“[F]amiliar texts,” says David Schmitt of Concordia Seminary, “are familiar for a reason. Whether it is, ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ or the parable of the lost sheep, there is something comforting in a text that has sustained God’s people for generations. What people are looking for is not some new interpretation, a cultural detail they never knew before. Rather, what they want is the assurance things have not changed. God is still doing what He has always done. Sometimes we forget there is some comfort to be found in things not changing. In a world which looks radically different than it did ten years ago, it is comforting to know God has remained the same.”
The parables in Luke 15 are among the most familiar of texts: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and, perhaps most familiar of all, the misnamed parable of the prodigal son (which really should be called the parable of the father’s heart or the parable of the longsuffering father).
We know these stories. We love these stories. They are familiar stories—and they do, indeed, remind us that, in a world that is constantly changing—and not always for the better—God remains the same. His heart has not changed. He is still seeking, still saving; still going out of his way to find the lost and bring them home to a joyous celebration.
When you put it that way, you have to wonder how anyone could be offended by the message of Jesus. Who, in their right mind, would oppose a mission born of love from the very heart of God?
And yet, the occasion for Jesus telling these familiar stories is an occasion of controversy—a response to a group of people who are offended by what he is doing and with the company he is keeping.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”Luke 15:1-2
We should not overlook the significance of the word Luke uses for the attitude of the Pharisees and the scribes. He says they were “grumbling.”
Luke may be the only Gentile author in the New Testament, yet he is a careful historian. He has made himself familiar with the stories of Old Testament Israel. Much of his Gospel is modeled on those stories. His intent is to hearken back to them so that the reader will come to understand that they find their fulfillment in Jesus.
So, what are we to make of the Pharisees and the scribes “grumbling?”
It calls to mind the Israelites in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining, repeatedly defying Moses and defying God. Our Old Testament lesson this morning gives us a particularly egregious example of that.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”Exodus 32:1
“Grumbling” can have devastating spiritual consequences—and the Pharisees and the scribes, for all their piety and religiosity, were every bit as guilty of idolatry as the Israelites with their golden calf.
You can even hear the similarities in their complaints.
“As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
How many times have we heard the Israelites, and the Pharisees and scribes, presented as people who were resisting change?
The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt. They were tired of the long journey to the Promised Land.
The Pharisees and the scribes could not fathom the idea of a man claiming to be the Son of God hanging out with such an ungodly bunch of riff raff.
They were not ready for such radical change. They would rather things stay the way they were or, better yet, go back to the way things had previously been.
That is one way of looking at it–the human, worldly way of looking at it–but was it change they were resisting? Was something new and unwelcome breaking into their world, or was their carefully constructed world being uprooted by something larger; something beyond it?
What the Israelites in the wilderness and the Pharisees and the scribes opposing Jesus were actually resisting was not change, but something that never changes: the faithfulness of God.
In the Old Testament, God raised up Moses to lead his people out of bondage and oppression in Egypt. In the New Testament, he came himself, in the Person of his Son Jesus Christ, to lead his people out of an even greater bondage and oppression wrought by Satan, sin, and death.
The Old Testament is a tragic story of Israel repeatedly rebelling, resisting, and rejecting the God who chose them to be a light to the nations. In the face of this constant faithlessness, however, God remained faithful.
Finally, to make clear beyond any shadow of a doubt, how much he loved his people, he came down and lived among them, died on a cross to save them, and rose victorious to open wide the door and welcome them home.
From the Exodus to the Resurrection, the mission remains the same: to seek and save that which is lost.
Like the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep; like the woman turning her house upside down to find the one lost coin; like the father longing for his wayward son to return home: our God is faithful, even when we are faithless; he is relentless, even when we are resistant. Whatever the cost, he will always find that which he seeks, even a grumbling, faithless, resistant sinner like your or me.