Familiar texts pose a problem for the preacher. We are faced with the fact that most of our people will know what we are going to say before we even begin. There is no surprise, nothing original. And, in a cultural setting which values the new and the different, we are faced with the dilemma of having nothing innovative to say.
In the past, I have fallen into the trap of trying to say something new. I dug up a cultural detail which enabled me to offer a new take on an old text. Those sermons often ended up disappointing people. While they certainly heard something new, that is not what they were looking for. They were looking for something old, familiar, certain. A way of God that has stood the test of time.
You see, familiar texts are familiar for a reason. Whether it is, “The Lord is my shepherd,” or the parable of the lost sheep, there is something comforting in a text that has sustained God’s people for generations. What people are looking for is not some new interpretation, a cultural detail they never knew before. Rather, what they want is the assurance things have not changed. God is still doing what He has always done. Sometimes we forget there is some comfort to be found in things not changing. In a world which looks radically different than it did ten years ago, it is comforting to know God has remained the same.
At least, that is how I would encourage you to approach this set of parables.
Rather than assume your hearers will be bored because they have heard it all before, trust your hearers will be comforted because you are preaching precisely what they have heard before and appreciated. To risk sounding irreverent, it is like watching a favorite movie. A familiar scene starts. You know what is going to happen and, then, it happens and, then, you realize why you watch this movie again and again. It always delivers. I would invite you to approach these parables like that.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus summarizes His mission as, “to seek and to save the lost” (19:10). Since that is the case, when we come to the parables of the lost, we are near to the heart of the mission of Jesus. God seeks the lost, whether it is you or your neighbor. That is the main teaching worth emphasizing again and again.
The parables are obviously taken out of a set and, therefore, reading them in context leads us to see Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and scribes who object to His mission to the lost. The parables reveal His mission (He is the shepherd who seeks, the woman who sweeps, and the father who weeps over his sons) but, in the end, they reveal His mission to the very ones who are opposing it. The religious leaders see how they too are among the lost and Jesus is seeking them.
Sometimes, this parabolic play of entrapment has caused preachers to feel like they need to condemn their hearers for self-righteously judging and rejecting Jesus’ mission to others. Only by making our hearers stand in the position of the religious leaders can we then allow the parables to do the surprising revelation that they too are lost and in need of salvation. If this is truly the case among your hearers, I could see it as an appropriate way to preach.
From my observation of our churches, however, I have rarely been in a congregation which was judging the lost, fighting against God’s mission to them, and did not want them ultimately to come home. So, for me, making the congregation feel like they were rejecting the lost only to be accused, forgiven, and then welcomed home by Jesus might seem somewhat superficial, if not forced.
Instead, I would work with the simple teaching. Jesus seeks and saves the lost, wherever and whomever they might be and, then, situate that teaching among your people and their needs.
For me, the congregations I have been visiting are unlike the religious leaders in Luke’s text. Rather than standing on the side judging Jesus, they are standing on the side wringing their hands. They are not sure how to reach out to the lost in our world because our world has journeyed so far from home. They see the church shrinking, children walking away from the faith, and they want to reach out, but they are just not sure what to do.
To such people, these parables offer a bit of consolation.
In each parable, notice how the one searching knows precisely what he or she is seeking. The shepherd is seeking a sheep. The woman seeks a coin. That is, the one who is searching knows precisely who or what is lost. Jesus knows His own. It is not like the shepherd goes to look for a sheep and comes back with a cow or the woman looks for a coin and finds a pearl. No, the one who is searching knows who is lost. Jesus will be working in our feeble misguided efforts to reach out to the world. He governs our words and our deeds, no matter how awkward they might seem. Since He knows those who are lost, He can name them and claim in ways we will never fully be able to imagine.
Trusting in His deep, divine, concrete love, that ability to speak the word which takes root in the heart and sends shoots through the soul gives us courage as we enter the world. We speak our Savior’s Word and watch as He searches for those for whom He has come, He has died, He has risen and ascended to Heaven in order to call His own.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 15:1-32.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 15:1-10.