Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 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 so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Can’t you just hear them grumbling? “Who does he think he is? Look at the good-for-nothing people who hang out with him. If a man is known by the company he keeps, then this guy would do better to attract the right kind of people, people like us!”
So Jesus ate and drank with sinners – tax collectors, criminals, traitors, collaborators with the Romans. It’s as if Jesus had gone out for a night on the town with drug dealers, hookers, opioid addicts, or illegal immigrants. Sinners!
We only welcome into our homes, and accept at our table, those who are worthy of our invitation. The home is where we gather as a family. The dinner table is a place of intimacy. We’re known by whom we welcome. We’re known by whom we invite to dinner.
Yet Jesus is actually famous for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people.
The Pharisees and scribes were probably hoping Jesus would say, “Now I just want to reassure you that I’m going to redeem these sinners, clean them up, teach them right from wrong, make them look more like you, the good people, the faithful.”
But Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t lecture or wag his finger. He begins by asking a personal question: “Which one of you …?”
He asks, “Which one of you shepherds, if one of your sheep wanders off, wouldn’t you leave all the rest of your sheep, searching high and low until you found that one who was lost? And when you found that one sheep, wouldn’t you put it on your shoulders and rush back to your friends and neighbors shouting, ‘I found my lost sheep. I’m throwing a party – come celebrate with me!’”
You’d do that, wouldn’t you?
Then Jesus asks, “And which one of you women, if you misplaced a coin, wouldn’t move all of the appliances out of your kitchen, or push all your furniture out the front door, even ripping up the carpeting, to find what was missing? And when you found that coin, wouldn’t you run up and down the street calling to everyone, ‘Hey everybody, I found it! You’re all invited to a bash at my house (as soon as I get the furniture back in place), and we’re going to party ‘til midnight’?”
We’d all do that, wouldn’t we?
I think the answer is “no.” I don’t think there’s anyone here who would go so overboard, making such a big deal about such a little thing. We’re all very practical and level-headed. Seriously, if you were going to leave your entire flock, leaving no stone unturned looking for one lost sheep, the odds are you’d lose all the others – who weren’t being tended – to a pack of wolves! And tearing apart your home in search of one lost coin – well, that’s just bad housekeeping.
Both of those scenarios are over the top. They don’t make sense. No responsible, thoughtful person would act like that. Nobody does this.
Except Jesus. Except God.
These questions that Jesus asks, and the parables that he shares, aren’t about us – they’re about God.
God is the shepherd seeking the lost sheep. God is the woman searching for her coin.
Why did you come to church this morning? To learn about God’s will and to be reminded of your responsibilities? How many bring your kids here so they can get some sense about what’s right and wrong, re-emphasizing the values they’ve been taught? How many of us come for a spiritual boost, to get re-energized for our good works – our do-gooding? Those aren’t bad things. But so much of our focus in church is on US – even when we’re serving others. What are we “supposed” to do? How can we be better people?
How easily we forget that church is really about GOD – about who God is and what God is doing.
What God is doing is seeking the lost. God is reaching out to all who have wandered, who struggle, who don’t know where to go or how to find their way home. God’s looking for us – whether we see ourselves as good or bad. God’s looking for all of us. And we ALL can be lost.
Today’ parables aren’t primarily about being good or bad. In fact, it’s possible that we can be really good, and really lost, both at the same time.
Here are some questions for you: Could the law-abiding citizen whose primary focus is to ascend the professional ladder be lost? Could the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around sports games and dance recitals be lost? Could those so admired for spending countless hours in service and caring of others be lost in questions about their own identity and purpose? Could those who have a good reputation, who hold it all together, still be lost amidst grief or despair? Could those who are busy and productive and successful be lost to the wonder, beauty, and mystery of life?
Today’s parables aren’t about success or failure, being good or bad. Jesus’ stories are about being lost, then being found, and then being celebrated! A sheep is lost. A coin is lost. There’s nothing about blame or finding fault. The issue for Jesus is finding those who’ve lost their way, and then rejoicing when they come home to the One who loves them. These parables are about the good news we know of a God who searches for each one of us personally, individually, and joyfully. These parables are about the God who so loves us that God will do anything to find us.
When Jesus asks us personally, “which one of you” would go to such lengths to search and find and celebrate – the truth is that none of us would go that far.
But God would. God does, every day. Looking everywhere for a loved and lost sheep. Lighting a lamp and sweeping and sweeping and sweeping. Searching high and low, until we’re all gathered up in God’s mercy, grace, and love.
Jesus’ words are a rebuke to those who criticized him for hanging out with those considered good-for-nothing. Because to God, there’s no such thing as a person without value.
As long as one sheep is lost, the 99 remaining aren’t whole. As long as one coin is lost, the rest lose their value. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, called “irrelevant,” “illegal,” “unworthy”, or a “sinner,” then we too are incomplete, and God’s heart mourns. God will never stop reaching out for each one of us, because God’s love is too wide and God’s grace is too broad to cease looking for the lost.
We are loved and important to God. Jesus, who welcomes sinners and eats with them, is constantly searching for us, finding us, and rejoicing in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.