I tell you what, that Jesus character just stays in trouble! He’s always got people griping about something – he heals somebody on the Sabbath, his disciples don’t follow the hand-washing rules – and now here he is hanging out with sinners, even eating dinner with them!
Just a few days ago, Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee’s house – you can look it up, back in chapter 14. Naturally, this didn’t work out too well. First of all, it was the Sabbath, and sure enough, Jesus had to go and heal someone. Then that Jesus character ragged on the other guests because of the little status games they played, trying to get a better seat at the dinner table. And to top it off, Jesus then had the nerve to tell the host that he had invited the wrong people to dinner. Jesus said that he should have invited the poor, the crippled, the blind!
I mean, really, how foolish is that? When you throw a dinner party, you invite your friends; it’s that simple. Or, you invite people who could be of benefit to you, in your job, or your social status. You certainly don’t invite people who aren’t of the same social class as you.
Unless, of course, you’re Jesus. That Jesus character will eat dinner with anybody! Even tax collectors and other sinners. Doesn’t Jesus know anything?
How dare Jesus hang around with such people? Doesn’t Jesus understand that we’re known by the company we keep? Didn’t Jesus’ mama warn him not to run around with the wrong crowd? I mean, Jesus is a religious kind of guy; doesn’t he know that separating the righteous from sinners helps to keep the righteous … well … righteous?
Apparently not. Apparently Jesus doesn’t know any of this – or if he does know, he doesn’t care. Because here we see Jesus, once again breaking down social barriers and welcoming outcasts. And, once again, we hear the scribes and the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus.
I’m not sure that, today, we can grasp just how offensive it was to the Pharisees that Jesus associated with people whom the Pharisees labeled as sinners. The Pharisees even had a name for people who didn’t keep the law as they did: the Pharisees called them “the people of the land.”
The barrier between the Pharisees and the people of the land was absolute. The Pharisees, by their own law, were forbidden from having one of the people of the land as a guest, or from being the guest of one of them. A Pharisee would rather expose his daughter, bound and helpless, to a lion than marry her to one of the people of the land.
The Pharisees simply refused, as far as was possible, to have any dealings whatsoever with one of these sinners. The Pharisees would go out of their way to avoid contact with these people who didn’t observe all the tiniest details of the law the way the Pharisees did.
New Testament scholar William Barclay says that, in fact, there was a saying among the Pharisees: “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God.” The Pharisees, you see, weren’t interested in the redemption of sinners; they were interested in their destruction.
So the Pharisees were more than just mildly shocked at Jesus’ behavior – they were downright disgusted. It was incomprehensible to them; they just couldn’t understand what Jesus could possibly be thinking.
And what does that Jesus character do about it? Jesus tells them stories! Jesus tells them parables – stories with a point. The Pharisees are disgusted with Jesus, but Jesus is not disgusted with them. Jesus is seriously trying to reach out to the Pharisees. Jesus is honestly trying to help them to understand.
At first glance these two parables seem straightforward enough. A shepherd loses a sheep; a woman loses a coin. When they find their missing items, they both call their friends and invite them to come celebrate the return of that which was lost. The point of both stories is this: there is joy in heaven, not over a sinner being obliterated, but “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” See, that wacky Jesus character went and turned the Pharisees’ own saying around on them.
But wait a minute. Something is strange, here. Doesn’t it seem just a tad ridiculous for a shepherd to go off and leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness in order to search for one?
Now, the woman searching for the coin makes more sense – one silver coin was a full day’s wages, and after all, she didn’t leave the other nine coins out in the wilderness while she was searching. But, still, both the shepherd and the woman call their friends over to celebrate, and the party probably cost more than the value of the sheep or the coin. It just doesn’t make sense.
And then there’s the whole issue of the folks Jesus uses to illustrate his point. Shepherds most definitely fall under the category of “people of the land.” Dr. R. Alan Culpepper, of Mercer University in Atlanta, points out that, in Jesus’ day, shepherds were thought of as “shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings.”
This is the hero of Jesus’ story? A shiftless, thieving shepherd? And, in Jesus’ day an even more unlikely hero, a woman? That Jesus character has a lot of nerve to compare God to a shepherd or a woman.
Can’t you just see the Pharisees outrage growing stronger and stronger? First, Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners wholeheartedly, and then Jesus compares God to a “shiftless, thieving, trespassing shepherd, and to a woman.” This is just beyond the pale!
And that Jesus character isn’t finished yet. Oh, no! Not only does God rejoice over finding the one – the one who would seem to have little value compared to the 99 who are already righteous – not only does God rejoice over the one, but Jesus says that there will be more rejoicing over the one who is found than over the 99 who are already there.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”
How outrageous! How could Jesus say that God would rejoice more over one tax collector or other sinner than over 99 righteous scribes and Pharisees? It was the ultimate slap in the face.
And yet, this is the message of today’s story. God still calls out to those who are lost, and God still rejoices when someone accepts God’s invitation to come to the table. If you have recently been that one, then you can relate to the tax collectors and other sinners who found great joy at being included in that Jesus character’s dinner plans.
Unfortunately, many, many people in the church today are more like the scribes and the Pharisees. They would rather keep themselves separate from the world in order to protect their righteousness, than to take their righteousness into the world – to go with the despised shepherd and the looked-down-upon woman – or anyone else they feel is beneath them – in order to search for that which is lost.
Too often, a sense of righteousness keeps us from extending mercy to the lost, to those whom society shuns, those who, sadly, the church often shuns. A sense of righteousness keeps us from celebrating with God when the lost are found, when the outcasts are accepted.
You see, the scribes and the Pharisees never dreamed of a God like this – a God who is filled with joy when one lost sinner comes home. A God who is kinder than we are. The Pharisees honestly thought that sinners deserved nothing but destruction. They had no hope for people who weren’t righteous.
Do you know some Pharisees, today? Do you know someone who thinks that sinners deserve punishment, not mercy? Who do you consider to be outcasts, unrighteous? Can you find it in your heart to show mercy to them?
God never gives up hope. God loves the righteous, but in God’s heart there is room for everybody. In God’s heart there is the joy of joys when a lost sinner is found, when an outcast is welcomed home.
The thing that the Pharisees had the most trouble understanding was that God actually went out and searched for the lost. I mean, the Pharisees might have understood if a sinner came crawling home to God, filled with self-loathing and searching for pity. They might have understood that.
But they never seemed to understand – and this was the point of Jesus’ parables – they never seemed to understand that God goes out and seeks the lost. I mean, really, that’s why God sent that Jesus character to earth in the first place: to seek out and save people who are lost.
And what that Jesus character is telling us, today, is that we need to break down the walls that separate us from the sinners, from the outcasts, from those we consider to be unrighteous. We need to go out – you, me, all of us – we need to go out into the world, with God, to find the lost, and bring them home.
And then, once we bring them home, Jesus says we should throw a party! Jesus wants us to celebrate; Jesus wants us to be joyful, just as God and the angels in heaven are joyful!
That’s what Jesus is saying. That Jesus – he’s a character, all right, but I think we better listen to him.