These cranky, grumbling Pharisees and scribes want Jesus to understand this once and for all. “Look Jesus! You simply MUST stop welcoming sinners and eating with them. Don’t you know that you are judged by the company you keep!” The Pharisees know all the rules of good conduct. They know clean from unclean. They know that one must keep a great distance from sinners. They only want what’s best for Jesus so why does he persist in so publicly breaking the rules?
Jesus answers them in his frustrating, endearing way; with two parables:
“Imagine a shepherd tending 100 sheep. He watches them closely, carefully as they wander about nibbling the good grass. One little sheep wanders, head down, following a particularly tender patch of grass, away from the flock.
For the 100th time that day, the young shepherd stands on a tall rock and counts his herd . . . “97, 98, 99 ... oh, oh.” He quickly scans again and knows he is one sheep short. He silently prays that the 99 will stay put and rushes off with a feeling of frenzy growing in his heart. He runs back to the cool water, rushes to peer behind the rocks, scrambles under the bushes and finally hears a plaintive bleating down in the dark ravine. He rapidly climbs down, kisses that silly sheep right on it’s head, and draping it across his shoulders, brings it back to the sanctuary of the flock. His joy and relief are so overwhelming that when he gets home, he calls his friends and neighbors to share in his rejoicing.”
Jesus pauses, looks hard at those judgmental, pious men and says, “So you see, God rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous, holy people who need no repentance.” The Pharisees stare right back at him. Why on earth is he bothering them with a story about some lowly shepherd? They don’t get it.
Jesus has another story for them and this time its about money. Surely they can relate to that:
“OK. What about a woman who has scrimped and saved for years to have 10 silver coins? She sits at night counting them, “7, 8, 9 ... oh, oh.” One coin is lost. She lights a lamp and stooping over, carefully sweeps every inch of her small home. She moves her few pieces of furniture, shakes out her bedding and doesn’t rest until her lamplight meets the answering glint of silver. Although it is late at night, she calls her friends and neighbors for a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost!”
Jesus stops. He gives those Pharisees a moment to think. “Do you see? There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I wonder what happens next. Can those judgmental men understand these stories? They are telling Jesus that he must keep a great distance from sinners, lest he be made unclean. Jesus is answering them with the radical, extraordinary idea that God loves those very sinners more than he loves righteous, pious people, like them.
Whoa! He is turning the world upside down here. Jesus tells us that God so loves the lost that he never stops searching for them, seeking them out and then, wildly, joyfully, God throws a big party when one lost sheep, one lost coin, one lost soul is found.
I relate to that little sheep…so focused on the tasty grass in front of him that he forgets to look up and be a part of his flock. I get tunnel vision sometimes, too focused on my own little world, my own problems and issues, that I forget to keep the needs of others forefront in my thoughts and prayers. This is sin.
Where are you in these stories? Are you with the 99 sheep, safe in your flock or are you the sheep who has lost his way? Are you the woman going crazy to find that one lost coin or the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep? Maybe you think: “Oh, it’s too much bother to look - I don’t have the time or energy to waste over lost things.”
Are you the pious Pharisee, so intent on following the rules, doing the right thing, fitting in with your friends, that you forget to have compassion for sinners and lost souls?
Jesus teaches us using parables and sometimes they are hard to understand. We are lucky today because we also have a letter from Paul to Timothy in our readings which is a beautiful illustration of one lost soul.
In this letter, Paul describes himself as a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christians and a man of violence. Remember that Paul’s mission in life was to kill Christians. He then had the most wonderful conversion experience where he was literally blinded by the light of Christ.
He writes: “I am so grateful to Christ Jesus who strengthened me despite my past. The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This is true: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I was the worst sinner. But, for that very reason, because I was a sinner, I received mercy so that Christ Jesus could make an example of me to those who would come to believe in him.”
Paul was terribly lost and mislead. He sinned greatly against God. Because of his sins, God sought him out. God looked everywhere for him. God wouldn’t give up on Paul. He must have celebrated wildly when Paul saw the light.
God’s overflowing grace is so present in these stories. His extraordinary grace flows abundantly over Pharisee and outcast equally. Certainly God is pleased with us when we are trying our best to do the right thing. But imagine this: when we are troubled, when we forget to pray, when we stray into gossip or judgment of others, when we sin…God is on high alert, straining to find us, reaching out to us in great and complete love.
Even when we forget God, when we forget to pray; we can know with complete certainty that God does not forget us. We have only to turn our heads to heaven, we have only to open our hearts the tiniest bit, we have only to pray the word “help” and God is all over us. Then he throws a great big party because we have been found.