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Joy in Heaven

The two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are about joy. The nature of God is revealed in the rejoicing in heaven or in the presence of the angels of God, at the finding of one who was lost. This was as close to direct talk of God's feelings as the Jews would have felt proper. That it was intended to show how God felt is seen clearly in the character of the father in the parable of the lost son which follows immediately afterwards:-

God cares. He cares for each and every one. For one to be restored to the family is a cause for rejoicing. So the father ordered a great celebration when the lost son returned; and shepherd who bought home the lost sheep and the woman who found the lost coin called others to help celebrate -- to help express their feelings of joy.

The sheep were individually known and the coin was probably a dowery coin which women wore in a band on their heads. People cared about each one of these possessions. That the stories are about the caring and accepting nature of God is shown in several ways:

1. After each parable the interpretation that Jesus gave was about the rejoicing that followed.

2. The parables were told in answer to the criticism of those who said that Jesus kept bad company.

3. The sheep and the coin were sought out by the carers who searched for them, and there is nothing in the parables themselves about repentance. Repentance is in the interpretation, but in the stories the point is simply that they were lost and then found. It is the finding of them that matters, and that comes from the initiative of the one who searches.

4. These two stories are followed by the special story about the elder brother of the prodigal son, the father saying in answer to the elder brother who objected to the party for his brother, But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" -- Luke 15:32

The controversy

The kind of criticism that Jesus was answering was quite common. He was constantly being accused of breaking the religious law and keeping company with those did. The phrase `Tax collectors and sinners' referred to a class of people who were considered to have put themselves outside the covenant community of Israel by their way of life which included cheating or taking advantage of people, and their carelessness of God in failing to keep religious rituals in daily life, such as washing before meals, avoiding certain foods and not doing any work on the Sabbath. They who were called sinners set themselves apart by not trying to belong. They were traitors to their country, working for a foreign power and showing none of the signs of loyalty in conforming behaviour. That is rather different from our common idea of sinning, in which we tend to think of specific acts or even thoughts that are unworthy, even when we are trying to do what is right. They were not trying.

These were not pious people who fell short, but outsiders who seemed not to care. Yet Jesus demonstrated that if they were shown the love of God they would respond to him. It is their inclusion within the sphere of God's concern that is to be celebrated. They certainly changed their ways, if Matthew (Luke 5) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) are examples, but that seems to have been more because they were accepted than vice versa.

This is seen in the story of the calling of one of the tax-collectors to be a disciple of Jesus. Levi or Matthew responded to the call, and he called his friends to celebrate:

On another occasion, Jesus told of two sons: one did what his father wished although he said he would not, and the other said he would but did not:

Those were hard words the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. There were many occasions when Jesus spoke in this way. So much of his good news about the kingdom of God is about including or accepting people who are regarded, even by themselves, as being unacceptable. The point of the parable of losing and finding was not so much to encourage repentance, important though that was, as to encourage acceptance of those whom God had already accepted.

Luke's inclusiveness

The four gospel writers, the evangelists, the people who brought us the good news in written form, tend to make different emphases, each bringing the good news in their own way. Luke more than Matthew and Mark emphasises the universal nature of God's love and way that the gospel is good news for all. For example he records the story of the Good Samaritan [10:3-37] and makes other favourable references to such despised people [17:11-19]; Luke (like John in some respects) indicates that women have a new place of importance among the followers of Jesus [7:36-50; 8:3; 10:38-42]; and he promised that Gentiles will have an opportunity to accept the gospel [2:23; 3:6; 24:27].

Remember the account that Luke gave of the birth of Jesus: there was an announcement of joy with universal application:

See the same joy and the inclusiveness of the message the angel brought to the shepherds in the field when Jesus was born: good news of great joy for all the people.

It is not surprising then to find that when Luke tells the same story as Matthew he tells it a little differently in this respect. Both gospels include the parable of the lost sheep, but only Luke gives us in addition the lost coin and the lost son to reinforce the same point. In the search for the lost sheep Luke says

Whereas Matthew says:

What stands out here is the character of God as one who cares, who goes out searching on his own initiative expecting to find the lost and rejoicing in the outcome. The suggestion of salvation for all only strengthens the overall impression that God would rather accept than reject the sinner. Good and righteous people are called on to do no less.

Implications for us

The message is clear about accepting the sinner and the grace of God in which people are accepted not because they are good, but because God loves them. Yet it is amazing still how little this teaching is heard and understood. There is a very widespread and persistent belief directly opposed to this teaching. People seem very often to believe that the good and righteous will be preferred by God, even to the extent of thinking that we can earn our place in heaven by what we do. It is not true. We depend on God; our hope is in one seeks out those who are lost ones, not saying that he will have them back if they are good, but caring for them in spite of their waywardness, while still giving to the faithful elder brothers and sisters all that is due to them.

There are implications for us personally in being able to accept the fact that we are accepted in spite of our being unacceptable. That is what it means to have faith.

The main point of the two parables, however, is in our attitudes to others. If God accepts sinners, who are we to question their acceptance. Most of us will see that well enough as part of the gospel, but it not easy to act on it.

Acceptance of people is not approval of behaviour

Christians are sometimes afraid that if they are too friendly with people whose behaviour is not what it should be then others will think we approve of what they do. Jesus accepted sinners without approving what they did. In fact he had very high standards. He challenged people to be holy, much more in tune with the mind of God than merely keeping a few rules; and he certainly did not say that the moral law could be broken, let alone imagining that there is no such law of God. That is where popular liberal attitudes are wrong. The mere fact that people are free to make choices, and ought to be free to choose, does not mean that we should agree with whatever they choose. They and we can be wrong. We recognize that fact, in the light of the grace of God, when we accept people in spite of their faults.

These days there claims commonly made that in accepting people as they are while still sinners we must accept what they do. That is nonsense. It is not what Jesus did. He reached out to them, as he taught that God did, while they were still sinners, while at the same time, he did call on them repent. Yet, he did not say `I will love you if you repent', but rather "If you love me, keep my commandments." He implied in stories like the lost sheep and lost coin that he would live out the love of God which is extended to people while they are still lost. Indeed, as Paul wrote, it was while we were still sinners that he died for us (Romans 5:8).

So moralistic has been the common attitude that is still with us that people tend to look to the church expecting to be thought not good enough. It is so sad, and so far from the gospel. Because of this attitude, even amongst many believers who are afraid of rejection if others in the church knew about their faults, it is necessary to work very hard at affirming the acceptability of everyone who seeks a place in the family no matter what they have done. How, for example, would you respond to the presence in the congregation of a prostitute or someone who has been convicted of fraud, or sexual abuse? Make up your own examples and think how you would feel. We look for repentance, of course, but acceptance comes first. We then share in God's caring for the lost one, which is the foundation of acceptance, a basis of loving trust on which it is possible for a sinner to turn to God in repentance.

The call is to rejoice with those who rejoice over one sinner who repents. We glory then with the angels in heaven at the amazing love of God calling forth response sinners to his acceptance of them.

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