The contrast in this text is striking. On the one hand is the grumbling (διεγόγγυζον) in verse 2. It came from the Pharisees and the scribes. They were disgruntled because Jesus was welcoming the wrong people and (even) eating with them. This offended their self-righteous assumptions, and Luke makes sure we notice. On the other hand, is the rejoicing in verses 7 and 10. It came from Heaven. This joy is like that of the shepherd who found his lost sheep. It is like that of the widow who found her lost coin. Such people cannot help but rejoice, and they cannot keep their joy to themselves. They call family and friends for a celebration of communal feasting and toasting and thanksgiving. That, Luke says, is how it goes for the angels in Heaven when a single sinner repents.
The contrast between grumbling and rejoicing in these parables could help you do several things with a sermon on this text. You could use it to emphasize the nature of God’s character as one who delights in seeking and finding that which is lost. You could use it to emphasize the universal scope of God’s plan of salvation that includes even the most unlikely people. These are promising ideas and would work well. But many Christian congregations understand these things. They know the right answers. Which is why I suggest you do something more personal.
Do not be content only to talk about the contrast between these two reactions to Jesus. Instead, hold up this contrast as a mirror by which your hearers can take a look at their own Christian community. Help them examine how they, as a congregation, respond to the repentant faith of a single sinner. You could point them backwards to reflect on how they have celebrated in the past. Or you could invite them to look forward. But do not let them imagine the baptism of a little baby and try to prevent them from thinking of a fellow believer who, once again, confesses his sin at the beginning of the service. Instead, call to their minds the most unlikely candidate they can imagine. Perhaps it is someone who has personally offended this congregation. Perhaps it is someone who looks, or acts, or smells quite different than the rest of them. Perhaps it is someone whose traditions and beliefs are not even in the same ballpark as their corporate confession.
How hospitable would your congregation be to such a person? How ready are they to welcome such a person into their midst? Notice I have emphasized their communal reaction. Rather than asking them to imagine how they as individuals would respond, help them think corporately. If the company of Heaven rejoices together like a shepherd and a widow who gathers together their family and friends, your congregation should be a similarly hospitable community.
If the company of Heaven rejoices together like a shepherd and a widow who gathers together their family and friends, your congregation should be a similarly hospitable community.
Some congregations are doing a decent job of this. They have a culture of practicing hospitality in tangible and concrete ways. Visitors feel genuinely welcomed. Such congregations are well-prepared to celebrate the repentant faith God creates in the hearts of unlikely recipients. If this describes your congregation, affirm their joyful spirit, and encourage them to continue on this hospitable path, even if it seems to be bearing little fruit.
Other congregations, however, are prone to grumbling. They are like the Israelites (see Exodus 16:2, 7-8; Numbers 14:2) who were more focused on their own needs, their own preferences, and their own survival. Such congregations have little capacity to rejoice at the repentant faith of others because they are so focused on themselves. If this describes your congregation, you may need to speak a word of rebuke. They may need to be turned beyond themselves toward those outside the Church who remain lost in sin and without a Savior.
For all congregations, however, the focus should not be on our corporate hospitality (or lack thereof). The heart of your sermon is the promise that God, in Jesus, has sought and found each of us. He receives us sinners and invites us to eat with Him at His table. He welcomes us to Himself for all eternity, and He continues to shape us to be a place of welcome for others. As you proclaim this promise and lead your hearers toward a more hospitable way of communal living, let the rejoicing of the angels give your proclamation a joyful accent.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Luke Luke 15:1-10
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 15:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 15:1-10.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 15:1-10.