A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
June 16, 2024

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
St. Luke 15:1-10
by William Klock


The Pharisees and the scribes were angry with Jesus.  Our Gospel, taken from Luke 15 if you’re following along, begins as Luke tells us:


All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing new to listen to Jesus.  The Pharisees and the scribes [they were the legal experts] were grumbling.  “This fellow welcomes sinners!” they said.  “He even eats with them!”


But why would they be angry about that?  You might remember the story I read with the kids a few weeks ago, the one about the “Super-Extra-Holy People”.  Those were the Pharisees.  And you’d think that seeing sinners repent, seeing sinners change their ways, seeing sinners welcomed back into the covenant community, you would think that the Extra-Super-Holy People would be thrilled to see that happening.  But they weren’t.


To understand why, we need to understand a bit about these Super-Extra-Holy Pharisees.  They were an interest group.  They were mostly rich people.  Some of them were part of the Sanhedrin, which was the governing council of the Jews.  But they weren’t really the gatekeepers of Judaism.  They had their own ideas of what it meant to be a proper Jew.  But they didn’t have the authority to say who was in or who was out.  The priests in the temple, they were the gatekeepers—literally.  It was up to them who could come into the temple and who could not.  They were the ones who offered sacrifices for the people.  They had the control, not the Pharisees.  But the Pharisees could still make their views known.  They could be spiritually ostentatious in public.  They could talk—even if the priests didn’t care and even if they annoyed the common, ordinary, every-day people who went about their faith and their law-keeping in the usual way.  They could look down their noses at Jesus and they could argue with him, but they couldn’t do anything to him.  That’s why, as we saw last week, they lurked around, watching him in the hopes he’d do something or say something that they could report to the authorities—something arrestable and punishable—because they didn’t have that kind of authority themselves.


But what were the Pharisees actually about?  Well, they longed for the Lord’s return.  The people had returned from their exile in Babylon, they’d rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple, but the Lord’s presence—his shekinah—had never come back to rest in the holy of holies.  And God’s people were still living under the boot of foreign pagans.  First it was the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  And so they decided to be Super-Extra-Holy.  Pretty literally.  They did this by taking the torah’s laws for the priests and the temple and they applied it to themselves.  To enter the temple, the Lord required ritual purity.  It reinforced the idea of the holiness of God and of his presence to the people, because in ordinary life you dealt pretty regularly with impurity.  Impurity wasn’t a bad thing in itself.  There were some sins that would leave you unclean, but mostly impurity came from ordinary things like menstruation or sex or contact with a death, whether human or animal.  In most cases, you waited for a day, then bathed, and you were ritually clean again.  But unless you were a priest, it wasn’t a big deal, because you only really had to be ritually pure if you wanted to go to the temple and most people only did that on the great feast days.


But the Pharisees, they saw that the world is not as it should.  They knew that earth and heaven were created to be one, overlapping unity.  They knew that human beings were created to enjoy God’s presence, but that human sin had created a rift between earth and heaven and human beings and God.  They longed to see things on earth as they are in heaven.  They knew, the one place in the whole world where earth and heaven, where our realm and God’s realm overlapped was the temple.  So they resolved to live their lives as if they were perpetually, every day, living in the temple.  Like the priests, they kept themselves ritually pure all the time.  Maybe if everyone did that—or at least tried—the Lord would finally return to his people and his presence would again fill the temple and he would defeat Israel’s enemies.  But, of course, only rich people could afford to live that way, so not very many people did.


So the Pharisees were well-meaning.  They understood God’s grace.  Contrary to popular opinion, they weren’t trying to earn their way into God’s favour.  But there’s something that seems to happen whenever people start looking for ways to be holy above and beyond the ordinary or when we start making rules for ourselves that God didn’t give us in the first place.  It happened with monastics in the Middle Ages, when celibacy became a sign of being Super-Extra-Holy and ordinary Christian—who were faithfully fruitful and multiplying as God commanded in the beginning—were made to feel unholy and second-class.  It happened with the Methodist Holiness Movement in the Seventeenth Century, with what started out as Wesley’s desire to simply see Christians being more faithfully holy turning into a movement where Christian brothers and sisters were frowned on for putting sugar in their tea rather than drinking it black and giving the money to the poor.  It eventually led to people thinking that the gift of God’s Spirit was a separate event in the life of the Christian that you had to earn by reaching a certain level of holiness—turning the Christian life completely upside-down.


So wanting to be more holy is a good thing, but certain ways of doing it seem to have a powerful tendency to make us self-righteous.  Even when we know that being God’s people is all about grace, we can still act very self-righteously.  It happened to the Pharisees and it can happen to us.  And so they rightly saw that the world is not what it should be.  It’s full of sin and pain and tears and that’s all because of unholiness and sin.  They knew that only God can ultimately set it to rights, but they also knew that God’s people—whether Israel in the Old Testament or the Church in the New—we’re called to live God’s law—the torah in the Old Testament and the law of the Spirit in the New—we’re called to live God’s law and through that to became pockets of God’s new creation, his future world set to rights, we’re called to be pockets of that here in the present.  But some people out there are obstinate in their sin.  Some people are really awful sinners and we can literally watch as they make a mess of the world around them.  They do things that drag others into sin.  For the Pharisees that was the tax collectors, who collaborated with the Romans and who stole from their own people.  It was prostitutes, who not only sinned themselves, but who enticed others into sin.  Pharisees could see the fallout as men destroyed their lives and families because of prostitution.  These things were grievously wrong and sinful.  They were choices people made and they were conscious rejections of God’s covenant.  They weren’t just sinners, they were traitors, and they were very tangibly making the world a worse place.  And so the Pharisees—and I’m sure even ordinary people in Israel—they longed for the Lord to deal with these sinners.  And that’s good.  And I expect they prayed: Lord, bring Matthew the tax collector, bring Mary the prostitute, to repentance—or judge them.  Either way, put an end to the sin.  And, again, that’s what God does with sinners.  They were right to pray that way.


But, again, something happens when we start making rules for ourselves that mark us out as super-extra-holy.  First, we forget that even if our sins aren’t as heinous, none of us is ever perfect or sinless.  We all contribute in some way to the mess this world is in and the pain and the tears of the people around us.  But, maybe worse, we can start to resent when those really bad sinners don’t get their just comeuppance.  Self-righteousness creeps in and grace and mercy get pushed out even though we know better, and we start longing to see God’s judgement fall on sinners and we become resentful when they do repent—like the men in Jesus’ parable who were angry when they, who had worked through the heat of the day, received the same wage as the men who had only worked an hour.  The Pharisees expected the Messiah to come in judgement on the unfaithful in Israel, to smite the tax collectors and the prostitutes and all the other sinners, but instead Jesus was eating with them.  The Pharisees knew that if Jesus was the Messiah, sharing a meal with him was like a promise of the great banquet that the Lord had promised the prophets, the great banquet that would take place when Israel was restored, when the world was set to rights, and when sinners were wiped from the earth for ever.  That banquet was for people like the Pharisees.  The tax collectors and sinners were supposed to be outside in the dark, weeping and gnashing their teeth—suffering the Lord’s wrath because they’d missed their chance for repentance.  Even though they knew that being the people of God was about grace, the Pharisees had managed to become self-righteous.


But there was a second thing about the Pharisees.  Remember that they were all about the temple.  They weren’t priests.  They couldn’t live in and around the temple the way the priests did, so they had their way of bringing the temple to them by following the purity codes for the priests in their everyday lives.  They wanted to see things on earth as they are in heaven.  But as they followed Jesus around and watched him, one thing that we might miss, but that stood out like a sore thumb to them, was that he bypassed the temple.  According to the law, for a sinner to be right again with the Lord, he had to repent of his sins, he had to make restitution for his sins, and he had to offer a sacrifice at the temple.  But time after time, they watched as Jesus simply forgave sinners and sent them on their way.  There’s only one time recorded in the Gospels when Jesus sent someone to see a priest, and that wasn’t a sin issue.  That was the leper he healed.  He sent them man to the priest—maybe to the temple or maybe just to a local priest—so that his healing could be verified and he could be readmitted to society.  But when it came to sinners, Jesus bypassed the temple, the priests, and the sacrificial system entirely.  That absolutely infuriated the Pharisees.  The Messiah—so they thought—should have been reinforcing the importance of the temple, but instead Jesus was bypassing it.  In fact, when he did go to the temple, he upset everything and brought the sacrifices to a halt while people ran around to collect all the animals he’d scattered.  And then he was announcing that he would destroy and rebuild it in three days.  This, I think more than anything else, made the Pharisees angry.  In Jesus, the God of Israel was doing something new.  In Jesus, the God of Israel had begun the process of uniting earth and heaven, when he took on human flesh.  In Jesus, the God of Israel had begun the work of creating a new people for himself, a people who instead of having a temple, would themselves be the temple as he poured his own Spirit into them.  That’s why Jesus was bypassing the temple and offering people forgiveness apart from the priests and sacrificial system.  This is why Jesus was announcing and acting out prophecies of the temple’s destruction.  But the Pharisees just couldn’t let go of the temple.  They’d more or less made an idol of it—one that would become symbolic of unbelieving Israel’s continuing rejection of the Jesus as Messiah.  The rabbis were the spiritual descendants of the Pharisees and to this day, rabbinic Judaism is still fixated on the temple.  When the Lord sent the Romans in judgement to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and to expel the people from the land, it was not only an act of judgement for their rejection of Jesus, but a not-so-subtle way of announcing that the days of the old covenant were through.  The temple had served its purpose.  Its role is now fill by Jesus and his people.  And yet unbelieving Israel continues to gather at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the temple’s foundation, to pray—continuing to obstinately reject the Messiah.  The Pharisees, with their fixation on the temple and its holiness codes, were the embodiment of what it meant and what it looked like to refuse what God was doing in Jesus.


So Jesus responded with three parables.  We read the first two in our Gospel today.  The third is the parable of the prodigal son.  Here’s how Jesus responded to their obstinate rejection.  Again, Luke 15.


Jesus told them this parable.  “Supposing one of you has a hundred sheep,” he said, “and you lose one of them.  What will you do?  Why, you’ll leave the ninety-nine out in the countryside, and you’ll go off looking for the lost one until you find it!  And when you find it, you’ll be so happy—you’ll put it on your shoulders and go home, and you’ll call your friends and neighbours in.  ‘Come and have a party!’ you’ll say.  ‘Celebrate with me!  I’ve found my lost sheep!’”


Shepherds weren’t really the Pharisees kind of people, but they might have owned flocks that other people took care of.  They knew the value of livestock and, being rich men, they counted their beans and knew the value of every one of them.  They could understand the fear the shepherd felt for his lost sheep.  Could he find it?  Would he find it?  And if he did, would it be too late?  Would he find the corpse eaten by wolves?  I don’t know a thing about shepherding, but I get it.  And I can identify with the joy of the shepherd when he got home, carrying that lost sheep, and called his friends to rejoice with him.  We all sympathise with the shepherd and so did the Pharisees.  And notice that the parable is actually one long question that Jesus puts to them.  “If this happened to you, wouldn’t you rejoice?”  Of course they would.


And then skipping now to verses 8 and 9 Jesus tells them a second parable.  This time it’s not one of ninety-nine that’s lost; it’s one of ten.  (In the third parable it’s one of two.)


“Or supposing a woman has ten drachmas [those were little silver coins] and loses one of them.  What will she do?  Why, she’ll light a lamp, and sweep the house, and hunt carefully until she finds it!  And when she finds it she’ll call her friends and neighbours in.  ‘Come and have a party!’ she’ll say.  ‘Celebrate with me!  I’ve found my lost coin!”


I get this.  A couple of weeks ago I was restoring an old lantern and when I went to put it back together I was missing a small part.  They haven’t made that part since the 1950s.  I couldn’t find it.  I looked online at the place that sells that sort of thing and they didn’t have any.  I went to the collector groups online to ask if anyone had a spare.  No one did.  So I swept the whole garage and then I went through the dustpan with a magnet.  Nothing.  So I moved everything away from the walls and swept again.  Again with the magnet.  Nothing.  This time I took everything out of the garage and swept everywhere.  Finally the magnet found that little part.  I went back to the Facebook group.  “I found it!”  And everyone rejoiced with me.


But notably we’ve gone from a shepherd well enough off to have ninety-nine sheep to a woman with only ten drachmas.  They were probably her bridal headdress, but that there were only ten coins says that she was poor.  Headdresses with hundreds of coins were common.  We can imagine this woman—an elderly widow—taking out her precious bridal headdress and putting it on to remember that day so long ago.  And when she goes to put it away she notices one of the ten coins is missing.  She doesn’t see it anywhere and panics.  The sort of house a woman like that lived in was small and dark—hard to see anything small—so she sweeps the whole house.  And finally she finds it and she’s so excited she runs to tell her friends so that they can share her joy.  And, again, there’s that question.  “If this happened to you, wouldn’t you rejoice?”  Of course they would.


Two-thousand years distant we understand the stories, we sympathise with the shepherd and with the woman.  I bet that everyone who reads these stories immediately thinks of some time when something like this happened to them and the Pharisees were no different.  Jesus really drives the point home: If we can rejoice over a lost sheep or a lost coin that we’ve found, how much more ought we to rejoice over a lost sinner who repents.  Jesus strikes at their self-righteousness and lack of mercy.  God had once rescued them when they were lost in Egypt and slaves to Pharaoh.  He’d delivered Israel and claimed them as his own.  He even named Israel his son.  He naturally grieves over those who reject his gracious covenant and he just as naturally rejoices when they receive his grace and return.  I fully expect the Pharisees understood this was what Jesus was getting at, but just to make sure he says it out loud at the end of each story:


“Let me tell you: that’s how glad they will be in heaven over one sinner who repents—more than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance…[and]…that’s how glad God’s angels feel when a single sinner repents.”


Their idea of “on earth as it is in heaven” had gradually come to mean condemning sinners and consigning them to God’s judgement.  But Jesus is saying, if you want to see what’s going on in heaven stop looking to the temple.  That worked in the past, but in me God is doing something new.  Again, this is part of the reason why Jesus was forgiving sins and declaring people clean.  He was acting out and showing people how he is the new temple.  In him heaven and earth have come together.  In Jesus we have the firstfruits and a foretaste of God’s redemption and his new creation.  So in these parables Jesus is telling the Pharisees, if you want to manifest on earth what is happening in heaven, look at what I am doing, not at the old temple.  And in Jesus and in his banquets with tax collectors and sinners we see that God truly loves sinners and that he’s sent Jesus not to condemn us in our sin, but to rescue us and to lead us back to him in repentance and faith.  We’re reminded here of Jesus’ words in John 3:16-17:


“This is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost, but should share in the life of God’s new age.  After all, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.”


The restoration of sinners was so important to God, that he was doing something dramatically new—and instead of rejoicing over what Jesus was doing, the Pharisees were rejecting him.  The Pharisees were partly right.  They were right to look forward to a day of coming judgement when God’s Son would come to condemn sinners and to vindicate the righteous.  What they got wrong was that it never occurred to them that God would send his Son, not just at the end of history, but would first send him into the middle of history, to call sinners to repentance and to offer himself as a sacrifice for their sins.  To step into the middle of history to set a group of people to rights so that they would be his means of proclaiming his kingdom and his gracious forgiveness of sins—his gospel—to the world, so that when he does return at the end of history we won’t be condemned.  In this we see the love of God.  He didn’t cast humanity from his presence with a “Good riddance!”  We sundered heaven and earth and when we did, God set in motion a gracious plan to bring us back together.


Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has sought us out in our lostness, he’s forgiven us, and now invites us to his Table.  He’s given himself as a sacrifice for our sins and this morning he invites us to his heavenly banquet.  But how do we come?  Again, this is the meal Jesus gave us to make sense of the cross.  He is the Passover lamb sacrificed for our sins.  By his death he frees us from our bondage to sin and death and leads us into new life and new creation.  In Jesus we see grace.  We don’t deserve any of this.  We’re the rebels; we’re the sinners; we’re the God-haters.  One day he will wipe such people from creation so that it can be finally, once and for all set to rights.  We deserve nothing but death, but in his grace Jesus offers us forgiveness and restoration and life.  And when we take hold of his grace in faith he tells us that the whole heavenly court rejoices.  What was lost has been found.  What ran away has been restored.  Someone who had been an enemy of God, is now a friend—even a son or a daughter.


But we’re always at risk of forgetting that we come to the banquet only by grace.  It’s interesting that in the gnostic pseudo-gospel of Thomas, the parable was changed.  In that telling of the story, the shepherd explains to the lost sheep that he sought it out because he loved it and he valued it more than the others.[1]  We’re prone to twisting the story the same way in our own minds—thinking that we’ve been invited here to the Table because we deserved to be here.  But that’s not the story Jesus tells.  The one sheep that was lost was no more valuable than the other ninety-nine.  The one coin lost was no different than all the others.  In fact, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which follows them, the son who was lost was an utter twit and many people justly wonder why his father didn’t simply disown him.  The only difference between the one and the ninety-nine and the one and the ten is that the one was lost.  Brothers and sisters, we are not here because we’ve earned God’s love.  We’re here by his grace.  We are here because he rejoices in redeeming sinners.  We’re here because it pleases him to forgive his enemies and restore them to his fellowship.  In this we see his glory.


Jesus upset the Pharisees because he made manifest on earth the reality of heaven that they had forgotten.  He revealed that the Lord is a God who loves his enemies and desires to save them.  We pray the words from Jesus’ prayer: “on earth as in heaven”.  But do we live out the reality of heaven in our lives by reaching out to sinners with the love and grace and joy of heaven?  It’s easy to fall into self-righteousness and it’s easy to live with an attitude of condemnation.  Brothers and Sisters, remember this morning that we come to the Lord’s Table because of his love and grace.  We come as sinners forgiven.  When you go, don’t leave all of this at the door of the church, but take it with you so that you can encounter the world with grace and with the same love that God has shown you in Jesus.


Let us pray: Loving and gracious Father, help us to grasp your deep, deep love for sinners and the profound graciousness of grace.  Remind us of the joy in your courts over sinners who were lost and now found.  And, Father, help us to love our fellow sinners as you have loved us and show us ways in which we can make the reality of heaven known here on earth.  We ask this through Jesus the Messiah our Lord.  Amen.

[1] Gospel of Thomas 107.

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