(1-2) “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.” Reading these words, and remembering so many previous encounters with these pharisees, it isn’t too hard to imagine why these guys are often thought of as a pretty grumpy lot. Sour, dour, mumbling, grumbling, and generally cantankerous … Did these guys ever have anything good to say? Were they ever happy? Not when it came to Jesus anyway.
As the tax collectors and sinners draw closer to Jesus the religious elite find themselves standing further and further off. Where the lost and ostracized come with open hearts and open ears to hang off of Jesus’ every word, the religious leaders stand by with closed minds, unwilling to rejoice with Jesus over the all-inclusive calling of the kingdom. It just wasn’t proper, you see. There is a certain decorum to this religious stuff.
Indeed, the Pharisees and scribes murmured with indignation against Him, saying that He made Himself the very equal of the scum and the lowly people by receiving them and (heaven forbid!) eating with them. And yet the same mocking and derisive words of the Pharisees will become the ageless song of praise in the mouth of every believing Christian: “Jesus sinners doth receive!” A grumbling and complaining spirit can’t stand long in the presence of Heaven’s rejoicing! It must either drop its pretensions and rejoice with God, or it must leave His presence to hold on to its petty claims. So Jesus seeks to show them the great joy of all that is unfolding in front of their cranky countenances.
(3-6) “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.”
Jesus’ compassion for the lost is not just in general or in a corporate sense, but also deeply personal and individual. If but a single soul is absent he proceeds right then and there to recover them. Like a Shepherd He knows the dangers of abyss and swamp, of panther and wolf, of thorns and poisonous plants. He sets out after the lost member of His flock with unceasing, unabating fervor until he has found them. For they are not safe until they are in His arms once again. Their future is violent and bleak unless it is with Him, in the safety of His Kingdom. Under the mercy of His cross. Without His sacrifice no one can find their way back. He must be the one to go and retrieve them from wherever the world has dragged them.
Ahh, but the joy when that one is found! They know the joy of finding a lost sheep. Maybe for us it is our lost car keys, wallet, or wedding ring. But that is nothing in comparison to when a life ruined by sin is healed by the blood of Christ. The relief when a human soul that was lost is found, when a person once dead is brought back to life! Ahh, the celebration when hope is brought to the hopeless, and peace to the terror-stricken. (7) 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.
Is Jesus saying that these pharisees are as good as they think? Not at all. He is indicting them by their own admission. If they truly are OK, then they should not only understand why Jesus is hanging out with “those kind of people” but they should rejoice right along with Him. All the things that self-proclaimed respectable and religious people approve of and praise do not cause as much joy in heaven as the return of one lost sinner.
Indeed, they should not only rejoice with Him, but they should be following His lead. Thus the second parable: (8-9) “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Just as the Shepherd is an obvious picture of Jesus and His gracious act of seeking and saving each and every one of us (Remember our Psalm for today: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant”) So now the parable of the woman is a picture of His Bride, the Church. Where Jesus will not stop until the lost are found, neither will His Church. They will sweep away the dirt of sin to lay bare human lives, they will shine forth the golden rays of the Gospel into every dark corner of this world. They will speak the Words of Jesus until the lost and the sinner are once again her great treasure and joy! What is a Drachma? A couple of bucks by today’s standards. But it means the world to her. What is the life of one more sinner to the Holy Christian Church … they are our reason for being. That life, each life found and restored, is a priceless treasure, and a source of heavenly joy. (10) “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents”
That doesn’t mean the task is easy. Nor is it always happy work. We may even find ourselves with the same stand-offish attitude the pharisees once took. It is easy to get comfortable in our church, our ways, and our friends. And lets be honest, there are nice lost and bad lost. There are the lost that live in fashionable suburbs, and there are the lost that occupy the gutters of skid row. There are the lost that are respectable, law-abiding citizens, and there are the lost that are what others call scum and trash. There are educated lost and uneducated lost, clean lost and dirty lost, decent lost and indecent. Yet each is desperately in need of salvation, and the church, like Jesus must not make any distinction in its mission and outreach. Nice or not, if they are lost, we must seek them out until they are found! It must become our joy, just as it is in heaven.
And we can do this not because we are so good, not needing to repent. But precisely because we know the joys of being found. We know what it is like to try to live without the hope we now have in Jesus. We know the release of sins forgiven in the Words of our gracious Good Shepherd. We know what it is to be loved and nurtured in the Church and Her Word and Sacraments. We know what our future holds, because we know whose shoulders we are riding upon. And because we know, we can go … we can take the joy that Christ has brought to us and we can send it into every corner of the world. We stop standing apart from the world, ready to cast dispersions on “those kind of people”, and begin to rejoice that they may be called, like we, to be one of God’s people. We may begin to see them as the treasure that God understands them to be.