Last week we took a slight detour to celebrate the end of
our year-long, every-member mission trip, but this week we are back on
the road with Jesus, listening to every word he says, watching every
move he makes, and walking with him through this long section of Luke’s
Gospel known as the Travel Narrative, from chapter 9, verse 53, through
chapter 19, verse 27. Today we begin chapter 15, and we begin with
the news that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to
listen to Jesus, and that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling
and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Last week there was at least one person in worship who had
never been to church in her life, so let me make this just as simple as
I can. On one side there was a group of people coming near to
Jesus to listen to him and on the other side there was a group of people
who didn’t like that at all. You don’t have to know much about
sinners and tax collectors or scribes and Pharisees to understand that.
If Luke had said the Democrats were coming near to Jesus to listen to
him and the Republicans were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes
Democrats and eats with them,” you would get it. Or if he had said
the Hokies were coming near to Jesus and the Wahoos were grumbling you
Virginians, who know something about the rivalry between the University
of Virginia and Virginia Tech, would get it. But if you had never
been to church and never read the Bible you might wonder: who were these
scribes and Pharisees, and who were these sinners and tax collectors,
and why couldn’t they get along with each other?
So, let me give you a little bit of background.
Do you know how Christians are divided into all kinds of
denominations—Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians?
Well, the Pharisees were like that. They were a denomination of
first-century Jews who were trying extra-hard to keep the Law of
Moses—all 613 rules. And they spent a lot of time with the scribes
because the scribes were experts in the law; they knew exactly how far
you could walk on the Sabbath day or how much wood you could carry.
And the Pharisees wanted to know that, because they didn’t want to break
the law in any way. As much grief as we sometimes give them they
were “the good guys.”
The sinners and tax collectors on the other hand, were not, at
least not as far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned. I
probably don’t even need to explain to you why they didn’t care for the
tax collectors. You probably don’t either. But Alan
Culpepper explains that the tax collectors in this story were actually
toll collectors who “paid [the Roman government] in advance for the
privilege of collecting tolls, so the system was open for abuse and
They would sit in their toll booths and charge whatever they wanted, and
since they weren’t usually natives of the area where they worked they
didn’t care what the people thought. They only cared about getting
rich, or at least that was their reputation. And as far as the
sinners in this story are concerned, Culpepper says they would have
included “not only persons who broke the moral laws but also those who
did not maintain the ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees.”[ii]
In fact the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word parash,
which means “to separate.” They separated themselves from anything
unclean or impure, which would have certainly included those sinners who
were gathering around Jesus.
But I want to take a closer look at the word sinner, the way
they used it then, and the way we use it today. The word Luke uses
is hamartaloi, from the verb hamartano which means,
literally, “to miss the mark.” Maybe you can picture somebody
pulling back a bow, aiming the arrow at a target, letting it fly, and
missing the bulls-eye by a good two feet. It’s not like he was
trying to miss it; he just did. Some of us are sinners like that.
We are trying really hard to be good, Christian people, we are aiming
our lives in that direction, but often, in spite of our best efforts, we
miss the mark—we sin.
But let me tell you something about sin.
I don’t want to say too much, because I’m planning to preach a
whole series in March called “Taking Sin Seriously” and I don’t want to
give it away. But if there is one thing that seems to have been
true about sin from the very beginning it is this: sin separates.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, when they ate the fruit from the tree
of knowledge, what did they do? They hid themselves. God
came looking for them in the Garden but he couldn’t find them anywhere.
It almost breaks your heart to think of him calling out to his old
friend, “Adam? Adam! Where are you?” And who knows how
long that went on before Adam finally blurted out, “Here I am.”
And God said, “What were you doing? Why were you hiding?”
And Adam said, “Well, I heard you walking in the Garden, and I was
afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” And God said, “Who told
you you were naked? Have you eaten the fruit of that tree?”
And then it all came out into the open.
But notice that God didn’t hide himself from Adam and Eve when
they sinned; they hid themselves from him. That’s often how it is
for us. When a child does something his mother told him not to do
he might hide himself from her. Even if she doesn’t know about it
he does, and he’s not eager to face her. He’s afraid she’ll see it
in his eyes (mothers seem to have that ability). And then, when we
get a little older and do something God told us not to do we might hide
ourselves from him. Even if we could fool ourselves into thinking
he didn’t know about it we do, and we are not eager to face him.
We might stay out of church for a long time just because we’re afraid
that if we went somebody would see it in our eyes.
Sin separates. It separates us from God and it separates
us from others. When Jesus said the Great Commandment was to love
God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your
neighbor as yourself I think he might have added that sin is anything
that keeps you from doing that—from loving God and loving others.
It could be a little thing, just the point of a wedge going into one end
of a log, but if you keep on hitting that wedge with a hammer,
eventually it splits the log apart. And so it is with sin.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be a little thing.
But over time those little things come between us and God, us and
others, until eventually the relationship splits apart.
And some of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There is someone you used to be close to you are not close to
anymore, and you might not even be able to explain how it happened.
A hurtful word here, a thoughtless deed there, and before you know it
there is so much distance between you that you can’t imagine how to find
your way back again. You are lost to each other. And sometimes it
happens with God. Maybe there was a time when you felt especially
close to him, when the two of you would take long walks together in the
cool of the evening. But then you grew up, went your own way.
Other things began to seem more important. And then one day you
look up and realize you are miles away from God. “This man
welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees grumbled. “Oh,
no,” Jesus said. “You don’t understand. These people aren’t
sinners. Not like that. They’re not unclean or impure.
They’re just people who have gotten lost.”
But that’s not the way he said it.
Luke says that he told them a “parable,” which is a clue that
Jesus is talking about the kingdom, and what makes perfect sense in the
kingdom may not make perfect sense in the world. This, for
instance: “Which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of
them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the
one that is lost until he finds it?” The answer of course is that
none of them would do that. It would be foolish to leave
ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness where they could easily wander off
(or worse, be eaten by lions and bears) just to go running after one
lost sheep. But in the kingdom it makes perfect sense, because the
king of this kingdom doesn’t want anyone or anything to be lost.
And so the shepherd goes tearing off across the hillsides calling for
his little lost sheep, and when he finds it he lays it on his shoulders
and rejoices and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.
“Look!” he says, “I found my sheep!” “Just so,” Jesus said, “there
will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over
ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
And then he told the story of a woman who loses one coin out of
ten and lights a lamp, sweeps the floor, and practically turns her house
upside down to find it. When she does she invites her friends and
neighbors to celebrate with her, and probably spends as much on the
party as the coin was worth. “Just so, I tell you,” Jesus said,
“there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who
repents.” And if you read on in Luke 15 you will find the story of
a boy who got lost, repented, and came home, and whose father celebrated
with the biggest party that had ever been thrown in those parts because
his son, who was as good as dead, was alive; his son, who was lost and
gone forever, had been found.
It’s only a parable, but again, when Jesus starts telling
parables he starts speaking the language of the Kingdom, and what makes
sense in the kingdom doesn’t always make sense in the world. This,
for instance: throwing a huge party for a boy who has squandered his
inheritance on riotous living. Or throwing the doors of the church open
to sinners, to those who have somehow gotten lost from God and don’t
know how to find their way back again. Or going out into every
side street and every back alley in the city looking for them, searching
frantically and never resting until we find them. That sort of
thing doesn’t make much sense in the world, but it makes perfect sense
in the kingdom, and if we are serious about bringing the kingdom of
heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we will have to engage in just that kind
of activity because the king of this kingdom doesn’t want anyone or
anything to be lost.
And especially not you.
When I was in seminary I used to sit on the front pew of the
chapel, so I could hear every word of the sermon, so I could get the
“good stuff” as it came down. And once I heard a little, old,
world-famous preacher named Fred Craddock talk about his sister.
"We used to play hide-and-seek in the summertime," he said. "Just
about dusk, when the shadows were getting long. One time she was
“it,” and I hid under the back steps of our house. Because I was
small I could scrunch all the way up under there where my sister
couldn't see me. But I could see her. I peeked out through a
crack and watched her walking around, looking for me.
"She walked all around the house, looked behind the bushes.
I saw her walk down the path to the barn, look inside the barn, walk
around behind it, and as she came back up the path I thought to myself,
'She'll never find me. She'll never find me!' And then, all
at once, I thought, 'She'll never find me!' So I stuck my toe out
just enough for her to see, and when she got to the top of the path I
"She said, 'One-two-three on Freddy!' and I came out from under
the steps pretending to be disappointed. 'Aw, shucks,' I said.
'You found me.'"
And then Fred Craddock looked out at all of us who were sitting
there in that chapel and said, "But what did I want? What did I
really want?" And I knew the answer. Sitting there on the
front pew it was all I could do to keep from shouting it out loud.
"To be found!" I thought. "You wanted to be found!" And then
it seemed he looked right at me, pointed his finger and said, "The same
thing you want!"
And I almost burst into tears.
Either Fred Craddock knew me better than I thought he did or
there is something in every one of us that is more lost than we know.
And more ready to be found.
[i] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The
New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.