Sermon: The Hound of Heaven, Part I
Text: Luke 15:1-10
Occasion: Trinity III (actually given on Trinity II)
Who: Mark Woolsey
When: Sunday, June 1, 2008
Where: Providence Reformed Episcopal Church
Luke 15:1-10, NKJV: Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them." So He spoke this parable to them, saying: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ’Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she find it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ’Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may, by thy mighty aid, be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[up] I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmŠd fears,
[down] From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbŠd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
So begins Francis Thompson in "The Hound of Heaven", perhaps one of the greatest and most moving poems ever penned in the English language. If we take today’s two parables as setting forth general principles, then this poem is the case study that illustrates it perfectly. In my not-so humble opinion it stands head and shoulders above almost all others that I have read. Its form reinforces its content. Francis wrote this autobiographically, at the end of a life spent running from God. It’s pretty straightforward, but there are portions that are somewhat hard to understand when you first hear it. I hope you don’t mind my gestures that I use when I quote it; they are designed to help you know who is speaking at the moment. When my hands are up like this ... then I am playing the part of Francis protecting himself as he is running from God. When my arms are down then I am speaking from God’s perspective.
Today’s parables in our Gospel lesson are familiar to most of us, and are in fact overshadowed by the even more familiar one that immediately follows, the Prodigal Son. Usually this trio is taken as a whole because it emphasizes a single theme, namely soteriology. Soteriology is a five dollar word made up from two Greek words, soter, which means savior, and logos, which means word, discourse, or study. Soteriology is thus the study of salvation, or the theology of salvation, and is common to all three of these parables - the sheep is saved, the coin is saved, and the son is saved. However, the parable of the Prodigal Son is the Gospel passage for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, so I will not lump it in with today’s. Instead, I will focus on the two parables in today’s lesson.
II. Jesus Gives Up
[up] I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followŠd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
[down] The gust of his approach would clash it to :
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Or to put it more prosaically, Fear does not want to hide as much as Love wants to chase down.
In today’s parables we see a shepherd chasing down his lost sheep and a woman searching for a lost coin. Many would summarize today’s parables as God never gives up on anyone. He pursues all to the uttermost, and that that is a great comfort. If that’s the correct interpretation, however, I think the proper reaction should be despair, not comfort. In fact, I think the lesson from these parables is that Jesus DOES give up on some people, and that only seeing it in this way is there any good news in these parables. If you think the message of these stories is that God never gives up on anyone, I suggest you have gotten it just backwards.
To better understand the story presented to us today in Scripture, we have to understand all the players and what role each has. Here’s how the passage begins:
Then all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2)
III. The Scribes
[up] Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangŠd bars ;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn : Be sudden -- to Eve : Be soon ;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover--
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see !
If you know anything of Israel’s history as recorded in the Old Testament, you are aware of her persistent faithlessness, her failures to follow after God. In the book of Judges we continually read that Israel got itself in a heap of trouble, God performed some great act of deliverance, and the current generation of Israelites then followed after God. However, in every case the next generation would arise that was not properly instructed in God’s deliverance of the prior one and they would inevitably fall away. This cycle finally ended in the great destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of all Jews. Eventually they were allowed to return. Perhaps in an attempt to break this cycle of deliverance and apostasy a class of men arose with the returning exiles to continually instruct the people in the ways of God. Ezra is an example of one of these men in the Old Testament. As "The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary" tells us:
In proportion as the law become comprehensive and complicated there arose the necessity of its scientific study and of a professional acquaintance with it. Its many details and the application of its several enactments to everyday life necessarily involved patient study. ... The higher the law rose in the estimation of the people, the more did its study and exposition become an independent business; and an independent class of "biblical scholars or scribes," i.e. of men who made acquaintance with the law a profession, was formed, ... In NT times the scribes formed a finely compacted class, holding undisputed supremacy over the people. ... the scribe pushes to the front, the crowd respectively giving way and eagerly hanging on his utterances as those of a recognized authority. The great respect paid them is expressed by the title of honor bestowed upon them, "my master". From this respectful address the title rabbi was gradually formed; ...
These scribes had at least three basic functions. Here’s Unger again:
 The Theoretic development of the law. The scribes developed ... the general precepts of the law; and where the written law made no direct provision they create a compensation, either by establishing a precedent or by inference from other valid legal decisions. ...  Teaching the Law, ... and  passing sentence in the court of justice. ... Being learned in the law and elaboration of the historical and didactic portions of Scripture, the scribes were specially qualified for delivering lectures and exhortations in the synagogues. (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, pp 1141-3)
Thus, among other things, they were the preachers of their day. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about this group. From the pages of the New Testament we see them in a definitely pejorative (or evil) light, but that is not how they were viewed at the time. Indeed, their function was essential to the community of God’s people, even if they fall into error from time to time. It is essential that the word of God be preached and interpreted to the church.
IV. The Pharisees
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue ;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue ;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet :--
[down] Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Next we come to a subset of the scribes which are known as the "separated ones". The Hebrew name for them is Pharisee. As Unger states,
... their name must have come ... in consequence of their stricter view of the notion of uncleanness, not only from the uncleanness of the heathen but from that with which they believed the great portion of Israel to have been affected. ... The stress laid upon religious interests by the Pharisees had won the bulk of the nation to their side ... they completely ruled the public life of the nation. ... The Pharisees taught "that every soul is imperishable, but that only those of the righteous pass into another body, while those of the wicked are, on the contrary, punished with eternal torment". ... [they taught] the existence of angels and spirits. ... [A]ccording to the Pharisees everything that happens takes place through God’s providence, and that consequently in human actions, also, whether good or bad, a cooperation of God is to be admitted. (ibid, p 998)
I want to stress that these were the orthodox groups, the "conservative, evangelical Christians" of their day. Unger quotes the Talmud, the Jewish book of Biblical interpretation, giving us some classifications that the Jews themselves had for the Pharisees:
(1) the Shechemite Pharisee, who simply kept the law for what he could profit thereby, as Shechem submitted to circumcision to obtain Dinah; (2) the Humbling Pharisee, who to appear humble always hung down his head; (3) the Bleeding Pharisee, who in order not to see a woman walked with his eyes closed, and thus often met with wounds; (4) the Mortar Pharisee, who wore a mortar-shaped cap to cover his eyes that he might not see any impurities or indecencies; (5) the What-am-I-yet-to-do Pharisee, who, not knowing much about the law, as soon as he had done one thing, asked, "What is my duty now? and I will do it"; (6) the Pharisee from Fear, who kept the law because he was afraid of future judgment; (7) the Pharisee from Love, who obeyed the Lord because he loved Him with all his heart." (ibid, pp 998-9)
These are the "good men" of the day. Like their predecessor Ezra from the Old Testament, they strove to keep the law and to separate themselves from those who did not. Ezra, under God’s direction, forced all the men who had married wives outside the Jewish faith to divorce them. He separated the righteous from the unrighteous. He was zealous for God’s law, and so were the Pharisees of the New Testament.
V. The Tax Collectors
[down] Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbŠd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat--
"Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me."
Has anyone ever heard of Philippe Petain? Would it help if I mentioned that he was a government official in Vichy France? Perhaps you’ve heard of Vidkun Quisling? Both of these men were traitors to their respective countries during World War II; Petain to France and Quisling to Norway. In fact, Quisling’s name has entered the English dictionary as a noun that means traitor. What a way to become immortal! If you could take the "loyalty" of a quisling and the "business ethics" of a carpetbagger (remember those corrupt businessmen of the Reconstruction era?) and pour them into one person, then you would have something close to what it takes to be a tax collector at the time of Christ. These were Jews who served the occupying Romans by gathering taxes for them from the populace. Any money they collected over and above what the Romans demanded they got to keep. And they kept a lot. These men were hated by the populace and ejected from the synagogues. On the ladder of society, they were one of the lowest rungs, with the possible exception of "sinners".
VI. The Sinners
[up] I sought no more that after which I strayed,
In face of man or maid ;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me !
I turned me to them very wistfully ;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
Ah, sinners. Finally someone we can identify with! We Americans have always been long on religion and short on formality. That’s why when the Scriptures damn the Pharisees and save the Sinners we cheer it on. The Pharisees were wet blankets, long on ritual, punctilious in their insistence on obedience to the law of God (that is, they obeyed God’s commands down to the smallest jot and tittle), and insistent on doctrinal correctness. Sinners were pragmatists (which is THE American philosophy of doing what works, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong). As one restaurant ad campaign of some years ago put it, "No rules, just right". Sinners rejected the rules laid on them by society and lived by their own standards. They were not "stuffy" and did not look down on others. We say no wonder Jesus hung around sinners. Sinners have more fun, anyway! Besides, what other kind of people are there, anyway? We’re all sinners, aren’t we?
Well, yes and no. The Bible shades meanings of words and we must understand the context to fully appreciate what a particular word means. When Paul speaks of sinners in the book of Romans, he’s covering all mankind for all time. Generally, when the Gospels identify a specific class of people as sinners, they are simply using contemporary Jewish terminology. This term is used to identify people such as the woman caught in adultery (John 8), the woman at the well who was living with a man who was not her husband (John 3) and even the man born blind (if he was blind, then God must be punishing him for something).
While we should not look down on these "sinners" as beneath our love, we still need to see them through the eyes of their time: they were the lowest class of society, outcasts from the benefits of God’s covenant. After all, the woman caught in adultery was actually ... "an adulteress", one who had flagrantly broken the seventh commandment (or the sixth, depending upon how you count them). The expectation of the time was, if any were to be saved from the wrath to come, surely it was the Pharisees and their associates. If Jesus really was sent from God, then He would associate with the righteous, not the sinners, wouldn’t He? Hadn’t God Himself commanded the death of the adulteress in Lev 20:10:
... the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.
By befriending such a person, aren’t you disobeying the very command of God that such a person should be stoned? Or, as verse two of our passage today puts it:
And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them." (v2)
VII. Jesus’ Response
[up] "Come then, ye other children, Nature’s -- share
With me" (said I) "your delicate fellowship ;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured da‹s,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring."
In response to the Pharisee’s complaint, Jesus begins His reply:
So He spoke the parable to them, saying: What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he find it? (v3-4)
As we begin the parable proper, I want you to remember what I said earlier, that this parable is explicitly about those whom Jesus saves, but it is also implicitly about those He does not save. What is the difference? Remember that Jesus ate and preached among the sinners, publicans, and prostitutes, but did not save all of them; just more than the Pharisees.
There are several things that I want to mention about sheep and shepherding. First is that today’s society is removed from all of this. The only interaction we have with sheep is when we go the fair and get to pet a little lamb. They are soft, cute, and pleasant. However, when Jesus compared us to sheep, He was not paying us a complement. We even acknowledge this when we use the adjective, sheepish. It means:
like or suggestive of a sheep in docility or stupidity or meekness or timidity. embarrassed because of feeling foolish. Meek or stupid.
This turns out to be quite a left-handed complement. You know, complements that go something like this:
"You look splendid today, Marcie! Nobody would ever guess you’re 45."
"Hey, that’s a great looking shirt, Tim! You can barely see your beer-belly."
"I want to be just like you when I get old"
"You’re not as dumb as I thought."
And my favorite as someone holds the door open for another:
"Age before beauty"
Another thing I want to mention about sheep, is that which lost sheep is it that the shepherd seeks out? Duh. His own, of course. That’s true, of course, but it is more significant than you might think. Listen to Phillip Keller, a modern-day shepherd, when he writes in his book, "A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23":
I recall quite clearly how in my first venture with sheep, the question of paying a price for my ewes was so terribly important. They belonged to me only by virtue of the fact that I paid hard cash for them. It was money earned by the blood and sweat and tears drawn from my own body during the desperate grinding years of the depression. And when I bought that first small flock I was buying them literally with my own body which had been laid down with this day in mind.
Because of this I felt in a special way that they were in very truth a part of me and I a part of them. There was an intimate identity involved which though not apparent on the surface to the casual observer, nonetheless made those thirty ewes exceedingly precious to me.
But the day I bought them I also realized that this was but the first stage in a long, lasting endeavor in which from then on, I would, as their owner, have to continually lay down my life for them, if they were to flourish and prosper. Sheep do not "just take care of themselves" as some might suppose. They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.
It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways as will be seen in further chapters. Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance. (A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, pp 6-7)
Notice that Mr. Keller indicates how much the sheep cost him, and that by paying that price they became his. His flock did not choose him; he chose his flock.
VIII. Sticky Wicket
Well, as the British say, we hit a bit of a "sticky wicket". I’m half way thru the poem, just starting with Phillip Keller’s discussion about sheep, I’ve promised, but not kept, that I would tell you why Jesus gives up on some, and I’m out of time. I’ll continue this next week.
This is the Word of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Soli Deo Gloria.