A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on November 4, 2018, called “Expressing God’s Love,” reflecting on Jesus’ three parables in Luke 15. The sermon is the eighth and last in a series exploring our church vision and mission statements.
Here is a written excerpt:
There were two schools of thought among the Rabbis.
Rabbi Shammai, on the one hand, had declared that the Torah should only be taught to those who have proved themselves worthy. Those who have repented of their sin, who have demonstrated their repentance with good works, who have inclined their heart toward the Law of Moses—only these are worthy of being taught the life-giving teaching of the Torah, according to Rabbi Shammai.
Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, had declared that the Torah should be taught to all who will hear, whether they are worthy or not. This will bring them to repentance, provoke them to good works, and incline their heart toward the Law of Moses. Sinners, even Gentiles, should be taught the life-giving teaching of the Torah—and through this they can become worthy.
There are two schools of thought among the Mennonites…
Along comes Rabbi Jesus, and where does he fit in?
Like Rabbi Hillel, Jesus teaches the Torah to all who will listen, proclaiming his kingdom gospel to all who have ears to hear.
Yet he sometimes speaks in parables, “story-riddles,” that can make it hard to know what he means—and hard to accept his meaning once you get it.
Also like Rabbi Hillel, Jesus teaches the Torah to sinners—in fact, he says, this is why he has come, for sinners! His teaching is specifically for the unworthy—and through hearing, trusting, and following this gospel teaching they become worthy of the kingdom of God.
Yet he doesn’t merely teach sinners—he welcomes them in and shares meals with them.
And this sets the Really Religious to grumbling.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” one says to the other (Luke 15:2). “He’s a glutton and a drunkard,” the other says to the one, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)
“A glutton and a drunkard”—now that’s a serious charge! That could get you executed under Moses’ Law! (Check it out in Deuteronomy 21:21.)
“A friend of tax collectors and sinners”—well, that at least was true.
In fact, we’re told, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen” to Jesus. Every last one, desperate for one drop of good news from a powerful religious man. (These are few and far between, after all.)
All the “sinners” came near to Jesus—all those on the fringes of acceptable behaviour, or well beyond it.
Poor Galilean peasants. (Everyone knows the poor are lazy, right? And can anything good come out of the North End?)
Prostitutes—sexually promiscuous, even sexually “other.” (They make us married men nervous.)
The demon-possessed, the mentally unstable—those most sensitive to the unseen tides of evil in the world.
The unclean sick—oozing lepers and bleeding women and dying slaves and more.
Godless Gentiles, foreigners and immigrants and oppressors—right alongside the extremist zealots who violently oppose them. (There’s an interesting dinner party mix.)
Even “tax-collectors,” the ultimate “sinners”—traitors to God’s true people, collaborators with God’s enemies.
The worst of the worst were coming near to Jesus, to listen to him. Jesus even broke bread with them—all the time. He welcomed them wherever he went, gathering them around his borrowed tables, sharing meals with them in generous hospitality. They couldn’t get a dinner invitation to any respectable home—so Jesus welcomed them to any home who would host them.
In fact, these “sinners” made up Jesus’ entire roster of disciples. This was his church membership list.
“Morden Mennonite Church: Friend of Sinners.”
“Morden Mennonite Church: Where sinners are welcomed and we all eat together.”
Can you imagine? What a terrible reputation to have! What would our neighbours say?
Well, this sets the Really Religious to grumbling.
“Church is for the worthy!” one says to the other. “We’ve got our reputation to consider!” the other says to the one.
So Jesus responds by telling some stories, a few of his special “story-riddles” that comfort those with ears to hear and gnash the teeth of those without.
These are stories about lost things—lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. They’re stories about us, in other words.
But, even more, they’re stories about God.