Fr. Michael’s Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2019 (Year C, Proper 19)
Parables are more than just stories. They don’t just communicate information, like when Michelle comes home and wants to tell me about what happened at Anna’s school or about what Josh did at the park. She’s trying to communicate a piece of information to me, and she’s communicating it through narrative form. I don’t need to linger or stay in the narrative too long. I hear the story, get the information, and move on. Parables aren’t like that. Parables are intended to invite further reflection. They want you to linger. They want you to stay in the story. They want you to see the story through the eyes of different characters and ponder the events that unfold in the parable.
We have before us this morning two familiar parables that are part of a collection. There’s another parable that follows, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or, as I prefer, the Parable of the Lost Son, so it’s Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, and all three parables are given in response to a complaint by the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. In fact, it’s not just that Jesus receives sinners. The complaint is that he welcomes them; he receives them in a friendly manner. At the end of Romans, Paul mentions Phoebe and instructs the church to “welcome her in the Lord.” That word ‘welcome’ is the same word used here of Jesus receiving or welcoming sinners. We’ll come back to this, but for now, I want to focus on the end, the punchline, of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which is Jesus saying, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Now, this has always troubled me. Imagine if you ran a company, and you had one hundred employees. Ninety-nine of them always did what you asked, when you asked it, and they always did it to the best of their abilities. And then you have that one employee. We’ll call him Jeff. Jeff’s always late. He’s always struggling to get his work done. Even if it’s done on time, it’s not done well, and everyone complains to you non-stop about this one employee. Instead of firing him, you keep him around for a while, and he comes to you one day and says, “Boss, I’m really sorry for how I’ve been performing, but I’m going to turn things around, and to prove it, I’ve already done all my work for the next two weeks and I think you’ll find that I’ve done exemplary work.”
You take this employee’s work, you look it over, and he’s done an excellent job. And he continues to do an excellent job, so maybe two weeks later, maybe a month, you call him and everyone else in the company into the largest meeting space you can find, so that all one hundred of you can fit. You say to everyone, once you’ll all gathered, “I want to tell you all that I’m thankful for the work that all of you do and for how long and how faithfully you’ve worked for this company, but despite your hard work, despite being on time, despite everything you’ve done, there is more rejoicing in my office over Jeff’s performance than over all the hard work the other ninety-nine of you have done.” I think if I was one of the ninety-nine, and someone told me that, I’d be a little upset. Wouldn’t you?
In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the householder pays all the workers the same amount regardless of how long they have actually worked, and the ones who worked the longest grumble and complain, and the point is that God is free to dispense his grace as he wills, but this is different. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” So what? “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1). μὴ γένοιτο. May it never be. But what am I supposed to tell my kids? “Hey kids, you know what makes daddy happiest? It’s not when you listen to me and do what I told you, but actually, it’s when you don’t do as I’ve told you and then come back later and tell me you’re sorry. That’s what makes daddy the happiest.” There’s a parenting book just waiting to be published, right? How to Mess up your Children by Convincing them not to do as you told them so that they can say sorry later by the Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan.
Here’s the thing. The easiest way to preach this sermon would have been to say, “Look, Jesus is known for welcoming the outcasts of society. Is the church today known for welcoming or for shunning the outcasts of society?” The answer would be obvious, and then we could reflect on what the church could do better to welcome sinners and more specifically what we as a church could do to be known as a friend of sinners. But I think Jesus is saying something more than this, and it’s very subtle and often missed. So, here is what I think is the key to this parable given who Jesus is talking to and their complaint that he is welcoming the wrong kind of people. Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” but what I suggest to you this morning is that those ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance do not exist, and that’s the point. There aren’t ninety-nine righteous persons and one sinner. There are one hundred sinners, and only one of them in this scenario recognizes that he needs a savior.
You see, Jesus opposes the sinner with an impossible category, “a righteous person who needs no repentance.” If you think I’m wrong, show me a righteous person who needs no repentance that isn’t named Jesus of Nazareth. That’s why there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance because that latter category doesn’t exist. The only people in that category are people who have tricked themselves into thinking that they are righteous when in fact they are sinners just like the rest of us. Paul says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10–12).
There aren’t ninety-nine righteous persons and one sinner. There are one hundred sinners, some of whom have been met by the grace of God and been called to repentance, and if we forget that, if we forget that we are sinners through and through, totally depraved, and that whatever we are we are by the grace of God, then we are no better than the Pharisees, we are no better than people who have deluded themselves into thinking that they are righteous when they are not.
We don’t get to judge people because they sin differently than we do. We don’t get to mistreat people because their brokenness is more obvious and less socially acceptable than our brokenness. That’s not how the Gospel works. That’s not how the cross of Jesus Christ works. We are all broken deep down, and thank God for that because if we weren’t then we wouldn’t have any need for a savior.
The church isn’t a place for righteous people, primarily because those people don’t exist. The church is a place for sinners, particularly for sinners who repent and turn to Jesus, and so, like Jesus, we should be known for welcoming the wrong kind of people because we are all the wrong kind of people, and the only thing that separates us from those outside the church is that Jesus has taken a hold of our lives. In Christ, we are saints, yes, but we are saints and sinners, we are Simul Justus et Peccator, and God help us if we ever forget that. Because if we do, we’ll be standing on the outside, watching Jesus share his meal with those that we look down on, and we’ll be wondering why he’s welcoming the wrong kind of people instead of us. And I don’t ever want to be in that place as a church.