Bring on the stories . . .
One of the most beloved parables in the New Testament is preceded by two others with striking similarities. In Luke 15, Jesus paints three vivid pictures of lost things (a sheep, a coin, and two sons). We know the last parable as the story of the prodigal son, but the truth is, it is a story of not one, but two boys who were distant from their father – one through willful rebellion, and the other through religious self-love.
The context of these stories is riveting. Jesus is nearing the tail end of his ministry, probably about 6 to 10 months before the cross. He has already wrapped up his Galilean ministry. He has already predicted his death on at least two occasions. And He has already “set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Now He is dotting his way through Samaria, Judea, and various outlying areas, awaiting the time appointed by the Father.
By this time Jesus has long established his priorities in ministry. He has already clarified his message, demonstrated his authority, and confirmed his credentials as being “from the Father.” But what continues to mystify the “religious elite” – the scribes, Pharisees, and priests – is that Jesus routinely associates with the “scum of the earth.” Here in Luke 15, we see their resentment for Jesus because the tax collectors and sinners draw near to him on a regular basis. Because of this, they grumbled in their hearts and said, “This man receives tax collectors and sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2b).
The question that kept running through their minds was, “How can a man who claims to be from God disregard all of the religious traditions that we have held so dear?” In its simplest essence, “How can God fellowship with sinners?” The thought was inconceivable to them, especially because, in their system, you EARNED your place in line by PERFORMING your religious duties. The harder you worked at righteousness, the closer you got to God. But in Jesus’ economy, he was letting the defiled, ugly, and bankrupt sinners skip to the head of the line – and that wasn’t RIGHT in their minds.
Their concept of righteousness was flawed to the CORE. They couldn’t see their own sin that permeated their hearts. They could only see the sin of others. But more importantly, their understanding of God’s love for PEOPLE was flawed to the CORE. The Pharisees were bent on systems, ceremonies, duties, and religious ordinances. They forgot that all of these systems were put in place for PEOPLE. The systems existed to move PEOPLE to God.
In response, Jesus tells three consecutive parables to EMPHASIZE the SIGNIFICANCE of people regardless of their station in life. The first parable was the story of 100 sheep from which one had lost its way. The lost sheep was unable to remedy its plight, but the shepherd, on the other hand, actively left the 99 and searched until the lost sheep was found.
The second parable was almost a repeat of the first except that it involved a coin. In this story a woman loses one of her 10 silver coins. The coin was obviously passive in this story as well – unable to remedy its situation. However, the woman actively searched for her coin, and looked “diligently until she found it” (Luke 15:8).
Both of these events are followed by a great celebration in which friends, neighbors, and relatives were invited to take part. The celebration in these parables provides a window into the throne room of heaven where God’s joy over lost sinners is expressed through dancing angels and exuberant chorus.
Jesus’ summary to the grumbling hearts of the scribes and Pharisees was this: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, 10).
The moral to these stories: God cares for people! And the systems he creates are meant to serve those people by moving them to God!
The final story is a familiar one which describes the group standing before Jesus at that moment – in one corner are the broken, distant, and rebel sinners who are represented by the wayward son. In the other corner are the self-righteous, duty-bound lawkeepers who inwardly despise their father; hating him for his “oppressive rules” and gracious care for rebel sons. These were the scribes and Pharisees, whom Jesus loved with the same pursuing heart, but who ultimately resented his message of mercy and nailed him to a cross.
Bring on the point . . .
The point of these parables is to illustrate the heart of our Savior for PEOPLE – regardless of position, title, history, race, education, background, or profession. Jesus loves PEOPLE.
His heart is expressed at the outset of his ministry.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And his heart is expressed at the end of his ministry.
For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for man.
And everywhere in between, Jesus’ compassion for people stands front and center as he heals the broken, raises the dead, feeds the hungry, cleanses the lepers, gives sight to the blind, stills the water, teaches the masses, and shows mercy on the outcast.
Jesus was unmistakably interested in PEOPLE over systems.
Bring on the application . . .
As those who follow in Christ’s steps, we must also seek to emulate his heart. We must prioritize our ministry to PEOPLE (VINE) and see the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES (TRELLIS) of ministry as instruments of service to PEOPLE rather than ministries as an end in themselves. We must not be content or satisfied with maintaining the STRUCTURES to the detriment of the PEOPLE. Rather, we must constantly evaluate our ministry to ensure that it is accomplishing its objective to encourage, strengthen, equip, and empower the people to grow in their affection for the Savior and their effectiveness in the Christian life.
Only in this way can there be celebration in heaven!
Let me close with a story that will drive home my point.
I used to attend a church that had a monthly soup kitchen ministry. The sincere desire of the people was to meet the tangible needs of the community. Our town was full of “tax collectors” and “sinners” who desperately needed a square meal. So, each month we would serve as many as 300 meals which required coordination, effort, and planning. There was food to prepare, tables to set up, supplies to buy, trash to take out, and drinks to serve. The flurry of activity, and the industry of the people was exciting, especially on the days we had a larger turnout.
You wouldn’t believe the kind of people we had come through our doors – people from every walk of life, and people from the lowest “dregs” of society. Here they were, in our church, enjoying a meal once a month.
Then tragedy hit our town. In one year, seven young women went missing and five of them turned up dead in various places around town. Their drug habit had led them to dangerous places as they worked for money through immorality.
These same ladies had regularly attended our monthly soup kitchen, but to my knowledge, not ONE of them had HEARD the GOSPEL. You see, that wasn’t our focus. We were interested in numbers, food preparation, and filling hungry bellies - which was not really ministry to people. We were not focused on filling hearts or preparing them for eternity. Unfortunately, systems and structures took precedence over people.
That is our tendency – to focus on systems over people, because ministry to people is messy and unpredictable, and so often it leads to disappointment, while making food and filling bellies is simple, predictable, and measurable. It makes us feel good about ourselves, and lets feel a measure of satisfaction in a job well done.
But the ministry that Christ modeled, and the ministry he has called us to, is a ministry to PEOPLE. Structures and systems are only important as they strengthen and enable our service to people. And only as we look for ways to encourage, equip, and challenge hearts with the gospel will our ministry be enduring. May God help us to walk in the steps of our Savior and to think carefully about our motives and behaviors in the ministries that we support.