Third Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 20, 2010| Luke 15:1-10
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” St. Luke 15:1-10
The religious leaders criticized Jesus because He received sinners and ate with them. The gospel is the good news that God receives sinners and eats with them. The scribes and the Pharisees did not approve of the gospel. It went against their religion. The gospel is a deep offense to those who set out to make themselves holy. The self-righteous hate the gospel of Christ. This is because the gospel is intended only for sinners who cannot make themselves righteous. Those who are regarded as the holiest of the holy condemn the gospel because the holiness of men is nothing but sin, delusion, and self-righteousness. People who try to make themselves good cannot do so. They can only dig themselves deeper and deeper into the mire of sin. The depth of their depravity is seen most clearly in how they think of Jesus. They judge Him. They stand in judgment of God because God chooses to be gracious.
The self-righteous do not always appear to be arrogant and judgmental. They often appear to be quite humble and self-effacing. This parable is not just a criticism of a bad attitude visible on the outside. Jesus tells us this parable because he wants to touch our heart with the central truth on which our faith must rest. The central truth of the Christian faith is that God graciously receives undeserving sinners and freely forgives all their sins for Christ’s sake. This forgiveness of sins is also called righteousness. When God forgives a sinner He imputes righteousness to the sinner. That is, He regards the sinner to be a righteous or just person. On what basis does God regard sinners to be righteous? God regards sinners to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s obedience. Christ became the substitute for sinners. God reckons or credits to sinners the obedience of Christ. He gives the sinner the credit for the good deeds that Jesus did even as Jesus took the blame for all the sins that the sinner did when He suffered and died on the cross.
This righteousness of Christ or forgiveness of sins is given to sinners in the gospel. The gospel is the message of how God in Christ receives sinners and eats with them. The reason the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus was because Jesus was preaching the gospel to them. When Jesus received them and declared fellowship with them God in heaven was giving to those sinners the righteousness of Jesus. God was not imputing their sins to those sinners. Instead God was reckoning to them the righteousness of Christ. He was looking upon them with favor and approval for Christ’s sake. He was seeing them, regarding them, treating them, and embracing them as saints for Christ’s sake. God regarded them as righteous.
They had not done good works to make themselves righteous. But they were righteous. They had Christ’s righteousness. It belonged to them because Christ Himself gave it to them. They received this righteousness of Christ by believing the words that Jesus spoke to them. Jesus says words to us that convey to us His righteousness and the forgiveness of our sins. When we believe what Christ’s words say to us we have what those words give. We are justified. That is, we are reckoned by God to be righteous. This is a faultless and perfect righteousness because it is Christ’s and Christ is the only pure, faultless, and perfectly righteous man who has ever lived.
This teaching of justification by faith alone is the central teaching of our Christian faith. If we know this and believe this, everything else that God has to say to us will become clear. If we reject this teaching we won’t understand anything else God has to say to us. The Pharisees and the scribes were experts in the Holy Scriptures but the Bible remained a closed book for them.
The gospel offends the proud and the self-righteous. They think that since God is holy and cannot tolerate sin he will not receive sinners. In fact, they forbid God to receive sinners and are offended when God chooses to love sinners and forgive them freely by his grace alone. This is why the cross scandalizes them. The teaching that God punished Jesus in the place of sinners and gives to these sinners the righteousness of Jesus is an offense to all humanly devised religions. This is why the gospel is persecuted.
But what is despised on earth is admired in heaven. What brings disgust on earth brings rejoicing in heaven. Religions of human invention leave humanity enslaved in sin. Only God can take sin away from sinners. He does so by having the Innocent bear the guilt of the guilty. Now the holy God can do what all works-righteous people forbid him to do. The holy God who cannot tolerate sin can freely forgive sinners.
The gospel will always offend proud people who stand in judgment of others. Enemies of the gospel often parade themselves as Bible believing Christians. But they preach lies. They preach that God will only accept those who have made themselves acceptable. They teach sinners to seek out God in their own works, struggles, prayers, and religious exercises. But no sinner can make himself into a saint. So they lead sinners either to despair or to embrace a religion of hypocrisy. All works-righteous religions teach people to become hypocrites. They offer a façade of righteousness but underneath there is only sin and death.
The angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents. This is why God wants the gospel to be proclaimed. The tax collectors and sinners went to listen to Jesus. They went to hear the gospel. Consider Zaccheaus. He was a chief tax collector who had become wealthy by ripping off the poor. Jesus freely forgave him and expressed fellowship with him. That’s what led Zaccheaus to repent of his sins and become a Christian. You become a Christian – that is, you repent – only by the power of the gospel. After Christ forgave Zaccheaus his sins, this forgiven sinner gave half of his wealth to the poor and paid back twice the amount the law required to those he had previously cheated. The gospel does not cause sinners to sin more. It changes hearts and lives. Far from being a license to sin the gospel frees sinners from sin’s power and gives them the power to live holy lives.
When people deny justification by faith alone they are taking issue with the heart of God. They are denying God His authority to be God. They are questioning that a holy and righteous God could retain his holiness and righteousness by freely and unconditionally forgiving completely undeserving and unworthy sinners. The truth is that we can know God as our God only as he forgives us all our sins for Christ’s sake.
The gospel doesn’t tell us what we must do to get God to be gracious. The gospel tells us that God is gracious and that for Christ’s sake he forgives us, receives us, expresses eternal fellowship with us, loves us, protects us, and cares for us. The gospel imposes no duty on us. Christ takes all the responsibility. He lives for us. He dies for us. He rises from the dead and brings life and immortality to light.
Jesus seeks us out. He does not seek out the works-righteous sinners who don’t think they need forgiveness. He will be a Savior only of sinners. He searches for sinners. The Good Shepherd hears their pathetic cries for help and picks them up and carries them home. His church also searches for sinners. She has the gospel and sacraments as her birthright and she searches her home, sweeping away everything that could keep the precious soul from God’s grace. The church is constantly cleaning her home by returning to the pure and clear words of the gospel, which alone have the power to find and rescue lost souls.
The gospel leads us to repentance. The law cannot make anyone repent. It can only make us helpless. This is why you must hear the law when you come to church. You must learn to know that you have not loved God with your whole heart and you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. You must be told that no matter who you are and what you have done you deserve God’s judgment and punishment, not His love and approval.
The primary purpose of the preaching of the law is that you will come to see your sins and to condemn yourself in your own heart and conscience for those sins. This is why the gospel of self-esteem is particularly harmful. It may be popular among many, but it keeps people away from their Savior. Those who will not agree with the law when it condemns them for their sins cannot be saved from those sins. The gospel is for sinners whose self-esteem has been shattered. Their hearts condemn them. They don’t want to live in their sins. They want to be set free from them.
You must hear the law. You must know that you are a poor, miserable, helpless sinner. So that you will conclude that you are worthless and of no importance to God? No! It is so that you will conclude that you are precious to God in spite of your many sins. God loves you even as he sees all that you have done against him. You have never escaped God’s notice. When you hid your sins from those nearest and dearest to you, you didn’t hide them from God because God knows all things. And even in knowing the very worst there is to know about you he loves you. He seeks you out. He shows you your sins so that he can lead you to believe him when he tells you that he forgives you your sins for Christ’s sake. And he does. He elicits faith in your heart. He changes you from the inside out. And since he knows that you are weak and sinful even as a Christian, he doesn’t leave you on your own. He keeps you safe and sound within his holy Church by richly and daily forgiving you all your sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen