Herrmann
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The parables of the “lost” in Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—are perhaps the most well-known parables of Jesus. They are the most well known, but in recent times they have been used in a rather odd fashion: you will know it immediately. When Christians speak of “the lost” they are almost always referring to those outside the church. The phrase is used especially when talking about mission and evangelism. The church—it is said—is to seek “the lost.” To be missional is to focus our efforts beyond the walls of our church, beyond the people here gathered and toward the reaching of “the lost.” Rather than “preach to the choir” or concern ourselves only with “the ninety-nine,” a church that is faithful to its mission must foster a “zeal for the lost,” so that “our hearts would feel a burden for the lost.”
On the one hand, this gives expression to something very important, namely, that Christians need to lift our gaze to those who are hurting, to those who need to hear the gospel. Too often the church gets stuck looking inward, directing all its efforts toward the self-sufficiency of its own community rather than seeing and living outward. We are called into a sacrificial, self-emptying existence, looking always to those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who are . . . lost. The problem, however, is that when the phrase is used in this way we can draw the line in a strange, and arguably, dangerous place.
Consider why Jesus is telling these parables. These parables are the answer to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes who are offended that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. And so the “lost” in the parable—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son—are clearly these people that are drawing near to hear Jesus—these tax collectors and sinners, whose repentance brings joy into the heavenly places. And who are the “ninety-nine”? Who are those that Jesus leaves behind? They are the “righteous persons who need no repentance.” They are the Pharisees and the scribes, of course—these that grumble against Jesus’s association with the lost. These parables are set to condemn them, to make their grumbling stick in their throats.
So, consider the implication: the line between the lost sheep and the ninety-nine, the lost coin and the other nine is not between Christians and non-Christians, between churched and unchurched—unless of course we are to conceive of all our members as Pharisees and scribes who think they need no repentance (I wouldn’t suggest it). The line is set between those who, on the one hand, draw near to hear Jesus, who repent, those who need Jesus, those with whom Jesus chooses to have fellowship; and, on the other hand, those who have no need of Jesus, have no need to repent, and are secure in their own righteousness. We make a serious error when we speak as if that line simply divides church members from non-members. It is a strange ecclesiology (perhaps a profoundly arrogant one) that asserts that we can know who is “in” and who is “out” of the church—that we can identify who are “lost” and who are “found.” To the contrary, Jesus continually challenges any attempt to label and categorize people for the sake of governing our attitude toward them. Thus, when the lawyer asked Jesus earlier “who is my neighbor?”—Jesus would not allow him to use the label on others and instead, through the parable of the Good Samaritan, answered: you are the neighbor, you go be the neighbor, so that everyone is an object of your love.
So it is here, that we are not to draw lines and categorize—“us” and “them,” “churched” and “unchurched,” “in-reach” and “outreach”—we are to repent and then to stand alongside the world—not over against it—and bear witness to this Jesus who has come only for sinners—he has given himself for us all. Only then will the world be able to look at the church and begin to see in our midst “this man who receives sinners and eats with them.”