“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ ” (Luke15:1-2)
Imagine for a moment that you are present in this crowd of Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors and sinners who are surrounding Jesus. You hear what everyone is saying and are able to discern what many are thinking. An argument has broken out and the issues are very serious.
The Pharisees and the Scribes
On one side of Jesus are the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees (meaning “separated ones”) were a Jewish sect which developed oral tradition, controlled the synagogues, and promoted the way to God through strict obedience to the Law. They were known for their strict observance of external rites and outward forms of piety, such as washings, fasting, prayer and alms-giving. The scribes were teachers and expert interpreters of the Law.
As far as the Pharisees were concerned, tax collectors and sinners were to be banned from the synagogues, treated as outcasts, and shunned. If Jesus was truly a man from God, it was inconceivable to the Pharisees that Jesus would receive sinners, much less eat with them.
The Tax Collectors and Sinners
On the other side of Jesus were the tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were known to be particularly greedy and dishonest men who employed coercive methods to collect taxes for Rome. The term “sinners” was applied to anyone who lived a publically sinful life. This would include outwardly immoral people, such as thieves and drunks, adulterers and prostitutes.
This was not the first time these sinners had heard the accusations, condemnation and utter disgust from the Pharisees. They were not ignorant of their sin or status among their people. Yet, here was a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was willing to receive and eat with them. This Jesus spoke with authority, unlike the scribes; He cast out demons, healed the lame and forgave sins. These sinners had never before encountered a man of God like Jesus. So, without fear or shame, they drew near to Him, not for a sign, but simply “to hear him.”
Sitting between the Pharisees and the sinners was Jesus. He appears to enjoy socializing with sinners, but at what cost? The Pharisees were indignant: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus himself was being numbered with the transgressors; He was bearing their iniquity by association. The way Jesus is going, He may pay with His life!
“So he told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ ” (Luke 15:3-7)
Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of a small flock of sheep within all of Christendom. Each one of His sheep is precious to Him. Therefore, Jesus will spare nothing and search anxiously to find any of His sheep which goes astray and becomes lost.
Without the voice of their shepherd, the sheep are easily distracted, stray and become lost. Once lost, the sheep cannot care for themselves, are prey for predators, and will perish if they are not soon found.
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep” (Ps 119:176)
We are led astray by the combination of our itching ears and the voices of the many hirelings who take from us the Word of Christ crucified and turn us inward for evidence that we are His sheep, whether through emotional experience, moral living and/or good works. Left on our own, we deceive ourselves either like the Pharisees, who could only clean the outside of the cup, while on the inside they were full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39), or like Judas, who thought His betrayal of Jesus was an unforgivable sin. In either case, we become lost and are unable to return to our Shepherd; He must come and find us.
And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. (Luke 15:5)
Jesus comes to and finds us through His Word according to which He died for us, and bore our sins in his own body on the cross, and put the devil with death and sin under his feet, and has led us to eternal life. Jesus always carries us as long as we live, so that we need not look to our life, how good and strong we are, but only lay upon his shoulders.
When Jesus finds His lost sheep, He is not angry, does not scold nor yell, but lays it on His shoulders and rejoices. For He knows how weak we are and, in addition, that our old nature, the world, the Law, sin and the devil never give us an hour’s rest, but always lead us astray. Therefore, everything depends only upon this: that we rightly learn to look upon Christ according to the Word, and not according to our own thoughts and feelings, for human thoughts are frauds and lies, but His Word is true and cannot lie.
“Just so, I tell you, 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)
Jesus spoke this parable in front of the entire crowd, but not everyone belongs to His small flock. Jesus seeks only the lost sheep. They are the ones who hear His voice and neither despair of their wickedness nor prefer their own thoughts or the wisdom of other voices to that of Christ. Lost sheep hear the Gospel and turn (i.e., repent) to Jesus; that is they feel their sins, are sincerely sorry on account of them, and wish to be rid of them. Thus, nowhere else do lost sheep feel safer and more comfortable than when Jesus lays them securely, and carries them forgivingly, on His shoulders.
If we hold fast to this Gospel, then we too can experience true peace and joy in and through Christ the Lord. It pleases Jesus to save us this way, and not only Jesus, but there is joy in heaven over each sinner who Jesus returns to His little flock. Amen.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:1-4) Amen.