Watch out for the company that you keep. That’s pretty much the conventional wisdom. Beware of the company you keep. Those with whom you assemble you will soon begin to resemble. That was the thinking of the Pharisees and the scribes who were grumbling about Jesus and his choice of table companions. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Now we hear that and almost chuckle. Duh. C’mon. Jesus came to save sinners, didn’t He? So wouldn’t it stand to reason that He might take a bit of time to eat with them prior to saving them? Ah, but for the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus was not the Savior of sinners but a radical rabbi with a suspect teaching. Someone to be watched closely, investigated, tested. A proper Messiah (in their way of thinking) would not keep the kind of company Jesus kept. Tax collectors, prostitutes, riff-raff of all sorts. No respectable rabbi would want to be seen in such company for fear his picture would be all over the Jerusalem tabloids.
Just think of what happens when a politician is seen having drinks with a mafia kingpin. Or a minister is seen talking to prostitutes and strippers. You assume the worst, don’t you? And, you’re usually right. When the clean comes in contact with the unclean, the clean becomes unclean, right? Put a good kid into a party frat house, and guess who influences whom? Those with whom you assemble, you soon will begin to resemble, as you slide the slippery slope down the path of least resistance to the least common moral denominator.
But Jesus is not worried about propriety, nor is He concerned about becoming unclean by coming into contact with sinners. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He makes the unclean clean. He touches the leper, and the leper is cleansed. He has fellowship with the sinner, and the sinner is justified. That’s the second thing the Pharisees, the scribes, and the other religious types did not accept – that they were sinners. No different, in fact, than the tax collectors, prostitutes, and riff-raff at whom they looked down their religious noses. You see, unless you see yourself as a sinner, as the apostle Paul says, “the chief of sinners,” you will have no use for Jesus as Savior. It’s really as simple as that. Those who do not know their sin and fear the judgment of the Law have no use for Jesus’ forgiveness and the justification that comes by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus loves the company of sinners because He came to save sinners. They are HIs stock in trade. His specialty. His cup of tea. If you have no sin, if you have kept God’s law perfectly in thought, word, deed, and desire, then you have no need or use for Jesus. And while the Pharisees and scribes didn’t think they were perfect, they did think they weren’t that bad, that the righteousness God demands was within their reach if they just followed the right set of rules.
Jesus tells them a parable. It’s actually a kind of parabolic triptych, three parables built around the theme of lostness, seeking, finding, and rejoicing – a lost sheep, a lost coin, and in the third parable which you didn’t hear this morning, a lost son.
“Who among 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?” I have to assume that the other ninety-nine are under someone’s watch, otherwise you’ll have 99 lost sheep by the time you get back. So assuming the ninety-nine are safe, the shepherd goes off searching for the lost one, and when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders and gives it a free ride back to the flock. And then he’s so caught up in rejoicing over finding his lost sheep that he throws a party for his friends and neighbors, which probably involves roasting one of the sheep, probably not the one who wandered.
“Or what woman having 10 silver coins, if she loses one, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” Well, at least with that one, we know the other nine coins are safe and sound, but the pattern is the same. The lost are diligently sought, and when found, there is rejoicing and a big party, which likely costs more than the silver coin that was lost in the first place.
Now if you roll the video back on the parables for a second, there is an alternative that many, if not all, would take. It’s the practical, pragmatic alternative. A wandering sheep is likely to wander again anyway, and 99 safe and sound in the flock aren’t worth abandoning for the sake of one who loves to wander. So just right it off as a dead sheep and forget about it. Tend to the ninety-nine instead. And a lost coin is pretty much a dead asset, especially if you’re going to waste the better part of a weekend looking for it.
But that’s not how God works, and that’s the point. He wants all to be saved, not just many or most. He wants all one hundred sheep in his pasture. He wants all ten coins in his coffers. He takes the initiative to seek and to save the lost in their lostness. In fact, it’s the lost that command Jesus attention. That’s why He came, to save a lost humanity that was wandering in the wilderness of sin and death, unable to save itself, just waiting to be damned forever. Jesus came from heaven, from the comfortable right hand of the Father to seek and save lost humanity.
You are the lost sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah says. “Everyone has turned to his own way.” And Jesus, the Suffering Servant of God, Jesus, the Son of God, sought us, when we sought Him not. He came to find us in our death, to place us on His shoulders and take us through the wilderness back to God. You are that valuable to God, chief of sinners though you be. God refused to write you off as a dead asset, but instead made you the object of His seeking and saving love. He baptized you, and there you were found, placed on the Savior’s shoulders, welcomed as a child of God and a citizen of heaven. God turned over every rug, He looked under every pillow and sofa cushion, He turned the world upside down in order to find you in your lostness. And in finding you, in having you joined to Jesus in your Baptism, there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who needs no repentance.” And you may as well put quotation marks around those 99 “righteous persons who need no repentance” because there aren’t any. The Pharisees and scribes and the religious types thought they were, and they were dead wrong. They were as lost as anyone. In whittling God’s law down to a bunch of rules and regulations, they had lost sight of their own sinfulness, their own utter lostness. They would have seen themselves as the 99 good sheep that didn’t wander, the 9 coins safely in the bank, the good son who always did his father’s will.
Here’s the Gospel kicker for the day: Jesus delights in sinners. Not quote/unquote “sinners” but real dyed in the wool wandering sheep. They are the sole object of His saving gaze. They are the joy set before Him that He should endure the cross and scorn its shame. They are the reason that Jesus ate with sinners in the first place. He was giving the world a picture of what heaven is like: a bunch of wandering sheep and lost coins and wayward sons enjoying fellowship with God for no other reason than Jesus found them in His death.
That’s grace, my friends. Undeserved kindness. The apostle Paul wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. He talks about his past, how he was an ignorant blasphemer and persecutor and stubborn opponent of God’s mercy and will to save in Jesus. But then, on a road to Damascus, he received mercy rather than judgment, the kindness of God washed over him in Baptism stirring up faith and love. The wayward sheep was found resting on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. And notice that Paul emphatically keeps it in the present tense: Christ died for sinners of whom I AM chief. Not was. Am.
There’s a movement afoot in these days when Christianity seems to be reinvented on a weekly basis in some churches, that says that Christians are sinners. That once you believe, you are no longer a sinner in God’s eyes and therefore shouldn’t call yourself one either. That only unbelievers and those who reject God’s mercy in Christ, like the Pharisees, are actually sinners. One blogger writes: “The term sin/sinner is an identity marker that belongs to the past lives of all who follow Jesus. Sinners are people who are still trapped in UNgrace. Their words and deeds advertise a 24/7@365 addiction to thoughts, words and deeds of UNgrace.”
The “addiction to Ungrace” (whatever that means) remains. We are at once sinner and saints. Sinners in ourselves, saints in Christ. Lost in ourselves, found in Christ. And it is as sinners that God justifies us, that God calls us to be His own, that God welcomes us to His table, that there is rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one poor, miserable, sinner – YOU – than over a world load of people who refuse to be called “sinner.”
“Behold I, I myself, will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” He sought you, and He found you, Sinner. Yes, sinner. That’s who Jesus is seeking. Sinners. That’s who Jesus welcomes to His table. Sinners. Even the chief of sinners. And there is rejoicing among the angels in heaven over every sinner that comes to the feast of salvation, riding on the shoulders of God’s grace in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,