Text: Luke 15:1-10 [3rd Sunday after Trinity; one year lectionary]
Are you righteous? The dictionary states that the term “righteous” is an adjective describing someone who “acts in accordance with divine or moral law.” Let’s put that question another way. Would most people looking at your day-to-day life say that you usually act in accordance with the Ten Commandments, that you love your neighbor as yourself, and that you love God with your heart, mind, and soul? By this definition, I think most of the members of Trinity congregation, and probably every member who is here today, would be classified as a “righteous” person.
Most of the members of Trinity who have been through catechism class might realize that this is a “trick question.” As catechized Lutherans, you know that the terms “righteous” and “righteousness” also have another meaning–something that escaped the editors of the English dictionary. What hymn do we sing? [sing] “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness.” What does that mean? It means that there are really two definitions of the term “righteous” and two kinds of “righteousness.” Both of these definitions are found in both the Old and New Testaments, although the distinction is much clearer in the New than the Old.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus was preaching to a group of people who were not welcome in the Jewish synagogue. He was criticized for doing this by the scribes and Pharisees who said in verse 2, “This man welcomes unrighteous people and eats with them.” The criticism assumed that the scribes and Pharisees were righteous. According to the law of Moses and the rabbinic laws of Judaism, the scribes and Pharisees men were indeed “righteous.” Nobody could contest that fact, as long as they accepted the definition of “righteousness” that was common in that day, and which is found in our own English dictionaries.
Jesus did not argue with the scribes and Pharisees. He accepted the fact that, according to our English dictionary, the scribes and Pharisees were “righteous” and that the people whom he welcomed and was teaching were “unrighteous.” Instead he told them the famous parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In these parables, we see both the love of God for all human beings and the biblical doctrine of the two kinds of righteousness.
The parable of the lost sheep presents a scene unfamiliar to most Americans today. If an American farmer raises sheep, he usually does so within fences and pens. Only in a few places out West can you find a shepherd watching over a flock of sheep in the unfenced wilderness. As a result, many of the meanings of this parable are lost on us today.
As a child, I always wondered why the shepherd in this parable left behind ninety-nine sheep to be torn to pieces by the coyotes. That’s because Jesus doesn’t mention the sheep-dogs who guarded the flock. Almost every country has had its own breed of sheep-dogs, going back in time to the ancient world. Sheep-dogs are among the smartest dog breeds today, including American favorites like the German shepherd, collie, and border collie. So, kids, the shepherd in the parable left his ninety-nine sheep in good “paws.” Don’t worry about them!
The point of the first parable is that even though the shepherd had a hundred in his flock, each one was precious to him. The same point is found in the parable of the lost coin. The ten coins that the woman owned were each a “drachma,” a day’s wage in those days. In our currency, that would be a gold or silver coin worth $50 each. If you had a coin collection, and you lost a $50 coin, would you just “write it off,” or would you spend the better part of the day looking for it? Even so each coin was precious to the woman.
The primary doctrine taught in both parables is the love of God for every single human being. This is stated more prosaically by Saint Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, when he wrote, “God our Savior . . . wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:3-5). When Paul says “all men,” that means no one is excluded.
This doctrine is important to remember when you talk to Reformed Protestants of the Calvinist persuasion, who believe that God loves and saves only the elect. So whether you are good or bad, righteous or unrighteous, God loves you and he wants you to be saved.
The secondary doctrine of the first parable is found in verse 7, where Jesus said, “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” This is a paradoxical statement. It sounds like Jesus was saying that the ninety-nine were the Pharisees and the scribes, and that they didn’t need to repent. But that would contradict the preaching of John the Baptist before him, who told everyone that they needed to repent and be baptized, for the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
The key to the paradox in verse 7 is that word “righteous.” The scribes and the Pharisees lived a “righteous” life, according to the definition found in our English dictionary. So why should they repent? They lived a decent life–like all of you. They did not have a criminal record–like all of you. They heard the Word of God in worship–like all of you. They brought their children to the religious rite of initiation–circumcision for them, baptism for you. They gave their offerings on a regular basis–like all of you. Nobody could fault them on an earthly level, and Jesus didn’t either.
At the end of both parables, Jesus opened up a veritable “window in the sky,” so that his hearers could look into heaven. What did they see when they looked into that window in the sky? They saw myriads upon myriads of wonderful beings, filled with light, covered with wings, that we know as angels. Angels are the citizens of heaven. Because they are always in the presence of God, they know God’s attitude toward things–they know how he thinks and how he feels.
The angels know that God loves all people and that he wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. But they also know that what really brings God joy is “one sinner who repents,” i.e., one person who realizes that his earthly “righteousness” is worth nothing in heaven. When God is joyful, the angels are joyful too.
Human righteousness has its place in this world, in keeping human society in order and harmony, but it has no value in heaven. Only the divine righteousness of Christ, which was earned through Jesus’ perfect obedience, and his suffering and death on the cross, and which is offered to you as a gift through baptism and received by faith, has any value in heaven as “righteousness.”
Here is the practical meaning of the two kinds of righteousness. When you repent of your sins before God and trust in Jesus’ righteousness, you are also admitting that your own earthly righteousness, your own virtues, and your own good works are as nothing in heaven. The people that came to hear Jesus knew that they were unrighteous on earth, so they were seeking the righteousness in heaven, which is found only in Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees knew that they were righteous on earth, so they assumed they were righteous in heaven–but they were wrong. Dead wrong!
May you always gather to hear the words of Jesus and seek first HIS righteousness, so that the angels in heaven will rejoice over you too! In our Savior’s name. Amen.