Over the years, there have been seasons of life during which different passages of Scripture have played special or significant roles. I am currently spending a lot of time with Psalm 46, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Several years ago, prompted in great part by Tim Keller’s treatment of the last part of the chapter: the Prodigal God, I spent a lot of time ruminating on Luke 15.
No doubt you have heard segments of the chapter preached in evangelistic contexts: God is chasing you like the lost sheep and hunting you down like the lost coin and/ awaiting your return like the younger brother. This is certainly an implication of Jesus’ illustrations but they are not the point of the chapter. In fact, when we approach the three illustrations this way, we actually lessen their impact.
We are currently trying to sell our house. Please buy it. It’s got the three most important things to look for: location (near the freeway), location (near Chipotle) and location (near AJ’s). Similarly, the most important things to remember when approaching a passage of Scripture are: context, context, context. Let’s step back a little before stepping forward.
Luke 15 occurs near the middle of Luke’s account and is found in the midst of Luke’s record of many of Jesus’ parables, many of which center on the true nature of God’s kingdom. The chapter is broken in to four sections, with verses 1-2 setting the conceptual context for everything that follows:
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.”
Jesus reacts to the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. verse 3 tells us: So he told them this parable. In the context “this parable” actually refers to three different illustrations all making the same point. It is key to note that, even though he tells three stories, Jesus is making a specific point in response to the grumbling and complaining religious folk.
Throughout Luke, but especially in chapter 14, Jesus pushes against the “religious”understanding of who is part of God’s family and who is not. As Chapter 15 opens, we see Jesus once again pushing the generally accepted traditional, religious boundaries by actually eating with sinners. Not just in word but in deed, Jesus was telling society’s outcasts that there was a place at God’s table for them. And this drove the religious people bonkers because they thought that their place at God’s table was exclusive and that people had to meet certain standards before being welcomed. Jesus comes right through the middle and shatters everyone’s status quo. To the religious, Jesus says: there is room at God’s table, in God’s family for sinners. I have come to bring God’s lost children home. You should be happy instead of furious! To the “sinners,” he says: You have always felt judged and pushed aside and marginalized and taken advantage of and unappreciated and used as political pawns, you who feel like you have no place in society: come, find your true home. Your true family. Your true identity.
Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who loses 1 of 100 sheep (verses 3-7). He drops everything until he recovers the lost sheep and asks his friends and family to rejoice with him. Jesus switches the analogy in verses 8-10. A woman loses 1 of 10 silver coins, turning her house upside down until she finds it, asking friends and family to rejoice with her. Jesus once again switches analogies, this time with the tale of two brothers (11-32).
I’m not going to break down all of this last section, except to point out that, in the established context, the point is not to primarily associate ourselves with the younger brother as a picture of redemption, though it is certainly and beautifully that. The point is that the religious people should be rejoicing that Jesus has come to bring home the lost children of God. Instead, they rest in their religious position as their security and become furious that these “sinners” don’t belong in God’s family without meeting God’s standards (which, of course, they themselves dot and cross every day).
You can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice to the Pharisees and scribes as he equates them with the older brother who was furious at his brother’s return. After all, he had stayed and done every obligation the way it was obligated to be done. How dare the father welcome back this vagabond. Jesus implores with them: these people, God’s children, who were once far off are now with us! They were once enemies and now their family! Pick up a cup, drink, rejoice! This is a family celebration!
Many evangelicals know enough about grace to know, of course, that we cannot earn our way into God’s family. It cannot be merited. That’s why it’s called grace. And yet, we are somehow unable to be extend that same grace (to be gracious) to those still outside of God’s family.
Culturally, many American Evangelicals are more like the Pharisees and scribes than we’d like to admit. Instead of extending “good news” to those we perceive to be “sinners”, we bludgeon them with judgment. We berate them for not living according to God’s standards and we exclude them because they are not like us. In the context of Jesus’ illustrations, it’s as if the shepherd went out and threw rocks at the lost sheep, kicking him for being lost.
I’m not saying that Christians should not have a voice in the public square. Nor am I saying that we should turn a blind eye to society’s evils or that we should somehow pretend that there is no such thing as sin or right and wrong. But I am saying that, far too often, we are not “Good News People”. We lead with critique rather than love. We follow-up with judgment rather than service.
I know you’re not supposed to point out a critique without also offering a solution but I certainly don’t have anything figured out. I am troubled by the fact that the sinners loved to be around Jesus and couldn’t stand to be around the religious folk. Some how, some way, Jesus was able to bring people to a realization of their sin without them ever questioning that He was for them. I wonder what this implies for the Church in America’s relationship with the surrounding culture. Are we perceived as being for our society or are we known by what we’re against? How can we hold true to God’s Word without being jerks? How can we hold fast to virtue without being self-righteous and judgmental? How can we be “Good News People” in a world filled with bad news?
I worry that we’ve forgotten that Jesus exposed and dealt with sin in loving ways while we expose and deal with sin in shouts of judgment and exclusion. I worry that we’ve forgotten that Jesus’ harshest condemnations of sin were actually for religious hypocrisy and that he came to bring good news.
What might it look like for a Christian culture in America that sacrificed itself for the good of others? What might change if we were known for being for others rather than against them? Maybe we might have the chance to be heard?