To be a Disciple is to be a devoted love-slave of the Lord Jesus. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are not devoted to Jesus Christ. (Oswald Chambers)
I have opened this morning’s sermon with these words of Oswald Chambers because I believe that the dangers of false Discipleship are everywhere present in this morning’s Gospel lesson. In it, we read that Then drew near unto [Jesus] all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (St. Luke xv. 1,2) What we have, it would seem, are the publicans and sinners huddled around Jesus eager to hear His words and the Pharisees and Scribes standing off at a distance murmuring and judging Him. So we have those who are interested in and even need what Jesus has to offer, and then the self-righteous Jews judging both Jesus and the company He is keeping. Nestled in between the two groups are, as always, the Apostles. Now Jesus knows exactly what the religious and pious Jewish Elders are thinking and saying, and so He offers two parables. The truth of these parables is not specifically addressed to the publicans and sinners but to the Scribes and Pharisees and even to the Apostles. But of course, what Jesus teaches is always meant for all, that whosoever hears His words might become a true Disciple.
So Jesus asks, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. (Ibid, 4-6) Zoologists tell us that sheep are selfish animals which congregate towards a safe center. (Flock and Awe….) Every once in a while one errs and strays from the way of the shepherd, and so the shepherd must set out to find it. There is no indication that the ninety and nine or whatever number of those who physically lost detect that one of their members is missing. Provided they are safely fenced in by the sheepfold, they are content and satisfied. The one who does miss the lost sheep is the shepherd, who then rejoices when he finds it. Jesus suggests that the Pharisees and Scribes are more like the ninety and nine safe and contented sheep than like the shepherd. The untold dangers associated with seeking out the lost sheep are paralleled with the Pharisees’ fear of ritual pollution through contact with publicans and sinners -spiritually lost Jews. For, as Archbishop Trench remarks, they had neither love to hope for the recovery of such men, nor yet antidotes to preserve and protect themselves while making the attempt. (N.O.P’s. p.286) The publicans and sinners are clearly more like the lost sheep in need of the shepherd’s courageous and loving care. The shepherd values the lost sheep so much that he leaves the ninety and nine. Why? Because one lost sheep is like a repentant sinner who needs to be rescued and saved. Jesus says, I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. (St. Luke, Ibid, 7) Clearly then, the truth found in Jesus’ parable rebukes the self-righteous, selfish contentedness of the Pharisees, who are neither true shepherds nor potential disciples but self-interested sheep. A true Disciple of Christ will not be like self-interested sheep, but like the lost sheep or like the publicans and sinners, whose straying and wandering cry out for a shepherd.
Jesus continues with another parable. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. (Ibid, 8,9) The light symbolizes Christ and the woman images Mother Church. By the light of Christ, the woman sweeps the house – the Church, and seeks diligently until she finds the lost coin – sin-sick souls whom she has negligently lost. Again, as with the first parable, the woman rejoices when she finds what she has lost, and so there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (Ibid, 10) The true Disciple of Christ will learn that he is like the lost coin. As such, he is like the publican or sinner who knows his sin but has felt neglected and thus lost by the Pharisees and Scribes – or the religious authorities in any age, who have judged him to be of little worth or value, but who is now being found by Christ who comes to sanctify and redeem his life. As a lost coin, the true Disciple finds his worth and value in the One who persistently seeks him out, mercifully rescues and then delivers him from his life of sin.
Of course for the Pharisees and Scribes, the truth contained in Jesus’ parables fell on deaf ears, and not because they were wholly devoid and destitute of holiness and goodness. In so far as they followed the Law, they were obedient unto God. But the problem for them, and the threatening danger for the Apostles and Disciples of Christ, is their indifference to the cost of discipleship – for Christ tells them that they ought to be like the Good Shepherd who searched for the lost sheep or the woman who swept the house in search of the coin she had misplaced. Jesus tried to point out that the Scribes and Pharisees were not paying the price or cost of discipleship. For they refused to move beyond the confines of their law and tradition, out of the comfort and security of the treasure they thought they possessed, in order to risk it all for the riches to be found in the conversion of one sinner. But the Scribes and Pharisees could not be good shepherds, precisely because they had never confessed that they were like lost sheep or the lost coin, or like the publicans and sinners.
For the cost of discipleship is identification with the publicans and sinners. What Jesus seems to be suggesting is that before anyone can become a shepherd, he must first have become a sheep. And before becoming a sheep, he must have become a lost sheep. This doesn’t mean that a man should try to get lost. A man cannot try to get lost, for then he is not lost but just hiding and concealing himself. What Jesus means is that a man must realize that in relation to God he is very much like a lost sheep or coin because by reason of his sin he is spiritually lost and so needs to be found by Christ.
Jesus says, Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew v. 20) Now, clearly, what the Pharisees and Scribes exhibited, and what every true Apostle and Disciple of Christ should avoid, is pride in one’s own perfection. Pride breeds division, exclusivity, hatred, and variance. Pride measures its own goodness against others men’s sins. It has no need of redemption or salvation because it considers its goodness to be far greater than the sins of others. But the publicans and sinners flocked to Jesus because they knew that they had no goodness to claim. Until Jesus’ coming, they had found no mercy, no tender compassion, and no friend who cared enough for their spiritual wellbeing to find and rescue them. But in Jesus they find one who loves them, hopes for them, sews the seeds of conversion in their hearts, stirs them to repentance, and promises them the joy of His Kingdom. Jesus sees in them the makings of true disciples; in them he finds those who learn that they are lost and now desire to be found. You can’t be found until you know that you are lost sinner. The world has too few saints because there aren’t more sinners.
So the true Disciple of Christ will be a man who once was lost, but now is [being] found. With St. Peter in this morning’s Epistle, he will be subject to his fellow men, and clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. (1 St. Peter v. 5) The true Disciple of Christ will humble [himself]…under the mighty hand of God, that God may exalt [him] in due time. (Ibid, 6) True humility reveals man’s utter dependence upon God’s caring love and healing power that come through Jesus Christ alone. The truly humble man identifies with all men because as he shares the same dreadful disease of sin, he knows himself to be in equal need of redemption. St. Peter says, Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, seeing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (Ibid, 8,9) The true Disciple of Christ will see himself as a publican in need of being rescued like a lost sheep from this world of confusion, madness, and sin. The true Disciple of Christ will see himself as a sinner to be found like the lost coin, revalued and redeemed by the Lord’s accounting.
My friends, let us study closely the cost of discipleship that Christ teaches in his parables. We will not grow spiritually if we look upon the world as full of publicans and sinners who, unlike us, are beyond the pale of salvation. We will grow spiritually if, with the publicans and sinners of old, we draw near to Jesus. We will flower if we remember that God resisteth the proud, and giveth Grace to the humble. (1 Peter v. 5) We will grow if we know that we were as sheep going astray, but have now returned unto the Shepherd and [Bishop] of [our] souls. (1 St. Peter ii. 25) We will grow because then we, like the woman in today’s Gospel, will search the world diligently for the lost coins of great value, Christ’s hidden treasures, our future brothers and sisters, who will join us as equals in one drama of repentance and redemption. Let us remember that there will be joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth…than over ninety and nine just persons who have no need of repentance. (St. Luke xv. 10,7) And, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us, the tears of all penitents is the wine of the angels.