It is chapter 16 in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus is fired up! He has been telling parable after parable after parable. And we have to go back an entire chapter to remind ourselves what got Jesus worked up into this parabolic frenzy. That’s right, it was that familiar grumbling: “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Evidently, if you want to get Jesus started, if you really want to get him riled up, if you want to push his buttons, all you have to do is start grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners to his table. All you have to do is question the height, depth, and breadth of God’s grace. All you have to do is suggest that someone—somewhere, somehow, someway—can be separated from the love God.
Jesus responds by telling four parables: one about a sheep that strayed, one about coin that was lost, one about a son who misused his inheritance, and one about a manager who misused his boss’ money.
Jesus used parables throughout his ministry to reveal a little something about the nature God. And in all parables, there is usually some action that takes us by surprise, and sometimes even confuses us. It makes us say something like: “Really?!?” “Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain?” “C’mon Jesus, Really?!?” Really?”
And it is usually in that moment where we find that little something Jesus wants us to learn about the nature of God.
To go after and find that one lost sheep that did not have the good sense to stay with the flock, the shepherd is really going to risk the ninety-nine sheep that are faithful? He’s really going to leave them wilderness for who knows how many days and nights? Really?!? Alone in the wilderness? Really?!? The entire flock? C’mon, Jesus, Really?!?
To find one lost coin, a woman is going to sweep the entire house, search day and night, and when she finds it, she’s really going to invite all of her friends, the entire neighborhood to rejoice with her? Really?!? The entire neighborhood? For one coin? Really?!? Jesus, c’mon?!
After a son has the audacity to ask his perfectly healthy and fit father for his inheritance; after he spends all of it on who knows what, and having no other place to go, returns home; the father has even greater audacity to welcome him back home with open arms. “Really?!? C’mon Jesus, Really?!? And not only does he welcome him home, but does so with one, big, extravagant party. Really?!? With a robe? A kiss? And a ring? And a fatted calf? Really?!? C’mon Jesus, Really?!?” “Jesus?”
But Jesus does not answer. After all, his button has been pushed and he’s on a roll! He has one more story to tell and this one, well this one is a doozy!
A certain rich man gets word that the manager of his properties has been cheating him out of some money. So he calls him into his office, asks for the books, and tells him that he has to let him go.
Now, most employees who are caught in some sort of embezzling or swindling scam would be grateful that a pink slip was all they got; and thus, go home with a little bit of gratitude, but not this employee. This one is clever, crafty and conniving. After all, he did not get the job as manager by being a hard worker or by being handy with a shovel. This one has a plan. And it is a sneaky plan. It is a selfish plan. It’s fraudulent, even criminal. And it is more than a little risky. If his previous behavior did not land him in prison, this certainly should.
He goes out and one by one meets with his boss’s customers. “How much do you owe the boss man?”
“A hundred jugs of olive oil.”
“Here’s your bill. Take it and make it fifty. And do it before we change our minds!”
“And you sir, what do you owe the boss?”
“A hundred containers of wheat.”
“Here, take your bill and make it eighty.”
And this went on and on until he reduced the debts of all of the boss’s customers.
And when the boss man discovered what his dishonest manager had done, cheating him out of even more money, the boss man commends and applauds the little weasel for being so weasel-y. And all God’s children said, “REALLY?!?” Commends the dishonest manager? For being dishonest? C’mon Jesus, really?!? He does not take the weasel by the throat and strangle him to death? Or even call the law? He praises him? Really?!? I mean, c’mon now, really!?!
And it is here, in this action, that we find that little something that Jesus wants us to learn about the nature of God. And in this case, it happens to be a very big something.
When the height, depth and breadth of God’s grace is questioned, “This fellow eats and drinks with sinners,” Jesus responds:
Yes, I do. And for just one sinner who has lost her way, I am willing to risk ninety-nine religious people who think they have life all figured out. And I will not stop seeking and reaching out my hands for that one until she is found. I will sweep every room, move every piece of furniture, rip up the carpet and tear a house a part if I have to.
And I don’t care who that sinner is or what that sinner has done, there is absolutely nothing that they can do to be separated from my love and grace. He can squander my property, spend it all on who knows what, then come crawling back to me, only because he has no other place to go, only for reasons that are purely selfish, and I will not only welcome him back with open arms, I will throw one big, extravagant party!
So, yes, I really do eat and I drink with sinners because God’s grace is really, really, really bigger than you think. It is more extravagant and more generous than you know.
And if you still do not believe it? If you still question the heights and depths and lengths I would go through to accept, love and forgive the sinner, let me tell you yet another story. And this one is one, well this one is a real doozy!
A rich man had a manager who was quite the scoundrel. When the master learns that he was cooking the books, although he could have had him thrown in prison or even crucified, the master very graciously lets him go.
It is then the manager makes what seems to be an extraordinary gamble. He meets with the boss man’s customers and says, “Christmas has come early!” And one by one he reduces their debts and puts the master in some kind of pickle!
What on earth is the boss man going to do now? Is he going to round up all of his happy customers and tell them that it was a one big mistake? Not only would they think that his manager pulled one over on him, but he would look like a miserly scrooge.
Or will he let the little swindle slide and receive praise for being a very generous boss man? What does the boss man love more: his money or his new reputation for having a gracious and generous nature? The manager was betting on the latter and the gamble pays off. He commends the manager for being a shrewd businessman. [i]
And we are shocked, asking, “really Jesus?!” “Really?!?”
But after hearing the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the gracious father who welcomes back his prodigal son, should we be surprised?
The shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep not because of who the sheep is, but because of who the shepherd is. The woman searches until she finds the coin because of who she is. It is her nature to keep searching. The prodigal son is welcomed graciously back by the father, not because of anything that the son did, after all he only came crawling back because he had nowhere else to go. He is welcomed graciously back because that is the nature of his father.
And now, here is an unfaithful manager whose actions can only be described as selfish and self-serving. And the master, seeing all of this, is still generous because it is in the very nature of the master to be generous. The dishonest manager knew this, bet on this and won.
Therefore Jesus says, “If the children of God, who question whether I should be eating and drinking with sinners, would only believe in God’s grace the way the dishonest believe in grace, and try to exploit it, then the children of God would never question that there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can ever separate them from the love of God.”
However, Jesus knew that it would take more than parables to convince us. There would need to be one more action, at a place called The Skull.
Luke writes: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right side and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do know what they are doing.’”
C’mon, Jesus, Really?!?
The good news is: really!
Now listen to one more parable. There was this certain pastor who had served churches his entire adult life. He was far from perfect, but worked hard to love people and to serve the community.
One day, for many reasons, he just threw up his hands and walked away from the church. The fire that he once had for ministry was all but gone. He was even tempted at times to give up on organized religion all together. For three years he worked outside of the church and lived mostly for himself and his immediate family. He was no longer involved in his community. And he hardly ever even visited with his neighbors.
But then there was this church—this church that knew him when his hair was much darker, knew a lot of his faults, but recognized his gifts for ministry and believed that he still had much to give to the Lord and to their community—and this church welcomed this pastor and his family with open arms. They offered him grace and encouragement and rekindled that fire inside of him, which, at least today, burns brighter than ever! And although he still has a lot of faults and flaws, they call him, “pastor.”
Really!?! C’mon First Christian Church, Really?!? Really?
O God, forgive us for doubting, for questioning the stories of your amazing grace. Thank you for loving us freely and unconditionally. And give us the courage and the vision to share this good news in this community and throughout the world. Amen.
Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2008) 520-524.
Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1990) 192.
R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 306-311.