“Loving the Strays” (Matthew 18:10-14)
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 6, 2020)
If there is one common thread that runs deep throughout all three of our appointed Scripture readings today it is the exhortation to truly be loving our fellow brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, even if that means putting ourselves out! The apostle Paul goes so far as to characterize such loving as a debt owed. He says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’m sure we are all quick to add our “Amen!” and immediately point to various ways we are individually, as well as corporately, loving each other. After all, we have been praying for one another and will again, in a few minutes, corporately lift our brothers and sisters in need before God’s gracious throne. Perhaps, during the past week we have called up or visited someone who is sick or even hospitalized. Maybe we have even sent a card to cheer up one who has suffered a loss or is in agony. We might have even boasted up our congregation to others by characterizing it as a loving congregation.
I’m not sure, however, that we always truly comprehend the full extent of this love God expects us to have for one another. Jesus teaches us in His Sermon on the Mount to love in a manner that can only be described as divine; that is, to love as He has loved us sinful and wicked people. He who is love incarnate says, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48)
Now, if you noticed in both our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel, as well as our Gospel text from Matthew 18, there is a heavy emphasis on truly loving and caring for arguably the most difficult to love among us; the strays, those who are “wandering away” from the Word of God in how they live out their lives, or their staying away from the regular hearing of it in our assembly, or they are straying from the fold entirely. This Labor Day weekend is a good time to consider this. Those who have gathered are fewer than even what has become our new normal these Covid days. Besides, today we are being asked to consider that bringing back our strays is a true labor of our love for them!
With His prophet Ezekiel, the LORD is very blunt and direct. “I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.” In other words, “I have made you my soul keeper, Ezekiel.” “ Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul” (33:7-9).
In our Gospel Jesus makes much the same urgent request of His disciples but in a much more genteel fashion, urging them to truly care for the strays. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Jesus is the master at making His will for our lives clear through figures of speech and parables. Even though you and I are totally inexperienced with sheep, we comprehend the fate of a sheep that wanders away from the rest of the flock and its shepherd. That sheep puts its life at the mercy of every vicious predator out there, not to mention makes itself completely vulnerable to every storm or other danger in its environment. Left to its own devices, it will perish. It is not “if” but “when.”
At the same time, Jesus asks, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of that one that went astray?” Jesus expects us to answer affirmatively, “Of course, he will.” We intuitively recognize that a person put in charge of a flock of sheep, who is not willing to go after his lost sheep, is not much of a shepherd. Only an uncaring charlatan, who despises his sheep, would say to himself, “That stupid sheep! He’ll just have to tend to himself. I’m not going to put myself out just because he wants to get lost. Besides, I can’t leave the others to go find him. If he gets eaten by a pack of wolves, it’s his own dumb fault. Besides, I still have 99 other sheep. I’ll still make out okay at market time. I’ll just write off this good for nothing one!”
Jesus began by warning the disciples in His audience, as well as you and me, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.”
As your called shepherd, it grieves me to share with you that we have not just one, but many sheep who are wandering away from this flock. I could bore you with the exact numbers of members who are not attending our services of Word and Sacrament anymore or those who have wandered off to other churches, faiths or religions, but it’s not about numbers and statistics. These numbers represent real souls, Jesus’ sheep, wandering from His fold, putting their souls in eternal danger. Besides, you’re not blind. You see the empty pews once occupied.
The question we all ought to ask ourselves is this: “What has been our attitude toward these endangered strays? More than likely, it has not always been very godly or loving. Perhaps there have even been times that we complained about them calling them such disparaging names as “dead wood” or “back sliders.” But have we been truly caring to rescue them or have we just written them off?
Want to know the worst part of this lack of genuine and loving searching: we don’t even have to search for many of these strays. We actually know where they are… where they live. In some cases we see them on the job or at the grocery store on a regular basis. What have we been doing or saying to bring them back to Christ’s fold? Do we not concern ourselves because we think it’s the pastor and elders responsibility alone to bring them back? Does our inaction betray a lack of sincere love or, even worse, we actually despise them?
Our real love for others might legitimately be questioned at times for it is clear that we all fall far short of the glory of God and His love. But thanks be to God, His care and love for all His sheep, even those who go stray, is beyond all question. Jesus assures us concerning these “little ones,” as He calls not simply children but all who are weak in the faith, being tempted, troubled, or wandering away, “that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” What a beautiful way to express that these “little ones” are each and every one precious to God and never beyond His concern and care. He has not written off any of them. In fact, Jesus states most emphatically, “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish!” This clearly tells us that our heavenly Father considers the loss of even one soul too high a cost.
God’s deep-seated will, therefore, is to save the strays. In fact, as some overzealous scribes inserted into this text from Luke’ Gospel, “The Son of Man came to save the lost.” God’s loving concern to save all sinners from sin, death and the devil, is manifested in the cross of His only begotten Son. Jesus did not die in atonement for perfect people. He spilled His blood to rescue the strays as well as all the wicked… the arrogant…the selfish… and even you and me who all too often betray our unloving and selfish nature.
Now, it might seem at times that God gives more of Himself… more of his attention … more of His time, toward saving the strays than He expends on His other sheep that have not gone astray. But that’s the reality of what needs to happen if He is not going to let any soul perish. It is simply a fact, that those who have wandered off require His urgent attention much more than those 99 who are still safe in the womb of His Church, feeding on the mountain pastures of His Word and Sacrament. Accordingly, it can be said of God, just as Jesus says of the shepherd, “Truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it (the One stray that returns in repentance) more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”
Once in Junior Catechism Class one of the students raised the question that if there was only one sinner in the world, would God still give His Son to die for that one person? What do you think? From this text it is clear that in His love and concern for the one wandering sheep, He would consider even one soul worth the precious blood of His Son! How comforting such committed love of God is, especially if you consider that you are that one!
If our Good Shepherd rejoiced to give His precious life to save such a wandering sheep as the likes of one like you or me, how can we not share His joy and leave other tasks that simply attend to those who are safely in His loving hands already and do whatever we can to go after the strays in our midst?