This Man Receives Sinners
Trinity Three Sermon 2007| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| St. Luke 15:1-10
Jesus received tax collectors and sinners. They were not the kind of people you’d want as neighbors. The tax collectors were little better than thieves. They abused their authority for personal financial gain. Not only did they work for a foreign occupying government, but they made most of their money by overcharging their own countrymen. When you work hard for your money only to see it legally stolen you won’t have much affection for those who stole it.
The sinners that Jesus received included lowlifes of various descriptions: sellers of vice who tore down public standards of morality; prostitutes who lured men away from their wedding vows and helped to break up families, spread disease, and bring children into the world with no fathers to give them guidance and direction.
If people would only learn to obey certain basic rules of conduct there would be far less crime, suffering, pain, and general misery in this world. Yet the very people responsible for contributing to the decay of the culture are the people that Jesus welcomes to himself. He expresses fellowship with them. He eats with them. He accepts them as they are.
Yes, he accepts them as they are. He doesn’t accept them on account of what they will be or do. He doesn’t look for good in them and accept them because of that little spark of goodness he sees. He doesn’t insist that they become good before he will receive them. He receives them and honors them while they are sinners. Why? He does so because of his mercy alone.
You can no more understand divine mercy than you can climb up to heaven and jump into the mind of God. Jesus is God in the flesh. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the Lord of the nations. He is the King of kings. He is the God who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and gave him the Ten Commandments. He is the virgin-born Son of God. He is the image of the invisible God and the perfect Man. And he is the friend of sinners.
The Pharisees and scribes were scandalized. They accused Jesus of sin. After all, he associated with public sinners. You know what they say about birds of a feather. So they spread rumors about him. They called him a drunkard and a glutton. It was guilt by association. It was a false charge. Jesus never sinned and he never condoned sin. He never approved of or encouraged anyone to sin. When he forgave the woman who was caught in adultery he told her to go and sin no more.
But Jesus is the friend of sinners. There’s no doubt about that. Jesus loves sinners and receives them and welcomes them. He forgives them. He forgives them freely. He dies for them. He bears the load of their guilt by suffering the punishment they deserve to receive. In dying for them he purchases them. In purchasing their freedom from the sin that enslaved them he has become their friend. Jesus is the friend of sinners because he chooses to be. Jesus is the friend of sinners when they have no other friend.
One of the most endearing characters in fiction is a prostitute in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment who turns to prostitution to keep her family alive but is at heart a sincere, loving, and virtuous woman who serves as the agent for the moral redemption of the main character of the story. It is frequently a feature of fiction to idealize victims of vice and portray them as more virtuous than the rest of us. Well, that’s fiction for you. It’s fictional. It’s not true. Jesus loves sinners, not because they are lovable, not because there is virtue beneath their vice, not because of some untapped spiritual potential within them, but because Jesus is God and God is love. We are altogether sinful. God is altogether merciful. Jesus is the friend of sinners. And if you love him you will agree with him.
Is mercy better than judgment? God says so. When you are guilty and you know it you agree with God. You want mercy. When you’ve been wronged by another you want judgment. When we look at the sins of our friends we prefer mercy over judgment. When we look at the sins of our enemies we prefer judgment over mercy. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. He teaches us to desire mercy for our enemies. St. John writes: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17)
Christians have the mind of Christ. We think like Jesus thinks. Christ’s point of view is mercy. Consider his words and actions. Every time our Lord expresses anger, as recorded in the Four Gospels, it is directed against hypocritical self-righteousness and the denial of mercy. Listen to what Jesus says of the scribes and the Pharisees as recorded in St. Matthew 23.
For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. (Vv. 4-5a)
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. (vs. 13)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (vs. 15)
The religion of human works vies against the religion of divine grace. The two are incompatible. The one teaches the sheep to rely on himself. As he does, he wanders further and further away from his only source of help. Sheep need shepherds. They get lost and haven’t got the wherewithal to find their way back to where they belong. They will not stay put and make it easy to be found. They will keep on wandering. Every effort they make to find their way home gets them more thoroughly lost. It isn’t just that they can’t do anything positive toward getting themselves to safety. They can only harm themselves. And that is what they do.
They need a shepherd who will seek them out. They don’t need instructions on how they may find their way back home to safe pasture. They can’t find their way back home. That’s the point. The religion of human works claims that if you give the sheep the correct instructions and he studiously follows them he will be able to disentangle himself from whatever binds him and then walk home safely on his own power. But this is absurd. The sheep is stuck. He can’t get away. If he bleats too loudly the wolf will hear him. He probably smells him already. There is no hope. He needs a shepherd who will take on wolves, bears, lions, or any other predator.
The reason the tax collectors and sinners drew near to hear the words of Jesus is because they were his sheep. They saw in him the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine in the desert in search of the one who is lost. They saw in themselves only sin. They saw in Jesus only righteousness. This righteous Man was their Savior from sin.
Jesus joins himself to sinners. He expresses fellowship with them. But he has no fellowship with sin. Indeed, where Jesus enters in, sin must flee. That because Jesus comes with forgiveness. The smug and self-righteous despise forgiveness. They don’t want to admit that they need it. They would rather judge sinners than forgive them. So they deny forgiveness for themselves. Jesus expresses fellowship with sinners. The sheep that is lost in the wilderness is the same sheep that is carried on the shoulders of the shepherd. What brings the sheep to safety is not a change in the sheep. It is the shepherd who carries the sheep to safety. Then, after being brought to the pasture and safety, the sheep is no longer lost. He’s found. He’s no longer facing death. He’s enjoying life.
And who cares? Jesus cares. He’s the shepherd who searched for the sheep, found it, and with great joy took the sheep home. Who cares? The Church cares. She’s the woman who searched and searched until she found her lost coin and rejoiced when she did. Who cares? Our Father in heaven cares. He’s the father who waited patiently for the prodigal son to return home and when he did he received him with open arms and gave a banquet in his honor. Who cares? The angels in heaven care. They rejoice and sing praises to God every time one sinner repents of his sin and finds forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in Christ, their Savior.
Repentance is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t appear to be. The broken heart that seeks nothing good within itself but trusts in the goodness of Jesus may seem to be rather pathetic. After all, self-confidence appears a bit nobler than self-judgment. But repentance is the occasion for God’s grace to be displayed. And nothing is greater than the mercy God shows to those in need of it. No sin is greater than to begrudge God the grace he lavishes on sinners. God chooses to love the unlovable. By that love he rescues them from death and punishment. By that love their hearts are transformed and their lives are changed. The angels in heaven rejoice and the Christians on earth rejoice with them.