Jesus Is the Center of the Action
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2019

Our Gospel reading tells us that the tax-collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus to hear Him. Jesus received them and ate with them. We are then told that the Pharisees and scribes saw all this, were offended and were complaining about it (Luke 15:1-2).

Why were the Pharisees and scribes offended? It was because, they thought, that if Jesus was really a prophet, a holy man, religious, and pious, as well as an authority and teacher among God’s people, then the last thing He would do is receive tax-collectors and sinners and eat with them. Such a man would do just the opposite; avoid them.

But Jesus receives them and eats with them without hesitation. It is quite evident that Jesus and the Pharisees view the kingdom of God in two fundamentally different ways.

Now before we go further with this, let us do some character development. Let’s start with the Pharisees. They were a group of Jewish lay-people who thought that they were getting into heaven based on obedience to God’s law. The law they were focusing on had to do mostly with Sabbath regulations and ceremonial things like purification rituals, eating certain foods, fasting, not eating with or associating with certain people, and the like. They were under a grand illusion that they were making themselves righteous before God because of their observance of these things.

The Scribes were like professional scholars of the Scriptures.

The tax-collectors work often Jews who worked for the Roman authorities to collect taxes. They did so after bidding or speculating on how much taxes they could collect. They often over-reached and used not so nice tactics to collect the taxes.

The sinners were people who had transgressed God’s commandments in some way in their external conduct. This probably had to do with sexual morality and stealing.

So we have the scene, and the characters involved. We see the conflict between these groups of people and Jesus right in the middle of it. And Jesus was receiving the tax-collectors and sinners and eating with them. They were drawing near to Jesus to hear Him.

This eating of Jesus with them was important in the context of Jesus’s day. By the mere act of eating with them, Jesus was inviting them into the kingdom of God. So the Pharisees were shocked. Certainly, if Jesus knew what He was doing, they thought, He would not be eating with such people.

But what shall we do with this for our purposes today? Let’s think about this in terms of who is at the center of the action.

If we look at the Pharisees, the center of the action was their own willing and doing in what they thought was obedience to the law, the Sabbath regulations and ceremonial aspects of the law. They were climbing the ladder to heaven by their own will.

Now we could also say, however, that the tax-collectors had their own way of making themselves the center of the action. Their pursuit was how much money they could get over and above the taxes they assured the Roman authorities they could collect. And they probably used not so nice tactics to produce results. They may have thought that whatever gets the results is appropriate. The ends justify the means.

The sinners also probably had made themselves the center of the action in a certain way too. Maybe they did so because they thought the one thing good to pursue in life was pleasure. Or maybe they just followed the passions and desires of their hearts, even if it led them to unfaithfulness and into breaking God’s commandments. Maybe some of them were seeking the easy and carefree way. What is true and right and what is true and right teaching according to the word of God is boring, heavy, cumbersome, and just gets in the way. Don’t expect too much of us and just go the way of least resistance.

On the other hand, life gets hard sometimes. Maybe the sinners were those who thought they were only doing what they thought they had to do to survive, which then involved bending rules and setting aside certain commandments.

If we follow this way of looking at it, we could see how each of these groups had a foundation that was ultimately rooted in themselves, rather than in God’s word, His love for them and how He would want them to live their lives. They were their own reference point, though in different ways. They saw themselves as the center of the action. And each broke God’s law in certain ways.

But now there is one big difference between the Pharisees and Scribes on the one hand, and the tax-collectors and sinners on the other. By the time we see the tax-collectors and sinners, they were under no illusions of being righteous in God’s sight. They knew that the foundation of their lives that they had built up on themselves as the center of the action was cracked and wouldn’t hold up. When they had heard of the grace and mercy of Jesus, they came to Jesus to hear Him.

Jesus undoubtedly talked about God’s law, all of it. Yet, they also heard something different from Jesus than they had heard from the Scribes and the Pharisees. They heard that the Christ came into the world to save sinners.

This brings us to Jesus as the center of the action. Jesus tells us about Himself in the two parables.

There is a shepherd who has 100 sheep. One of them gets lost. Jesus tells us that He is the good shepherd promised by God. We heard about this in the reading from Ezekiel chapter 34. He loves the sheep that has strayed. He does not want the sheep to be lost to the predator and to wasting away in death. He leaves the 99 sheep to pursue the lost sheep until he finds it.

When he finds it, he rejoices. He places it on his shoulders. He carries it home. The sheep is probably famished and weak in its lost wanderings. He cannot make it back home under his own strength. Jesus, the shepherd sees this, picks it up, and carries it home.

The parable of the woman and the lost coin is interesting. He likens Himself to a woman, who has lost her silver coin. It is a drachma, which was not a lot of money. This woman does not have a lot of money. The lost coin is worth a lot to her. She turns on the lights and sweeps the house. She looks under the cushions on the couch. She lifts up the throw rug on the floor and looks under the bed. She looks under the books and piles of paper on her desk. She looks in drawers. She looks diligently and everywhere she can think of until she finds it.

With this parable of the woman searching for the lost coin, Jesus paints a picture of urgency and determination. He shows us how urgently and with determination He seeks us out to find us. He will go so far as death on a Roman cross and the destruction of sin and death in resurrection to find us.

And when He finds the lost sheep and the lost coin, when He finds us, He rejoices. He throws a party and invites His friends and neighbors. Come celebrate with me, for I have found what was lost. And God the Father and the angels join in this celebration.

We see Christ. He comes for us. He turns us. He forgives our sins and gives us faith. He strengthens us for the battle with sin and death. Many times He places us on His shoulders and carries us. In ultimate terms, He is carrying us home because that is not a place we can get to in our own strength and doing. And He is receiving us through His Gospel, present for us here as spoken word and Sacrament. And He leads us on in the promise that one day, we, with all of God’s people in Christ, will sit down and eat with Him in the marriage feast of His kingdom, which has no end. What a joyful and glorious day that will be. Amen.