Rejoicing in God’s Profligate Love (Luke 15:1-3)
[September 13, 2009] Chapter 14 of Luke begins with Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath and some people who set themselves above the crowd being offended. He said to them, basically, “You would save your own donkey or ox on the Sabbath but you have no compassion for this man because he is not one of you; He is only a commoner.” He then told a few parables. He said (essentially), “You do things to receive recognition from one another, but I take the lowest place among you so that my recognition will come from God. You do things so that you can have your reward now from each other, but I invite to the feast of salvation those who cannot repay me so that I can be repaid by God in the resurrection.” Then He said (again, paraphrased), “The Messianic feast of salvation is now ready, but you are all too preoccupied with your own things to come. So God is inviting the poor and crippled and blind and lame. Since that is not enough, He will even compel outsiders to come, sinners and pagans.” This agrees with what the prophet Ezekiel said, that when the Messiah comes He will be like a Shepherd who will “seek the lost one and bring back the one that was driven away and bind up the broken one and strengthen the sick one” (Ezekiel 34:16).
God’s love is indiscriminate and profligate, and this is reflected in the tax collectors and sinners who draw near to Jesus and eat with Him. Everyone is welcome, no matter what their history of things counting against them. Rather than rejoicing at this, these self-serving Pharisees—like the audience in chapter 14—were upset and saddened. So Jesus told three parables, one from the perspective of the Son, another from the perspective of the Holy Spirit, and the third from the perspective of the Father. Each of them is about rejoicing at what They have found—the sinner who was lost.
We want to look at these parables not only from the viewpoint of the righteous (the Pharisees and scribes)—that we should rejoice over the repentance of the lost—but from the viewpoint of the lost themselves (the sinners and tax collectors), and those driven away, the broken and sick, the crippled, blind and lame, the poor, and those on the outside, the pagan idol worshipers. We want to identify with them and see God’s extravagant and reckless love towards us.
Today we will cover the first two parables. Today we are also baptizing Alexander. We want to connect these together.
The Son Coming as the Good Shepherd (15:4-7)
In the first parable, the Shepherd leaves aside the ninety-nine “righteous persons who have no need of repentance” and goes after the one who is lost until He finds him or her. The point is not the numbers (who is in the majority), but the willingness of the Shepherd to give all His attention to the sheep who is lost. Then, when He finds it, He lays it on His shoulders (rejoicing) and carries it home Himself.
Never mind who the righteous are. There were many in Israel who were faithful to God, including Pharisees and scribes. But we are not among them. We are gentiles (non-Jews) who before we became Christians were lost in the wilderness of this world.
When I read the books of the prophets, I am amazed at the note of judgment that is in them. Not only are all the gentile nations under God’s judgment for their idolatry and wicked behavior, but even Israel and Judah are under God’s judgment. All hope is weighted on the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom He will usher in. Israel’s golden age was freighted with symbols pointing to the great spiritual and heavenly truths that have been brought forth in their fulfillment and reality in the coming of Christ. But then a shroud was cast over all this. The age of the prophets made one thing clear: we all come into this world under the cloud of God’s judgment. We are all “Adam,” cast out of the garden to live in futility all our days. All our endeavors are rendered pointless by our sin. This truth that comes out in the Old Testament is the presupposition of the New. The Good News (this is what the word “Gospel” means) comes to us in this “place.”
We are all sheep lost in the wilderness. We are far away from home, in a distant country (verse 13), where there is never enough to drink and never enough food. Moreover, we have lost our way and do not know where we are going. We set a target, head for it, and if we arrive there, we are just as lost as when we started. No one is an exception, not even the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, in John 9:39-41 (when Jesus is about to compare Himself to the Good Shepherd), He says, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” When some Pharisees who heard this said, “We are not blind also, are we?” Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would not have sin; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” In other words, if we think we are an exception, we only fool ourselves.
Though all of Adam (humanity) is lost and under God’s judgment, it is not as though God wants it this way. We have rebelled against God, cutting ourselves off from Him. It is not God who wants us in this wilderness, but we ourselves who have put ourselves there. God’s judgment is not that of an angry father who wants to kill his children and needs to be appeased. This is a false idea. No, God’s judgment is impersonal—it is in the nature of things. God’s essence and nature is light and love and life. If we turn away from this—as we all do—then, if God lets us have our way, there is no alternative but eternal darkness, isolation and death. But though we are all living under the cloud of God’s judgment, and so we experience a taste of this, the full weight of that judgment has not yet fallen (except on Christ). No one has yet been abandoned to eternal damnation (except Him—impossible to conceive!). Nor does God want the full weight of His judgment to fall on us.
Not only is there this impersonal side of God’s nature, because of which we experience His anger (simply as the consequence of our collective choice), God also has a personal side in which He manifests His face—that is, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When God reveals Himself, He reveals Himself as a Person. And this Person (whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit) seeks us out to save us.
God as Son comes into the same wilderness in which we are lost. He becomes a human being, taking on our nature as His own, and lives in the same condition as we do—that is, even though He is without sin (sin being that rupture in our relationship to God), He has still chosen to live under the condition of God’s judgment, sharing that with us. He is still tempted like we are, and suffers as we do.
But He is not simply a sheep. He comes as the Shepherd of the sheep, to seek out the lost ones. He devotes all His attention and energy to this, and ultimately He lays down His soul and dies that we may be found. For He submits obediently to the full weight of God’s judgment, taking it upon Himself. Whether we are looking to be found or not, He seeks us out whatever the cost may be to Himself.
He does this for you, personally. You have not been overlooked or ignored. It does not matter how much you think you have angered God; it does not matter how ashamed or guilty you feel. Jesus did not ask your permission and does not accept your “no.” He has taken you upon Himself as His own problem, and He will seek you out until He finds you. And when He finds you, He will not wait until you can pick yourself up and walk back home. He will take you upon His own shoulders—those strong shoulders that can carry any weight—and He will carry you home. He does this in the strength of His resurrection, in the power of His divine (eternal) life that overcame death and recreated for eternity His humanity (the same humanity that was destroyed on the cross) on a new ground.
How many people think that their salvation depends upon themselves. This is the source of that pride, that self-righteousness, that thinks that becoming and being a Christian is of their own doing. So they look down on those who are not Christians, who reject the faith and may even oppose them. They may even pride themselves as those who once sought after God. We even call inquirers “seekers.” But we fool ourselves. Once I too thought I sought after God. But we do not. We are all running away from God. It is God who seeks after us and overcomes our resistance. There is no ground for pride. There is only ground for humble thanksgiving and praise in awe.
It is Christ who seeks us out and it is Christ who finds us, and having found us, it is Christ who carries us home. All is of grace.
The Holy Spirit Who Seeks Us from Within (15:8-10)
While God seeks us outside of ourselves (“objectively”) as the Son incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, He also seeks us within, inside our “house.” God the Holy Spirit is compared to a Woman within a house who seeks Her lost treasure, a silver coin that has been lost. In the Old Testament the “Spirit” of God is a “She” (the word is in the feminine gender). She lights a lamp—which is the Word of God—and sweeps the house—disturbing our dust, kicking it up and moving it about, searching carefully until She finds Her lost coin.
When we have not yet been found, the Gospel comes to us as the Word of God. “It is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). It may toss about in our soul for years as it sweeps this way and that. But in all that time, it is searching, searching for us, making its way to our heart. We may offer the strongest resistance, as I did, but the Word continues to search.
It is not just the word as some text and its meaning. No, this Word comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a living Word that is relentless in its power to find us out. The Woman searches until She finds! The lamp that the Woman holds is none other than the Gospel of Christ, the story of the Shepherd who searches for His lost sheep and stops at no cost until He finds it. This parable hangs on the first.
The coin does nothing to find itself. The Woman finds it. In the same way, even from this interior point of view (“subjectively”), our salvation does not depend on us. It depends on the work of the Holy Spirit upon us and within us. All is of grace. How grateful we should be!
The Baptized and Those Who Have Been Found (15:4-10)
Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved (Mark I6:16). Baptism by itself does not save anyone. Though all is of grace and it is objectively the Son who seeks us out, not we who seek Him, and it is subjectively the Holy Spirit who seeks us out, the result is that we are found, which means that we repent (turn) and believe. We believe—this is something we do—but the point is that this action of ours does not come from ourselves but comes from the grace of God working within us. It does not overcome our freedom and force us to repent and believe. Rather it overcomes our enslavement to the world and frees us to repent and believe. When we are found, when our heart is found, we are so moved with gratitude, with the profoundest love, that we cannot help but turn to the Love that has found us, and believe.
Baptism sets us apart from the world that is under judgment and declares that we belong to Christ. The children of believing parents are holy, which means they are set apart from the world (1 Corinthians 7:14). The promise of the Holy Spirit is to us and our children (for example, Acts 2:39), and the opportunity is there within the household for them to hear the Gospel as the living Word of God. This means that it is the responsibility of believing parents to bring the Gospel to them, for though all is of grace, God still uses means—the means of the Word—to save us. For how can anyone believe who has not heard, and how can anyone hear unless someone proclaims (Romans 10:14)? The believer’s home must be this sanctified space for the children. When children are of age, they must still believe to be saved, but the grace that saves them works within and through this environment.
The believer too must never leave this foundation of grace. The church is not where, once we are saved, we can leave grace behind. No, the church is always the place where grace is operative. We do not come to the Lord by His doing only to depend on ourselves after we got jump-started by grace. Our growth and development in the faith always depends on the same Love that found us. We never leave this behind to stand on another basis, and so we must never forget it.