September 12, 2013

Sinners Test Our Love (Proper 24)

The Parable of the Lost Sheep is a stinging criticism of a particular type of religious person. It is aimed at people who think they are better than others and have a right to judge others. This is a very natural human thing. I know I have done this and am probably not alone. Jesus is teaching us that judging others may be evidence of a failure to love. There is a distinction between judging in the sense of being aware of sin and condemning the sinner; and being aware of the sin and reaching out to the sinner with an offer of forgiveness. Many people in our time say they try to avoid judging altogether. This is actually more unloving than making a judgment and then reaching out to the lost person.

1. Notice the audience
We have to read the Bible very carefully. It is easy to skim over key words that can change the meaning of the text. We always have to read the text "in context".
  • What is going on?
  • Who is speaking? For example in the Gospel Reading it says Jesus told "them" a parable.
  • Who is this "them". If we look at the preceding verse (Luke 15.2) we are told the Pharisees were muttering about Jesus eating with sinners. My take on this is that Jesus is not talking to the "crowd" or the "sinners". Jesus is talking to the Pharisees.
  • To understand the Parable we need to ask how do the Pharisees relate to going after lost sheep?
  • The role of the Pharisees was to model strict religious behaviour in keeping the Law of Moses; and to teach this to the people by example. The goal was to prevent people from breaking the religious Law and become sinners. Being human they tended to think they were more holy or more religious than others. This attitude of judgment was scaring people and separating them from the people.
  • There was no love in their judgment. It was preventing them from helping those who had broken the Law to repent and change their behaviour. They were not going out after the lost sheep. They were being their own little holy huddle or elite flock of sheep. Jesus is condemning this as a failure to love.
2. Deep down were are all a little like the Pharisees
We all like to think we are good Christian people - and we are. The problem is that as we read the Bible we do gain special knowledge that does make us a little different from others. It is natural to think that because we have this knowledge we have a right to judge others. And we do have a right - even a responsibility to judge others.
  • If we just ignore what other people are doing, that is also a failure to love. It means we don't really care about either Jesus or the other people.
  • The goal of Christian judging is not to put others down or to punish them. The goal of Christian judging is to identify the lost sheep so that we can go out and bring them home to Jesus. This is never going to be easy or comfortable for us. This is going to require self-sacrificial love. It is probably going to involve social and personal risks. That is why Jesus uses the example of a lost sheep.
  • Sheep are not very smart. To make matters worse they do not like to be told what to do or where to go. Like humans they tend to wander off and eventually find themselves in a dangerous place. The shepherd would have to first of all have been watching to notice the sheep was missing. Then he would have to take the risk of leaving the rest of the flock unattended while he went out into the cold, dark night to find the sheep. Those of you who have come home late from a hike in the mountains will understand how much love it would take to go out at night and look for a sheep that was probably stuck on a cliff edge.
  • This is exactly the kind of love, measured in uncomfortable, risk taking physical effort; that the Pharisees were not modeling. Instead they were staying in their nice circle of friends complaining of how bad the sinners were.

3. Sinners test our love
Sinners are the lost sheep we are to go out and bring home. The word "sin" means separation. It means someone has done something that has separated them from God. Because God is holy, God can not be in the presence of people that are unholy.
  • The good news is that "…Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1.15). We are all sinners at some level or to some degree. The good news is that Jesus is the good shepherd who goes out into the cold and the dark to find us when we are lost and separated.
  • If we are to be serious about following Him, we too, are expected to leave the comfort of our lives and go out and find the lost sheep.
  • Every family has a few lost sheep. Every work place has a few.
  • If we know about Jesus we probably know something they do not know. This something is that there is a way to forgiveness and restoration in the family of God. Jesus is that way and we are the ones who are to share this good news.
  • It is not an option. It is a test of our love.

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