Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 15, 2019
“Grumblers and People of Doubtful Reputation”
Luke 15: 1-10 – Common English Bible
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
I have a couple of more stories:
Nasrudin rode the train to work every day. One day, as usual, the train conductor came around and asked for his ticket. He began fumbling around in his coat pockets, and his pants pockets, and then in other people’s pockets. He looked in his briefcase, in his bags, and then in other people’s bags. Finally, the train conductor said, “Nasrudin, I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That’s where most men keep their tickets.” “Oh no,” said Nasrudin, “I can’t look there. Why, if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.”
Another story about Nasrudin. One day he was seen out in the street frantically looking for something. People asked him, “What are you searching for?” “I’ve lost my key.” So a bunch of helpful people joined in to search for the lost key. Someone finally asked, “Where did you lose it?” He said, “In the house.” People looked at each other and one of them asked, “Then why are you searching for it on the street?” “Because there is more light out here.”
Surely, we all have stories about losing something important. One of those frightful occasions for me was one cold winter night when I had to be at an event at Montview Presbyterian. I was in my office running late and in a rush to get there. I had my keys in my hands and then I didn’t. I retraced my steps in the areas where I had been. Lifting papers, opening drawers. You know the drill. Then I searched in areas where I hadn’t been, you know, just in case they walked off on their own. I searched and searched and finally I had to leave because I was part of the program. Joan Root gave me a ride. Afterwards, I sheepishly called Art to come and pick me up. It was cold outside, the kind of night where you can see your breath, so while standing on the corner, I put my hands in my coat pocket. I had never put my keys in my coat pocket before. I keep my keys in my right pants pocket. Always. But there they were. I was probably more embarrassed than relieved. I probably felt sillier than joyful at finding them.
But losing my office, house, and car keys are obviously just an inconvenience compared to the economic loss for the woman and the shepherd. In addition, I’ve never had to frantically search and search and search until I found a lost pet. I’ve never lost a child and had to desperately search and search and search until they were found. I’ve been a lost child. I’ve felt such panic that it’s hard to breathe. And I’m not sure which one of us was happier to be reunited. Who was more relieved? My mom or me? That’s one of the fundamental questions in the effort to understand this parable told by Jesus.
Is this a parable about being lost or being found?
Is this story about the woman who lost the coin or is this a story about the coin that is found?
Who do we identify with in the story? Are we the sheep or the shepherd?
Are we the searcher or the object of the search? The rescued or rescuer.
Most of us live relatively comfortable, privileged lives, so I think it’s likely we see ourselves in the role of searcher more than the searched. The doer of good deeds, not the recipient. Therefore, we may see this as a Dale Carnegie-type lesson to be persistent. The motivational guru said, “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” A sermon about the woman and the missing coin could be called “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
But why did Jesus tell this parable? Who was the audience for whom Jesus told this parable?
Euell read, “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So, Jesus told them this parable.” Who the “them” is here isn’t as clear as it could be.
I think the translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message draws a better picture. “A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation had started hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not pleased at all. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”
“Their grumbling triggered this story.” Hummmm…makes me wonder, who today’s grumblers might be. Like,
So, in our passage today, the people of doubtful reputation watched as Jesus told parables to the grumblers about searching for one lost sheep and one missing coin and then rejoicing when they are found. We may think that Jesus is encouraging the grumblers to be less grumbly about including people of doubtful reputation. We could read this text and then sing the song “Draw the Circle Wide.”
This story is an excellent counterpoint to the pastor who refused to serve communion to LGBTQ activists wearing a rainbow sash. To expose the hypocrisy, some folks went forward anyway. But instead of rejection, they experienced grace when an elderly man in front of them took the wafer he had been served and crumpled it up into little pieces and handed it out so everyone could receive communion. It’s a tear-jerker moment.
Jesus told a lovely parable. But it has a very weird ending. It doesn’t exactly seem to fit as a conclusion to joy over finding what was missing. What are we to make of the last verse about the joy of one sinner who changes both heart and life? “Joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Who is Jesus talking about? Is he talking about the doubtful reputation folks? The ones labeled sinners by the grumblers? But if you follow the text carefully, Jesus is still talking to the grumblers when he talks about the joy of sinners repenting. He’s not pointing over to those other folks. Jesus reverses our expectations and seems to be saying that joy will come to heaven when the Pharisees and religion scholars repent. Which would also mean that the Pharisees and the religion scholars are the lost sheep and the missing coin.
And following the same logic, God is the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. And God is the woman who will not stop searching until she has found the one who was missing. It is about God that we can say “Nevertheless, She persisted.”
Somehow, over the years, I’ve missed all of that. Or just skipped over the last line because it’s confusing. This parable is just as confusing as those “simple” Nasrudin stories, which, after hearing you go, “What?” All of these stories have depths of meaning that could be explored for years.
On Thursday, six of us ate noodles and discussed today’s text from the Gospel of Luke. After making this very point that it would seem that the Pharisees are the “sinners” in need of repentance, Larry Ricketts said, “then, by us identifying today’s grumblers, we’ve just put ourselves in the position of the Pharisees.” And yikes! He’s right. I’m now the one in need of repentance.
Sure, the story is still a celebration of Jesus’ love for people of doubtful reputation. But they’re not the ones being saved here. They’re not the ones in need of salvation. The story is about the joy in heaven when a grumbler repents. When a grumbler changes both heart and life.
Long after we may have given up on people we label “the grumblers,” this is a story about how God will never stop searching for whatever or whoever is missing. Until we are all reunited. Every day, when I want to give up on “the other side,” this story speaks of joy upon our reconciliation. When we may be too quick to give up on the grumblers, God does not similarly lack patience. We are all too valuable. The “all lives matter,” “special rights,” “tax cuts for the wealthy,” “punish the asylum seeker” grumbler is never too lost for God to keep searching.
But, oops. I did it again. Notice, all of a sudden, I just turned into the grumbler about those people of doubtful reputation. And truthfully, I might be very unhappy seeing them hanging around with Jesus. But fortunately, this story also means that when we become the grumbler, God, the searcher, won’t give up on us either. And that means, we can’t give up on each other. Nasrudin was right to keep that ticket in his pocket. It’s too early to give up hope in each other.
In this story, we are not the shepherd in need of a lesson in persistence, but we are the object of the rescue. We are not the woman searching for what is missing but the one for whom she will never stop searching. Sometimes we’re the people of doubtful reputation and sometimes we’re the grumblers. Always in need of grace. Never too lost to be found.
As Bryan Stevenson said of the men he represents on death row, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world