Proper 25 • Luke 18:9–17 • October 23, 2016
By David Schmitt
In this reading, Jesus moves from the world of the imagination, where he tells a parable (vv. 9–14), to the world of his ministry, where he blesses children (vv. 15–17). Both of these worlds are joined by a common problem and a common theme.
The common problem is contempt for others, seen in the description of the audience of the parable (v. 9) and in the reaction of the disciples to those who brought infants to Jesus (v. 15).
The common theme is that Jesus reveals God’s gracious work in how he receives the humble, seen in the pronouncements Jesus makes at the end of each section (v. 14b and 17) and by the actions of Jesus: in Jesus, those who are despised, despairing, and devalued by others are the ones who receive mercy and blessing from God.
Such a theme corresponds to the way Jesus later describes his mission: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).
Preaching on this text can be difficult because the text is subverting common ways of thinking that we no longer hold. For us, Pharisees are figures of self-righteousness only to be condemned (rather than models of righteousness blessed by God) and children are figures of innocence to be sentimentally loved (rather than figures of no social status intruding on a teacher’s time). To capture the shock of this text, a preacher needs to orchestrate a reversal in the sermon where those we assume to be unworthy are suddenly and surprisingly loved by God.
Another method would be to use a metaphor that unexpectedly links to Jesus and leads us to delight in his merciful mission in multiple ways. That is the format of the following sermon suggestion.¹ The sermon opens with a metaphor that surprisingly turns to Jesus so that we see his work of shocking mercy in a multitude of ways.
Life to the Lost
Experiencing the Metaphor: Open with the story of a child who keeps interrupting an adult conversation because he is messing with dirt. I think of a reception I attended where my conversation with an old friend was repeatedly interrupted because her son was, at first, playing in the dirt on the edge of the patio, then with an anthill, and then, after we had moved inside, with the dirt in a potted plant. His fascination with dirt impeded our conversation and kept us looking on the margins to see what he was doing.
Opening the Eyes of Faith: Continue by noting how Jesus, the Son of God, has a delight in messing with dirt. His ministry is filled with marginal moments of mercy. You find him on the edges, attending to the needs of the lowly and despised. From his birth that was announced to shepherds, to his death where he spoke graciously to a thief, to his resurrection where he visits downcast disciples, Jesus is found there on the margins bringing life to the lost. Other examples from Luke could be cited to establish the larger theme.
Now, examine the text and reveal how Jesus interrupts the “holy” conversations of those who despise others to listen to the humble cry of the publican and bring grace to the sinner. This action of Jesus is anchored in his mission to bear all sin and be the Savior for those who are lost, including me and you.
Seeing the World Anew: Close the sermon by offering examples from the contemporary world and the present congregation of Jesus interrupting our conversations to help us see him as our Savior and as the one who brings life to the lost.
Examples could include the work of Neil Shigley, an artist in San Diego, who has a project called Invisible People. Once, when attending a gallery exhibition, he passed by a homeless person as he walked in the door. Their eyes briefly met but he continued in to the gallery. While looking at the artwork, he realized that there was a world he was not seeing: a world of over six thousand people homeless in San Diego, with as many as eighteen hundred children.
Shigley began talking with the homeless, taking a photograph, and then creating larger than life displays of their faces so that people see and share the mercy of God to others in the streets. Mark, one of these homeless, upon seeing his portrait, saw himself more clearly (he said, “When I look at the picture, I appreciate what I am, who I am”) and then confessed what he knew to be true about God: “The gift that God has for people is something, man . . . it’s beautiful.” “God feeds rats and roaches; he wouldn’t forget me.”²
In the parable, when the Pharisee sees the publican, he uses him to launch into a litany of his own good works. Jesus, however, helps us see things differently. He messes in the margins of our lives so that we see his work for sinful people and launch into a litany of God’s good work, his grace in Christ.
¹ The sermon uses the metaphorical movement sermon structure identified by Justin Rossow and described at https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/dynamic/metaphorical-movement/.
² Neil Shigley,”Invisible People,” Plough Quarterly, Spring 2016, 26. www.plough.com/en/topics/culture/ art/invisible-people. Accessed May 6, 2016.