“Jesus sinners doth receive; oh may all this saying ponder.” Here is a trustworthy saying worthy of all acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am chief.”
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? Really? Is that how it works? Leave ninety-nine out in the open country to fend for themselves while you look for the wandering one? Is that any way to run a business? Turn your back on 99 good customers to find the lone deadbeat?
Perhaps the problem is that we aren’t shepherds and know nothing about sheep herding. So let’s try something closer to our world. Money. We all know a thing or two about money. Let’s say you have ten coins, each worth about a day’s wage. That’s a pretty good chunk of change in anyone’s wallet, I would say. So you go to your change drawer or wherever you keep you money, expecting to find ten coins and you only have nine. OK, now what do you do? Do you take a day or two off of work, without pay, and turn the house upside down in order to find the one lost coin? Seems kind of strange, doesn’t it? Lost a day’s wage in the hopes of finding a day’s wage? Risk ninety-nine sheep to go after one lost sheep?
I think it’s safe to say that we would be more likely to write off the lost sheep or the lost coin as a dead asset. Grieve the loss and move on. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so to speak. Straying sheep tend to stray again; they pretty much get what they deserve. Lost coins, well, they’ll turn up some day, I guess.
If the Son of God had thought this way, we would never have been saved. If the Son of God had thought equality with God something to be grasped, He would never have emptied Himself to take on the form of a servant. He would never have become Man, born of the Virgin Mary. If the Good Shepherd had not considered one lost sheep, namely you, worth laying down His life, you and I would never have been saved. We’d be lost forever in a maze of sin and death. We’d be as dead as a solitary lost sheep in the wilderness or a missing coin in the dust.
That’s the point of these parables of Jesus. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, the apostle Paul says, of whom I am the worst. The worst? Surely there were worse sinners in Paul’s day than St. Paul! What about those corrupt emperors like Nero? What about those immoral pagans who participated in orgies and exposed the babies? The worst? Yeah, Paul did some bad things in his past, like persecute Christians and participate in the stoning of Stephen, but Paul himself admits that he didn’t know what he was doing. He thought he was doing God a favor. And notice that Paul doesn’t say, Christ came to save sinners like I used to be. He says, “of whom I am chief.” Wow!
And if Paul is the “chief of sinners,” what does that make us with our polite idolatries and petty thefts and closeted immoralities? Do you think you are one of the ninety-nine “righteous persons” who does not need repentance? Better think again, dear friend. The Good Shepherd’s attention is on the lost not the found. The woman’s attention is on the lost coin, not the nine safely in her pocket.
Jesus is telling this series of parables in the hearing of the Pharisees and the Torah teachers who were griping about Jesus’ table companions. “This man receives sinners and he eats with them.” Who you ate with said a lot about who you were. The Pharisees and Torah teachers were very careful about the company they kept. Certainly not “sinners” – tax collectors, prostitutes, low life of every sort. Is this any way to run a kingdom? What kind of messiah is he? He receives the scum of the earth and eats with them! The religious are outraged, offended, scandalized. And you know what? In their outrage and scandal they exclude themselves from Jesus’ table! They’re the ones who refuse to eat with Jesus because they don’t like the company he keeps!
That’s the nature of hell. Hell is for the “righteous” who have no need for repentance. There’s no rejoicing in heaven over them. There’s only sadness. What a waste! All they needed to do was drop dead to their religious righteousness and identify with the lost. Like St. Paul, the “chief of sinners.” Of course, who wants to do that? Who wants to become nothing? Who wants to be a beggar, empty-handed before God?
Today’s two parables are the set-up to a third, the main event. They’re like a tryptich – three parables in one. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. In the third parable, a man with two sons loses one to his own youthful arrogance and a Gentiles pigpen. Now in this parable, no one goes to seek him. He just comes home with a confession and a deal. To his amazement, and the outrage of his older brother, his father welcomes him with open arms and throws a party for his deadbeat son who was lost but now is found, who died and now is alive again. This parable ends out in the field, in the “wilderness” so to speak, with the older brother reciting all his good deeds and obedience and kicking the dirt in resentment over his father’s mercy to his younger brat brother. And as the closing credits roll over this parable and the lights go out, we never know if the older brother will drop dead to his own religion and join the party. He excommunicates himself because he can’t abide his father’s forgiveness.
That’s the hell of it all. The heavenly banquet is open to all, won for all, by Jesus’ own death that embraced every last and least loser in this world. But you come in as a loser, not a winner, as a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son.
The religious world doesn’t want to hear this, and if we’re honest, we’re not terribly tickled about it either. Let’s face it, the religious world is about winning not losing, about making the right choices not about identifying with the losers of the world. And the danger in that is that you risk being the pooper on the Lord’s party of the penitent. Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom you and I are public enemy number one, and there is outrageous joy among the angels in heaven over even one sinner who gets the joke and has a belly laugh of faith at Jesus’ expense than over ninety-nine dour, long faced religious types who have no need for repentance and no use for sinners.
Joy is the final word in these parables. The shepherd rejoices over finding the lost sheep. He gives it a free ride on his shoulders, and when he gets home, he throws a party, which means, of course, a BBQ, so some sheep gets slaughtered and it sure isn’t the lost one! How’s that for outrageous? The woman who finds the coin calls her friends and neighbors and throws a party to celebrate, which costs a lot more than the coin she found. The father who welcomes his wayward son back home puts the fatted calf on the grill and strikes up the band and throws a party.
The economy of God’s grace doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the religious bookkeepers of the law. God’s joy over the repentance of a sinner is in lavish excess. The joy of Jesus over your salvation was so great, He endured the cross and scorned its shame. This is the joy of having you back; the joy of embracing you as a child of God; the joy of forgiving you and making you His own. This is a seeking love that is restless to find the lost, that leaves no stone unturned, that goes the extra mile and toils the extra day and stops at nothing until that wayward sheep is safely on the shepherd’s shoulder and the lost coin is tucked in the bank and the lost son is safe at home again.
That seeking love brought you to Baptism and continues to urge you to a daily life of repentance, to take your place at the banquet table where the angels and archangels rejoice over your being here, over one sinner who hungers and thirsts for forgiveness. There is joy overflowing with Cana abundance; joy unbounded. It seems odd, don’t you think, that there should be joy in the life of repentance? But that’s exactly what these parables tell us. A lost sheep is found; a lost coin is recovered; a son returns; sinners are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, the dead are raised to life. And you, chief of sinners though you are, are the object of God’s seeking, saving love in Jesus.
“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
In the name of Jesus, Amen