Summary: Whether we know it or not, we are all lost. Jesus comes seeking us, calling us to repentance, and He welcomes sinners to His feast of victory.
There’s a story I read about a pastor who was called to see a young man, John, dying of a terrible disease. The young man was once a member of this pastor’s congregation. He had received all of the good Christian education and training, growing up; he was baptized and confirmed—the typical routine, really. Later on, though, John turned his back on the church and on the faith he had grown up in. He gave it all up to live life how he wanted, on his terms. His story was basically the story of the prodigal son—which our Gospel reading today leaves out. Poor life choices ultimately led John into poverty and this disease, which was rapidly taking his life. He was the talk of the town, too. Everyone knew about John; they spoke about him with disappointment. No one visited him.
And as he lay there, dying, writhing in pain and discomfort, he had plenty of time to think. And he thought back to his youth, back to his upbringing, back to his good church life before all this. He knew the end was near, and so, like the prodigal son, he thought about “his Father’s house.” He thought about the Jesus he once knew. And John so desperately wanted to be with Him forever. So he asked for the pastor to come and visit him.
The pastor came and saw the sorrow in John’s eyes; heard the despair and fear in his voice. And then, the pastor shared with him the words of a merciful God; a God who offers eternal salvation for every repentant sinner. He reminded Him of his baptism, and of the Savior who died for him and offers forgiveness and new life. And as the pastor read the Bible, John lay there in pain but with a smile on his face. And he closed his eyes and fell asleep in Jesus.
The day before the funeral was taking place at the church, one of the prominent church members, Mr. Goodman, met with the pastor. He asked, “Pastor, you’re not going to do a Christian burial for that good for nothing sinner, are you?” “Oh,” said the pastor, “You mean our brother in Christ, John? Of course I’m going to give him a Christian burial.” To this the “good church member” replied, “Well, if this man went to heaven, I don’t know if I want to go there!” “Never fear, Mr. Goodman,” said the pastor, “You may not be going.” Of course, this only enraged Mr. Goodman, who argued how he was far more worthy of heaven than that miserable, sinful wretch, John. But the pastor simply reminded him, “There is no difference…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Basic story from "Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations," Burgess, David F., Concordia Publishing House, 1988. p. 112)
I can’t verify whether that story actually took place. Like I said, it was just a story I read recently. But doesn’t it sound like something that would happen? Doesn’t that Mr. Goodman sound like some stuffy, uptight, self-righteous person you’ve come across before? We like stories like this because the wayward young man finds redemption, while the vocal, mean-spirited Mr. Goodman, gets an overdue lesson in pulling the plank out of your own eye before pointing out the speck in another’s. And yet, by taking pleasure in hearing the self-righteous “Mr. Goodmans” of the world get what’s coming to them, we sort of fall into that same trap of judgment. Because our sinful nature cannot help but compare and judge.
Jesus tackles this very subject in our Gospel reading for today (Luke 15:1-10). Just before the reading picks up, as we heard last week, Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33). He calls people to follow Him, despite the cost. And He tops it off with a phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:35) And so, they came. They came to hear Him; they came to follow Him. But those who followed after Him, those who came to hear were the worst that society had to offer. Tax collectors and sinners. For this reason, the Pharisees and Scribes were appalled at what they saw him doing. He was eating dinners with sinners?!? Well, that was major cultural faux pas. Sitting down with tax collectors was social suicide. Eating with sinners—you might as well right off your chances of salvation. After all, everyone knows that if you sit down with a sinner, you’re guilty of their sin by association!
This was their line of thinking, anyway. That was the prevailing thought of the day. But...actually, isn’t it sort of a prevailing thought, still, today? Don’t we naturally place labels on people who associate with the "wrong crowd?" I mean, everyone knows if you sit with the kid that smells funny at the lunch table, suddenly you’re just as smelly. And, of course, everyone knows that if you’re a congressman who reaches across the aisle in bipartisanship, you’ve basically joined that political party. Then, of course, there’s where you live that plays a factor: “Oh, your child goes to THAT school,” and suddenly you’ve envisioned, out of your own imagination, the decrepit old neighborhood that they OBVIOUSLY must live in--though you've never been there. And you think, “I wonder what they did to end up there?!” Tisk, tisk.