How valuable are we to God? How valuable are those not yet in the church?
I want us to learn that everyone is valuable to God.
We will discuss a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Luke 15:1-10 contains the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The metaphor of lost sheep is used throughout the Bible. Psalm 119:176 describes someone who has gone astray from God like a lost sheep. Jeremiah 50:6 blames the shepherds for leading God’s people astray causing them to be lost sheep. This bad leadership took them from their resting place. Matthew 11:28 says that a Christian’s rest is in Jesus. When preachers teach vain philosophy or feel-good fluff instead of what Jesus taught, they do not allow their flocks to rest in Jesus. Ezekiel 34:8 contains a dire warning to shepherds who do not search for God’s lost sheep but only feed themselves. God gets angry at shepherds that spout empty-headed garbage, because it leads people astray like lost sheep (Zechariah 10:2-3).
Repentance: being found
In legalistic thinking, repentance is a change of actions, but that is a shallow definition, and not true to the original meaning at all. Many know that the Greek word for repentance literally means a change of heart. Granted, a change of heart will cause a change in actions, but that is a fruit of repentance and not the root meaning. Luke 15:1-10 also gives a different nuance to the concept of repentance: someone who has been found. Another question also arises: who did the finding? The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are in response to Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. He is the shepherd looking for the lost. Rather than avoiding those corrupted by the evils of this world, could it be that Christians should follow Jesus’ example and get involved with the lost?
The company we keep
In some Christian circles we hear warnings against going to bars or having bad friends. There are also many proverbs that warn against bad company. So, why did Jesus choose to spend time with tax collectors and sinners? They were not his constant companions, but occasional company. Could a Christian choose to enter a bar, spend time with reprobates, or otherwise deliberately have friendships with people who seem to make too many bad choices in life. A major part of Jesus’ mission was to the lost, not the righteous. His reply to those who criticized his choice of company was three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. They are found in Luke 15. Perhaps a better question might be, when so many sinners avoid the average Christian, what was it about Jesus that attracted them?
Who are today's sinners
In Luke 15:1-10 we find Jesus defending his keeping company with sinners. Who were those sinners? Are we not all sinners? Do Christians no longer sin as some suppose? We need to allow Luke to write in his own language and understand his cultural context rather than assume that our definitions fit the text. In Luke’s context, sinners are those who are rejected by the majority of society as undesirables. Today, some might apply that to illegal immigrants, predatory telemarketers, hawkers of get-rich-quick infomercials, marijuana dispensers, any number of disfavored ethnic or religious groups and a whole host of other possibilities. As we think of those whose political, religious, business or other choices are out of favor with the majority, is Jesus reminding us that those are exactly the kind of people he would consider to be lost sheep?
Paul or Jesus
Does Paul excommunicating a man who slept with his father’s wife shows that the Church should be strict and exclusive? Many would kick certain sinners out, but which sins and where would we draw a line? Too many Christians make Paul the last word, rather than Jesus. There may indeed be a rare time when the only choice is to sadly ask someone to leave. However, that is the exception and not the rule. The rule is the example that Jesus set, not Paul. In Luke 15:1-10 Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them without judgment. The debate between inclusion and exclusion is 2,000 years old. Should the Church be small-minded and exclusive or welcoming and inclusive? How can we choose? Which way should a church really be? Shall we begin with Jesus’ rule rather than Paul’s exception?
3 views of repentance
There are three views of repentance and each has value, but only one is true to the original intention. In Luke 15:1-10 when Jesus spoke of repentance, he spoke of the joy that it brings in heaven. One view of repentance speaks of works, turning around and going in the opposite direction. That may be a fruit of repentance as Jesus instructed the Pharisees to bring (Matthew 3:8), but repentance comes before outward change. Others speak of penance, which is the act of making things right, paying a penalty, compensation or being penalized for sin. There is nothing wrong with doing something to make amends, but that also comes after repentance. Repentance comes from a Greek word which simply means a change of heart. Even good deeds are of less value unless they begin in a changed heart.
Finding the lost
Will we find the lost if we don’t act? In Luke 15 Jesus spoke of three lost things, a sheep, a coin and a son. What efforts helping the lost are in the three stories? In the story of the lost sheep, the shepherd had to leave the comfort of the flock and go searching in places where sheep get lost. That meant he may have skinned his knees looking among rocky crags or gotten scratched looking in thorny bushes. In the case of the lost coin, the woman had to turn her house upside down looking in all those unlikely places. In the case of the father, he ran to his lost son when he returned and threw his arms around him in loving welcome. In the church, what can we do to search for and welcome the lost?
The price of a sheep
At 2010 Wyoming market prices of $145 per 100 pounds of weight, the average sheep might bring around $100 a head. So, in Luke 15 when Jesus spoke of a shepherd leaving the 99 behind to look for the one lost sheep, he was speaking of a bad investment idea, humanly speaking. He was not leaving the 99 in safety but in the wilderness, vulnerable to predators. The shepherd put $9900 at risk to save $100. A risk to reward ratio of 99:1 is a far higher gamble than sensible business risk takers would be willing to make. Yet, Jesus risked far more for us. The story is in the exaggerated mode of Hebrew parables, which are precisely designed to emphasize a point. Do we appreciate how much God is willing to risk to save each one of us?
Gambling with sheep
Some Christians lobby against gambling, but fail to understand that God is also a gambler. He is gambling on you and me. Granted, some gambling is foolish risk taking, but getting out of bed is also a risk. Driving a car and eating at a restaurant are gambles. The difference is that some gambles are too risky. The Bible nowhere condemns gambling per se. It does condemn greed and foolishness. However, sometimes even God plays the fool (humanly speaking) for the greatest gamble in the universe. In Luke 15 we see a story of a shepherd gambling with his sheep, leaving 99 unprotected to save one. This was not a carefully calculated safe bet, but a wildly reckless gamble. It was impulsive gambling at its worst. Jesus also gambled everything. Are we willing to take risks to save the lost?
Is capitalism Christianity
One individual who had suffered under communism said that it was just state capitalism, where the 10% in the party made capital of the 90% who were not. Communist East Berlin provided fabulous mansions and an opulent lifestyle for communist bosses, just like wealthy western capitalists. Naive Christians have tried to equate either socialism or capitalism with Christianity. Yet, both are part of Babylon, this world’s systems and miss principles of God’s economy. One example of God’s economic thinking is found in Luke 15 where the stronger power, the shepherd, put everything at risk for the weaker power, the lost sheep. In God’s economy, Jesus sacrificed everything for us. Big governments and corporations are very similar. Both are predators driven by self-interest and unable or unwilling to save the little guy. We in the Church are called to be different.
A needle valve on a front lawn
I was replacing a needle valve in the carburetter of my first car, a Mustang. We didn’t have a garage and the workplace was a front lawn, a foolish place to work with small parts. The obvious happened. I lost the needle valve in all that grass. After two hours of stubborn searching, I was besides myself with frustration and anger. My wife finally noticed my fuming and came out to offer her help. She demanded that I go inside and relax while she looked. Less than five minutes later, she found the lost item. I ran out the front door, jumped for joy and promptly lost the valve again, permanently. This time I bought a replacement. Most of us understand the joy of finding something lost. The joy in heaven over any of us turning to God is great.
Are non-Christians also sheep?
Are non-Christians also sheep? In the context of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-32) those who are sinners are like lost sheep. The term sinner was derisively used by super-religious Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus taught that even the most pious believers have done wrong, because all human beings have sinned. How dangerous and irresponsible it seems for a sheep farmer to leave 99 alone and unprotected for the sake of one lost sheep. The math simply doesn't add up. Locally, lambs average about $350 a head. At those prices, 99 would cost almost $35,000. Putting $35,000 at risk to save $350 does not make business sense, but it does make heavenly sense. The exaggeration shows how much God cares for the lost and his heart’s desire for them to join his flock.
Some Christians have an us-and-them mentality. It is called exclusivism, the attitude of excluding people from the church because of a varying array of deficiencies. No church would willingly include those who actively threaten life and limb, so every church is to some degree exclusive. But, the larger the list of excluded traits, the more exclusive the church. Some churches are excessively exclusive. What would Jesus’ attitude be towards this mentality? In Luke 15:1-32 we seem to be taught that Jesus is actively seeking ways to include rather than exclude people. In this parable, virtually all of humanity not currently in a church could be seen as lost and Jesus’ desire is to find the lost and include them in his flock. Rather than an us-and-them mentality, Jesus seems to have an us and the lost of us mentality.
Celebration of the lost now found
Luke 15:1-32 reminds us that we have all been like the lost sheep, the lost coin or a lost child. Each week at church services is also like a celebration of the return of we who were lost in the world. As we gather together we are reminded of the price paid for us and the joy of our rescue from being lost. Jesus ate with degenerate sinners because those who have gone astray are important to him. We rejoice with him that he has found his lost sheep. In church assemblies we also rejoice with the angels of heaven who throw a great party over even just one sinner who repents. We rejoice with God our father as he celebrates the homecoming of those who were dead and are alive again, who were lost and now are found.
What do nails, obelisks and the Euro have to do with the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15:1-10? It was literally a silver drachma coin and once nails or metal sticks were used as coins called oboloi. Eventually 6 of these nails were worth a drachma (a handful). A small obolos was called an obelisk and so the monument shaped like one was also humorously referred to as a small nail. In later history, silver coins called drachma were minted in many cities where Greek culture had some influence, and they were worth a variety of values. Eventually, a consensus emerged which gave the coin the rough equivalent value of a skilled worker’s daily pay. Modern Greece also used the word drachma for its currency before it was replaced by the Euro. And now you know.
The world’s most valuable coin according to about.com is a 1933 gold double eagle worth in excess of $7.5 million. However, bornrich.com claims that another coin is even more valuable, a silver 1795 flowing hair dollar worth over $7.8 million. Luke 15:1-32 contains a parable of a lost coin. Imagine losing a small object worth almost $8 million. It could get easily lost. Imagine losing a winning lottery ticket worth millions. What would you do? I know what I would do. I’d be turning up everything in the house looking until I found it. Like the lady looking for her lost valuable coin, I’d sweep and scour every nook and cranny. When I found my coin worth millions, I’d be sure to throw a party. So do the angels when even just one sinner repents.
God wants us to understand how valued those who are not in the church are and how we ought to join him in seeking the lost.