Our gospel reading today begins “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”” Let’s take a look at each of these groups of people in turn:
- Tax collectors had a very bad reputation and for good reason; they were often Jews who worked for the Roman Empire in collecting Rome’s taxes from the people, and they often charged more than was required, and pocketed the difference. They were thought of as traitors and were pretty much outcast from society. I am sure we are all familiar with the story of Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector who lived in Jericho. He’s the guy that was struggling to see Jesus because he was so short and ended up climbing a sycamore-fig tree to get a better view. He came to a place of repentance, turned his life around and began to follow Jesus.
- The sinners will have been people who through their own poor choices had become known in society for their sinful life, even if we are not given specific details about what kinds of sin they engaged in. This group of people will also have been shunned by society.
- The teachers of the law were the Scribes. They were knowledgeable in The Law of Moses as well as rabbinic traditions. Scribes often read The Law to people, which was a valuable service since most people could not read or write. Scribes could also draft legal documents (such as contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe. They were known to speak into situations regarding interpretation of The Law.
- The Pharisees were members of a religious party that believed in resurrection and in following legal traditions passed down through the generations that were not in the Hebrew Scriptures. Like the Scribes, they were also well-known legal experts: hence the partial overlap of membership of the two groups. It appears from subsequent rabbinic traditions, however, that most Pharisees were small landowners and traders, not professional scribes.
The key issue in this passage is that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were upset with Jesus and grumbled that he was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. In Jesus’ culture, sitting down and having a meal with a person showed a certain amount of identification and welcome. If Jesus was eating with such people, then he was guilty by association. In stark contrast, the Pharisees would not even go near such people, not even to teach them the law or point them to God. They retreated into their holy and pious facade and spent time on their own attempts at righteousness rather than helping others toward God.
There’s often an imbalance between truth and grace. It’s all too easy for people in today’s society to be a bit like the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, declaring the truth (as they see it) in the absence of grace. Surely if we have the privilege of being recipients of God’s truth and love, we should do all that we can to help others on their journey? The Pharisees and teachers of the law abused their knowledge and status and did nothing to win the hearts and minds of the tax collectors and sinners. Instead they condemned them.
It does make me wonder what did they expect? Bearing in mind their background and status they should have known better. If they really knew Scripture, they would know that all have fallen short and that we all need God’s grace and mercy and with that in mind of all of the people who needed help the tax collectors and sinners certainly did. Their criticism of Jesus is like criticising a doctor for seeing patients! No wonder Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel account “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) Sadly they didn’t “get” the message then and in the passage we have heard today they still didn’t get it. Jesus was not in any way condoning the behaviour of the tax collectors or sinners; instead he was calling them to repentance.
In response to the grumbling and muttering of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, Jesus once again shares parables to convey a deep truth. The lengths that God will go to in order to find us are beyond our greatest imaginings – they are extraordinary. We are reminded of that in the first of the parables which is about the lost sheep. God always carefully and intentionally seeks out the lost, and he does that until he finds us. And in that finding there is such great joy. Jesus said, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
We may find it easier to understand God forgiving sinners who had come to him for mercy. But a God who tenderly searches for sinners and then joyfully forgives them, must possess a truly extraordinary love! This love prompted Jesus in his earthly ministry to search for lost people and save them. This is the kind of extraordinary love that God has for each and every one of us, for you! If you feel far from God, don’t despair. He is searching for you. This is the kind of love that was so absent from the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were bound up by legalism.
It may seem strange that in the parable the shepherd leaves the remaining ninety-nine sheep in the open country. But the shepherd knew that at that moment the ninety-nine were safe and together in a flock, whereas the lost sheep was alone and therefore in greater danger. It’s also possible that the other sheep were left in the care of a fellow shepherd in a makeshift shelter.
There will be times in life when we find ourselves taking on either role – the lost sheep, or the shepherd. If we have wandered off the “straight and narrow” and find that we have lost our focus on God, we are a bit like the lost sheep; and in those times we need a Shepherd-Saviour to bring us home. In the role of the sheep, if we hear our Saviour’s voice, it’s about how we respond and follow Him home.
If we are right with God and encounter people who are lost, then just like the shepherd we have a job to do in encouraging people to get right with God once again and know his love, his grace and his mercy, bringing them home safe in the knowledge that all heaven rejoices when we find a lost person. It is when we are in that role of a shepherd, it might involve us taking a step beyond our comfort zone and out of our “bubble” today. It could involve starting a conversation with a stranger or saying hello to a neighbour on the other side of the road. I know in my ministry I have met with people who in many ways are worlds apart from me due to life choices. But I am willing to seek them, to journey with them and invite them to walk with Jesus.
In the second parable, Jesus shows God’s great love for people who fall into a life of sin. They are lost, disconnected from their true owner, God himself. But their owner (the Creator of the universe) doesn’t give up on them. Instead, he compassionately searches for them, freely offering them forgiveness through his Son, Jesus Christ. He reaches out to them. And when they accept his offer, a noisy celebration breaks out in the heavens. A sinner has come home; a person has been reconciled with his or her Creator. Today God still reaches out to sinners. Through the preaching of the gospel, he offers salvation.
In Jesus’ time, Palestinian women would often receive ten silver coins as a wedding gift. Besides their monetary value, these coins held sentimental value like that of a wedding ring; so to lose one would be extremely distressing. Each coin was of great value. The ten coins could have been this woman’s life savings, meant to support her in a time of need. One coin would have been a tenth of that nest egg. Upon discovering that one of the coins was missing, the woman would light a lamp in order to see into the dark corners, and sweep every part of the dirt-packed floor in hope of finding it. Although the woman still had nine coins, she would not rest until the tenth was retrieved. Her search was rewarded—she finds it. Like the shepherd, she shared her joy with her friends and neighbors so they could rejoice with her.
What both of these parables have in common is the value of that which is lost, about repentance and coming home. Even if repentance is one of the words we might all be familiar with in our walk of faith, I believe that its so easy to overlook the nature of repentance and how significant it is.
The Greek word for repentance is ‘metanoia’, which literally means turning away from sin and sinful ways AND turning to or towards God. So significant is repentance that we are told “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I hope you can recognise the extraordinary love of God and the superabundance of his grace in which he seeks out the lost and calls us home. If you are lost, listen carefully for God’s voice. If you’re not right with God, turn away from whatever it is that causes you to be in that place and turn towards him, mindful of his extraordinary love and his constant seeking and searching for the lost. Amen