by John Ellis
Luke chapter fifteen is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible; which is to say, one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature. As the chapter opens, we meet a group of grumbling Pharisees and scribes who are accusatorily saying of Jesus, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” With his response, Jesus reveals his love, his heart, and the reason for his incarnation.
The self-centered, self-righteous revelation of the Pharisees and scribes’ hearts finds a contrast and, more importantly, an antidote in the three parables that Jesus told in response. Instead of defending himself against the charge of receiving sinners and eating with them, Jesus confirms the accusation and explains that that is exactly what he came to do. Jesus’ telling of “The Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “The Parable of the Lost Coin,” and “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” reveals to us his desire to see sinners saved and reconciled to God. The readers of the Bible shouldn’t be surprised.
In the larger book, we are first told about Jesus and his mission all the way back at the beginning. After God, in His sovereign goodness and with the desire to bring Himself the glory He deserves, created the universe and all that is in it, the pinnacle of His creation, humans, rebel, align themselves with the serpent-Satan, and attempt to dethrone God. Coming down to pass righteous judgment on the failed coup, God sentences the guilty parties through a series of curses. A life of disunity, hardship, and brokenness culminating in eternal death is the awful fate for humanity’s parents and their children. Being born in sin means that every human is fated to a life of ethical separation from their Creator as well as that separation’s ensuing chaos, hurt, and eternal death. Because of their war on God, humans are now at war with each other. Sin destroys, and it destroys ultimately and finally. Except, and thankfully, while pronouncing judgment, God makes a promise; the most glorious promise in all of history.
In Genesis 3:15, God promises that one day a seed of the woman will defeat the serpent-Satan, destroying sin and death. God promises to fix the problem that humans created. God promises to bridge the ethical divide created by personal sin that separates God’s people from their Sovereign Creator. God promises to redeem His people back to Himself. God promises eternal life to those who repent of their sins and place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Fast forward back to Luke chapter fifteen, and with his three well-crafted stories, Jesus lays bare his heart and continues to reveal that he is the promised seed of Genesis 3:15. Knowing that he would face and endure extreme deprivation, torment, death, and, the worst punishment of all, the divine rending of the divine being, Jesus left his home in heaven to pursue sinners. So, yes, the Pharisees and scribes were correct, and thankfully so; Jesus did/does receive and dine with sinners. Sinners like me, and sinners like you. The gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in Luke chapter fifteen is truly beautiful.
This past Sunday (yesterday), I was blessed to hear my pastor preach the beautiful, joy-inducing truths coursing through Luke chapter fifteen. Referencing Jesus’ parables while pressing home application, my pastor pointed out that, “First, we’ve got to go and find someone who is lost. Then we’ve got to tell them how to be found. A friend once told me that one of the main hindrances to evangelism is that it is not on our minds. The lost are clearly on God’s mind. If we’re going to be evangelistic, we must be mindful of the lost. If we’re not thinking about the lost, it is unlikely that we will be pursuing the lost. Think about those around you, in your family, in your workplace, or in your neighborhood who don’t know Jesus, but don’t just think about them, seek them out. Seek them out in prayer. Pray for them by name. Pray that God would find them. Then seek them out personally.”
As a general rule, that paragraph in and of itself would prove to be convicting for me. I frequently fail to pray for lost loved ones and friends; I frequently fail to share the gospel with the lost that the Holy Spirit has placed in my path and in my life. However, those good and true words from my pastor combined with the divine and loving words of Jesus from Luke 15 were especially painful for me to hear coming on the heels of a specific failure of mine last week to love my neighbor at the very moment that I prided myself on loving my neighbor.
On Friday morning of last week, my children and I stood in the checkout line of our neighborhood’s Giant grocery store. The lines were unusually long for a Friday morning (even by crowded Arlington’s standards). Reading articles on my phone while my two kids played games, I semi-patiently waited as the line we were in dwindled down to two people in front of us.
At the checkout, a woman inserted her EBT card as the cashier bagged the contents of her full cart. For whatever reason, the EBT card was rejected. She tried again, to no avail. The cashier tried as well, unsuccessfully. The manager was called, and eventually the issue was resolved, the lady finished putting her bagged groceries into her cart, and she left.
Before leaving, though, she turned to the elderly man behind her and with a sheepish smile said, “I’m sorry for taking so long, please forgive me.”
The man in front of me growled, “Don’t talk to me!”
Surprised and seemingly confused, the woman attempted to repeat her apology, but the angry man interrupted her.
“You don’t have anything to say to me. Go back to your trailer park! I shouldn’t have to pay for your laziness.”
Never mind that there are no trailer parks in Arlington, VA (he might have been a tourist), I was appalled that this lady was being subjected to this kind of hatred and that my children were witness to it. Flustered and turning red, the lady once again attempted to apologize, but this time, I interrupted her.
“Ignore him, ma’am,” I loudly said. “Please, ignore him. He doesn’t speak for anyone else.”
She looked at me, with what I would like to think was relief in her eyes, and thanked me. As she turned and left, the cashier mouthed “thank you” to me; the man in front of me didn’t move a muscle. I turned to my two kids and loudly asked, “Did you hear what that man just did to that women?”
They nodded their heads yes, but I wasn’t finished making my point.
“He was being a bully,” I loudly continued. “Do we stand idly by while other people are being bullies?”
My kids dutifully replied, “no;” the man continued to stand stiffly facing forward without acknowledging my intervention and continued moral preening; and the rest of the people in line began to stare at the floor. Being on a social-justice role, I still wasn’t finished, though.
While the cashier wrapped up the man’s transaction, I told my kids (and everyone else in earshot of my booming voice) that it is never ok to treat others unkindly. Furthermore, I lectured, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who are being oppressed by hate. As the man slinked away, I concluded up my semi-passive-aggressive sermonette, turned to the task at hand of checking out, and breathed a quick prayer of thankfulness for being able to demonstrate to my kids one of the ways in which we can love our neighbor. Except, in the moment, I failed to realize that I didn’t show my neighbor love in the greatest and most important way possible.
You see, while coming to the defense of the lady, the Holy Spirit provided me with an excellent opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the man (and everyone else in earshot of my booming voice). Instead of using that moment as an opportunity to instruct my children about standing up to bullies, something that I could’ve done later, I should’ve said something like this to the man:
“Sir, I don’t know what has been done to you in the past or what bad things that you’ve done that cause you to lash out so bitterly against someone who was trying to apologize to you. But I do know that there is healing and repentance found through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You do not have to continue to struggle with bitterness and hate. Jesus is inviting you into God’s family, and if you are willing to repent and place your faith in him, he has paid for all of your sins on the cross. I would love to talk to you more about the amazing love of Jesus and the salvation from sins that he offers. Can I buy you a cup of coffee at the Starbucks on the corner?”
Shamefully, I didn’t say any of that. In fact, it never even entered my mind. Instead, I allowed a lost, obviously hurting soul to walk away without hearing the good news of healing found in Jesus Christ. I was too busy loving my neighbor to notice that another neighbor needed the greatest love of all.
Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important way that we can fulfill the command to love our neighbors. You see, that’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t leave heaven, take on the frailty of human flesh, and suffer in order to merely feed the physically hungry and heal the physically sick. He came to heal the sickness created by personal sin that leads to eternal death, bridge the ethical divide between God and God’s people, and invite them to feast with him through all eternity. Jesus came to save sinners and provide them with eternal life.
Unlike my pastor’s admonition and Jesus’ words and example, I was not seeking sinners; the lost were not on my mind. In that moment, through my words and deeds, I told those watching and hearing that earthly healing is more important than eternal, spiritual healing. I demonstrated that my heart is still prone to believing the lie that the social gospel is the content of Jesus’ gospel.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only place where true social justice is found. Followers of King Jesus, those of us who are repenting of our sins and placing our faith in Jesus, need to pray for the grace to have the lost on our mind at all times. Like Jesus, the one who came to earth to save us from our sins, we need to prioritize the salvation of the lost above all else.
Soli Deo Gloria
Postscript: Three quick thoughts about my actions at the store last Friday: One, I don’t regret coming to the lady’s defense; it was the right thing to do. Two, nothing that I said to my kids was wrong. While I may regret the self-righteous spirit with which I delivered my words, I don’t regret delivering those words to my children. Three, it did not take any special courage on my part to speak up in that moment. I live in Arlington, one of the most liberal communities in the country; if I hadn’t spoken up, chances are, someone else would’ve. Not to mention, the man was at least thirty years older than me and barely half my size. Courage was not needed on my part; it was no risk for me to speak up, neither physically nor emotionally.