By Emily Hylden
As Wesley Hill mentioned last week, this section of the Gospel of Luke is within Jesus’ trek toward Jerusalem, his sojourn focused on his Passion. Containing many well-known parables like the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the dishonest manager, and even the mustard seed, this selection boasts much wisdom about the kingdom of God.
I had never considered these chapters together before, having encountered the passages mostly in very small chunks as pieces of lectionary preaching. I was surprised and delighted — and dismayed — to find a strong thread running through the whole of the section.
Beginning with the shocking assertion that a disciple of Jesus must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” and continuing with a parable concerning the price of constructing a building or a waging a war, Jesus states plainly at the end of chapter 14, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Disciples are urged, then, to come in under budget — to be ready to commit all of their lives, even to the point of death, for the sake of God’s kingdom and his work, regardless of what this project might actually cost a person.
When the Pharisees, those righteous-religious, sneered at Jesus’ habit of hobnobbing with sinners, Jesus turns and tells them a few stories. If the cost of sharing the gospel with those who need to hear it is too high for you, cash out.
Unlike many of my companions here on Covenant, who have spent decades studying Scripture in its original language, I mostly depend on translations, so when Scripture mentions sinners, I have an inkling that it might be describing a certain culturally notorious kind of character, but what if we took the Word at his word?
That’s the thing, isn’t it? We’re all sinners. Some of us have sins that sun themselves like reptiles, while some of us have sins that we’re able to keep in a dark little box. In the end, we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. So when Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, could it be that while he’s speaking to those who imagine themselves to be “the ninety-nine,” and the nine non-lost silver coins, he’s really saying that every one of his listeners and every one of us is a lost coin and a lost sheep, whether we happen to be a sheep who knows she’s lost, or one still pretending he knows his way.
This challenge, offered to those righteous in their own eyes, continues in the next pericope as Jesus recounts the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son starts out in pride and self-reliance, seizing the day as well as his inheritance; when he has wasted his family’s wealth on dissolute living, he is driven to admit his sin, both to himself and to those he’d wronged. His pride is overcome by humility through truth. Rather than celebrate, the older sibling falls into the same trap his brother suffered, remaining righteous in his own sight, compared with his sibling whose sin was dragged out for all to see.
Here’s the dismaying part. Jesus tells those who think of themselves as successful at the rat race of religion, “You are those who justify themselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts.” This summarizes the stunning parable of the dishonest manager; indeed, no person is righteous, no person is above having manipulated the system for self-preservation. If we would only look honestly at ourselves, our motivations, our places of power, each and every one of us would find our sin. And so, to pretend that we are without sin, to consider ourselves the ones who are dutiful, not wandering sheep, the coins that haven’t fallen off the table — these parties do not exist, except in the false kingdom of humanity. No person has ever been able to escape the temptation of sin except for Jesus. We see that the joy of the Father is when each child slows down long enough to look at the slop in which he lives and to admit this disaster to his Father in heaven. This is the found coin, this is the recovered sheep.
Our thread is carried through right to the very end of this passage. The last parable of chapter 18 lays the point bare in its introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The two who went to pray, the one who humbly cries for forgiveness, and the one who grandly gives gratitude for his elevated status.
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.