The Good Shepherd to the rescue
Paul, as a former Pharisee and keeper of the law, knew about following the commands of the Old Testament. He knew the law well, and he had done his best throughout his life to keep it. Paul found, when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, that no amount of keeping the law is enough to make someone right with God.
He makes that clear in his letter to the Ephesians and throughout this letter to the Romans, "All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law."
But here, in this passage, we see something unusual. He writes, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified." Doesn't this contradict Paul's writing in Ephesians -- and Christ's teaching throughout the Gospels -- that salvation is the "free gift of God"?
In order to understand this passage, one has to consider it in its entire context: Paul is setting the hearers of this letter up for the shocking pronouncement that he makes in verses 17-24. He tells the readers, many of whom were formerly Jews, what they knew from their training in the Torah and Tanahk: that righteousness is based upon one's obedience to God's law. To the casual listener, this would sound "right."
But then, Paul flies into the heart of his argument. He asks, rhetorically, "You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?" The point that Paul makes, as he makes consistently throughout his writings, is that perfect obedience to God's law yields salvation under the first covenant. Paul makes the further point that humans cannot accomplish this task on their own: whether "Gentiles, who do not possess the law, [and who] do instinctively what the law requires," or "Jew[s] [who] rely on the law and boast of [their] relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law."
In our own day, we may apply the dichotomy that Paul is creating to ourselves: whether we know Christ -- like the Gentiles who did not possess the law -- or whether we are believers -- like the Jews who relied on the law, we are, none of us, able to fulfill the perfect law of God. It is only Christ, and his Holy Spirit within us, that enables us to know and to do the will of God.
• Matthew 18:10-20
I learned something from my initial reading of this Scripture that I hadn't realized before: the story of the lost sheep in Matthew's Gospel is set within the context of Christ's answer, from yesterday's passage, to the disciples' question about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
As we examine the two famous stories in today's Scripture, I think it's important to recall the lessons that we examined yesterday: that Christ is calling us to humility that can be so hard for us as human beings.
The Gospel lesson for today also takes the despair that one could gather from Paul's teaching to the Romans and gives us hope: hope that even when we cannot fulfill the law and the requirements that God, in his righteousness, has established, Christ -- the Good Shepherd -- will come, find us, and carry us home to be with him.
The first parable the Jesus tells us today is that of the Good Shepherd. It is a famous story, and one that we might overlook because of just how well-known it is. But let us closely look at what Jesus is saying.
Again, as I noted above, I was surprised to find Matthew's version of the parable set within the story of "letting the little children come." Jesus is adamant about how the humility and faithfulness of children makes them amenable to God's will and purpose: "Take care," Jesus says, "that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Heavenly Father."
What a word of hope for those who have lost children: that their humility and faithfulness allows God to bring them to be with him in Heaven. But even more than this, the individual and unique value of every human life -- and soul -- is proclaimed by Christ in this parable.
Jesus tells the story: "What do you think? If a shepherd 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 tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost."
Again, what a powerful word of hope and grace in the face of Paul's teaching from Romans -- and in the face of many, today, who would argue that God's faithfulness (and Christ's sacrifice) is limited to only some of God's children. Our Father in heaven wills that "not ... one of these little ones should be lost."
Each of us was once one of these little ones. Each of us, in our relation to God the Father, have the opportunity, in accepting Christ's gift of salvation by grace through faith, to call God Almighty, the King of the Universe, "Daddy." Each of us, Christ says, may call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.
But Christ is not finished. This glorious good news would be a sermon in and of itself, but Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to show us that once the Good Shepherd has rescued us from darkness and brought us to Light, he has also saved us from loneliness.
God, in the beginning of creation, found only one thing "not good" after he was finished: that Adam was alone. He loved Adam and wanted him to be happy, and so he created a partner and friend: Eve. From the beginning, then, humans have been creatures of community; friends destined for fellowship.
Jesus acknowledged this need for community throughout his ministry -- especially in the institution of his Supper on the night he was handed over. Here, too, he tells a parable that helps us, as fallen yet grace-filled human beings, to get along with one another.
In the news, of late, there has been controversy about pastors in some parts of the United States undertaking to implement this sort of Christian accountability within their churches. People have debated whether or not it works. But for us, in our faithfulness to the words of Christ, we have, in this passage, a true model for living and for interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether or not we agree that this model should be implemented today, we can all affirm that Jesus calls us into community with one another -- that called-out assembly, the Church.
Jesus tells us of the power of our assembly in his name: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
This powerful blessing is, of course, at God's discretion. The Lord does not abdicate his power to us sinful, self-centered creatures. But he does allow us to move him, as Abraham moved him to spare Sodom if ten righteous people could be found, and to be his church.
Christ is calling us, as the Church Universal, to be examples to one another of how to live in our faithfulness to his commands, while not relying on our own strength; to be the Good Shepherd in the lives of fellow believers, and seek after the welfare of our brothers and sisters; and to hold one another accountable in the Truth of the Gospel.
Heavenly Father, we confess that we think we can keep your commandments without holding fast to you. We glorify your mighty power in saving us from sin, darkness, and loneliness. Save us, Lord, from giving up the willingness to gather as your church, hold one another accountable, and rest in your Truth. Thank you for hearing our prayers and being to us a loving, nurturing Parent; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.