Jesus' Attitude to Sinners
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Peter Littleford
16 September 2001
Gospel Reading Luke Chapter 15:1-10
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them." Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
I don't know about you, but what stands out to me, in today's Gospel reading, is the great difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day and their attitude towards sinners.
The scribes and the Pharisees felt that those who had broken the religious and moral laws of Judaism were beyond the pale: they were to be excluded, ostracised and rejected. Their attitude was not only judgemental, not only condemnatory, but was also self-righteous. It was as though they had established a stockade with the righteous safely on the inside and sinners outside. The righteous would be safe from becoming contaminated by the unrighteous.
How different this was from the attitude of Jesus! Luke tells us that, without condoning sin, Jesus welcomed sinners and offered them forgiveness and love, and gave them understanding and care. Like a magnet, he drew the most despised members of society towards himself and valued their friendship. But, of course, he did more than that! Jesus not only welcomed sinners when they came to him, but he took the trouble to seek them out and meet them. No wonder that when the scribes and Pharisees saw Jesus in the company of such people they got very indignant and cross.
In response to their criticism, Jesus told people the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin. Elsewhere he also told them the parable of the lost son. All these familiar stories illustrate Jesus' relationship with the 'lost', and point us towards the central tenets of his gospel. But more: they also set markers for our relationship with God and with each other, today and every day.
Jesus welcomed sinners because he believed that God is love and that his ministry was to give human, visible expression to that love. For Jesus, God's love was more concerned with forgiveness and reconciliation and new life, a fresh start, than with condemnation, punishment and retribution. God's love doesn't deal with categories of people, whether they are righteous or unrighteous, but it is offered to every individual, to each one of us, here and everywhere else. There is worth in everybody. God's love takes the initiative in seeking out the loveless, the hard to love, and recognises their potential to become what they are: the children of God. This is the gospel for which Jesus lived and died. This is the gospel which so angered the scribes and the Pharisees who failed to see that, in Jesus, the old covenant of the law with its impossible demands had been replaced, superseded by the new covenant of God's grace. This is the gospel, which, in Christ's day and ever since, has transformed human lives into the living image of Jesus himself. The lost are found and the angels rejoice.
For us, as Christians, these parables are central to us understanding of the task which lies ahead. They clearly demonstrate the nature of God's relationship with us, one which we need to express in our life and work today. The key is that God has no favourites. No one is more loved than another; no one is dismissed as 'worthless', the lesser half of no use at all. All are of equal value to God.
In our society, where we quickly categorise people, this is hard to accept. God's love is not influenced by the things that influence ours - race, gender, religion, politics, social standing, profession, or income to name but a few. God's love is not even affected by a person's moral standing, a truth which sometimes, like the Pharisees, we find hard to accept. Don't the good-living, upright, churchgoing citizens deserve more at God's hands than those (by our standards) who ignore or break God's commandments?
Sometimes it seems, on reading the scriptures, that God's love for the sinful, the despised, the marginalised and the outcasts of society is greater than for people 'of our sort'. I don't know, but could that be because those who are denied love by their fellows are more ready to receive God's love when it is freely offered? Or could it be that God, who sees into all our hearts, sees the hidden sinfulness of 'respectable' people - the greed, the pride, the envy, the self-righteousness - and judges it to be on a par with the sinfulness of those who openly flout the moral code?
In God's eyes all are 'lost', but all are loved; for to describe anything as lost means that we have invested it with value. It is this inclusive love which must be the heartbeat of the church as it worships and witnesses to Christ. No one, whether within or outside the fellowship, should experience cold rejection at our hands and none must be cold-shouldered or refused practical care. Different though we may be from one another in a variety of ways, we are all, by the fact of our common humanity, created, loved and accepted by God as we are.
Equally important is the truth that God never calls off his search for us. Wherever we are, whatever our need, God seeks us out to bless us with an experience of his love. We may ignore the evidence of his presence, reject him or, as Peter did of Christ on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 5:8) feel unworthy of him, but still he comes. He takes the initiative and comes to us in scripture, in people, in day-to-day events and in a multitude of other ways; he leaves no avenue unexplored, no door untried.
Well, what about us today? I think that this divine searching should reflect in our actions. We need to commit ourselves actively to the community around us and so proclaim the gospel in word and deed. And let us not be afraid in our church, for the sake of Christ, to offer people his love in baptising their children, marrying them, burying their loved ones. Welcoming them, rather rejecting them when are brave enough to come across our threshold.
From the loving and the seeking it follows that when God finds us we become at home with him and with one another. When, in Jesus' stories, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were found, they were restored to where each belonged - to the flock, to the women's treasures, and to the family. When God's love meets a loving response from us, then we, too, have restored the right relationship with him and all who believe in him. The gospel is, therefore, both individual and social; it proclaims that we are of supreme worth in God's sight, and also, that our worth is realised in a loving community, the family of God. No Christian stands alone: reconciliation, belonging and rejoicing are still our Christian experience.
When his opponents called Jesus 'the friend of sinners' they intended it to be an insult, but he took it as a compliment. His mission was prospering! The lost were being sought and found, the sinners saved. Today, though we may express it differently, the church's mission is the same: to give value to every individual. Without exception, everybody is loved by God, sought by him, and offered a place in his family. In that is life for us all.