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"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'"
The congregation that has gathered around Jesus this morning is made of two distinct groups. One group consists of "sinners" who know that they are sinners and who are delighted that Jesus receives them and even eats with them. The other group also consists of "sinners." But this group doesn't think of themselves as 'sinners,' and they're disgusted with Jesus because He doesn't get it.
And so before we listen to Jesus defend Himself, we need to decide which group we're in. Both groups consist of sinners and so that's not the issue. The issue is, "do we say that we have no sin and deceive ourselves," or do we confess that we are by nature sinful and therefore sinners? How you see yourself makes all the difference in what you think of Jesus.
Those who know that they are sinners, "draw near to Jesus." Why? Because they like what He says to them. And they like the way He says it. He doesn't just talk about God's gracious love for sinners as if it were a possibility something they could earn if they ever got their act and acted more like that 'other group.'
He simply declares God's love and mercy to them – 'I forgive you all of your sins.' That's not 'descriptive speech' that talks about forgiveness. It's 'performative speech' that actually does what it says. His Word actually sets them free from their sins and all of the guilt and fear before God that sin causes in us. He doesn't talk about how sinners are reunited with the holy God. He simply declares that they are. "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus."
The other group however, was deeply offended by Jesus. "Who is He to forgive sins? Only God can do that." "If He is a 'holy man of God' like He says He is, He should confine His association to holy people, like themselves. It's only reasonable that a holy God hates sin and therefore hates sinners. He doesn't "receive them and eat with them." It's only reasonable. It just makes sense.
Even the disciples of Jesus operated with just this kind of 'reasonable' religion. How does Peter respond to the great catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee? He suddenly realizes that Jesus is a very special holy man of God who has no business being this close a sinner like himself. Peter says, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man." What Peter should have said was, "Stay near to me Lord, for I am a sinful man." And nothing would please Jesus more than to have heard just that from Peter, and to hear just that from you.
Jesus is being accused of a serious breach of conduct, 'behavior unbecoming of a holy man of God.' He responds with a series of wonderful parables about a shepherd who looses one of his sheep, a woman who looses one of her coins and a father who looses two of his sons. Makes no mistake about it, even though these earthly stories with their heavenly meanings are addressed directly to the Scribes and Pharisees, they are also meant for the ears of the "tax collectors and sinners" who are standing right there. The point and purpose of each one of these parables is to show the congregation gathered the true nature of the heart of God for sinners, so that, hopefully, the one group might change their mind, not only about Him, but also about their fellow sinners in the congregation. And that the other group would continue to draw near to Him, listen to His Word and continue to eat with Him.
Jesus says, 'You should think of God's attitude and His actions towards sinners, like you would think of a shepherd with 100 sheep who looses one of them. The whole time it is separated from him, he worries about it. It's all He can think of. He can't rest or relax until its back in the fold, safe and sound. What else can He do but conduct a search and rescue mission? And when he finds that one out of 100 that was lost, he lifts it up on his shoulders and carries it home. And his heart is so filled with joy and relief that he calls all who love him and who know what anguish he suffered saying, "rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost."
Or, compare the heart and mind of God toward sinners to a woman who has 10 coins and who looses one of them. She can't just write it off as if it were some kind of "inventory adjustment" that only her accountant will care about. This is 10% of her income. It is her tithe. It belongs to the Lord. What does she do? She lights a lamp and sweeps the floor and diligently looks for it. And she doesn't quit until she finds it. And when she does, her heart is so relieved and filled with joy that she runs out of the house and calls her friends who know how stressed out she was saying, "rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I HAD LOST."
Can we even begin to imagine what parents who have lost a child must experience the whole time the child remains separated from them? We know how our heart pounds when we loose track of them for 3 minutes at J.C. Penney's. We know what we go through when a dear pet gets lost. Can we even begin to comprehend the emotions that parents must experience when the child is found and reunited with them? Jesus says, 'if you feel that way about lost sheep and coins and pets and your own children, just imagine how I feel about you when you go astray and get lost. And just imagine how I feel when I find you and bring you home.'
How many of us have never gone astray? How many of us have never wandered away from the faith we were given in our baptism? Don't answer that question. The prophet Isaiah already has. "We all, like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way." (Is.53:6). Maybe you began to doubt the truth of God's Word and went astray. Maybe you got all caught up in lifestyles that God calls wrong and went astray. Maybe you began to doubt God's presence and care for you and went astray. Or maybe you just got so preoccupied with other things, innocent things, and without even realizing it you became separated from Jesus and His Word and the Supper He has prepared for you.
The reason doesn't really matter. Either way, it's sin. And where there's sin, there's the terror of a guilty conscience before God. That's just the way sin works because that's the way God designed your conscience to respond to sin. It's like a built in alarm alerting you to the fact that something's wrong. God made you in just such a way that sin causes you to be frightened, troubled, discouraged, guilty before God. Your mind and your heart tell you that God is angry with you and by all rights should throw you to the wolves and leaving you covered in dirt. It's only reasonable. It just makes sense.
But it is right there where the power of these parables is at it's greatest. The stories tell us that God does the unreasonable and irrational thing. He humbles Himself and "diligently" searches for us until He finds us and brings us home. Jesus wants us to see and believe without doubting, that the power of His love is greater than our sin. The gospel triumphs over our transgressions.
In His great love for sinners, Jesus Christ entered into this sin-darkened world. First thing He does is light a lamp – which is His Word – which shatters the darkness. And then, the holy Son of God gets down on hands and knees and digs in the dirt where we lie buried. He digs us up from our grave and raises us up from it.
The burden that our Lord bears in searching for the lost sinner is sometimes like the burden of a woman looking for a lost coin, or like your burden when you loose your car keys or your wallet. It's silent. It doesn't cry out. Never says, "Here I am." How many men and women, boys and girls have gotten lost and separated from their Lord and Savior, yet remain silent, never crying out or calling for help? Never confessing before God and the congregation that they have sinned against God in thought word and deed? Yet still, Jesus "diligently" searches for them, and when He finds them, He rejoices and all the angels in heaven along with Him.
The burden that the Lord bears in search for lost sheep is different, but just as burdensome. When a sheep realizes that it has wandered off from the protection and care of its shepherd, it panics. And in it's fear it cries out – unlike the lost coin. The shepherd hears his sheep and come to it. But it is so frightened and panicked that it's frozen in fear. So the shepherd must carry it back to the flock. A typical sheep can weigh up to 70 or 80 lbs., and depending on how far astray the sheep has wondered, it is a great burden for the shepherd to bear.
It's an interesting fact of church history that as long as the execution of criminals by crucifixion was legal, the cross was not the principle symbol of Christ's atoning sacrifice. It was just too painful. It wasn't until Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th century that crosses began to appear as the symbol of the Christian faith. Before that, and particularly in the Middle East, the principle symbol was a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The interesting thing is that in many cases, the depiction of the sheep is totally out of proportion. The sheep is often depicted as being larger than the shepherd himself. Now, if anyone should know the proper proportion between sheep and shepherd, it'd be a middle-eastern artist. But the distortion is intentional. It's meant to show the tremendous burden that the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ bears in restoring the lost to the fold. "And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."
This is the wonderful truth of God's attitude towards sinners like you and me. Hearing it from the lips of Jesus, we should believe it and not doubt it. And believing it, we should never 'grumble' about God's gracious attitude towards people whom we think He should not associate with. Rather, we should be eager and willing to invite those whom we know to be lost, to come home, and to support the work of others to reach the lost where we can't reach them ourselves. And we should all the more diligently draw near to Him ourselves, and listen to the gracious Words He speaks to us and eat with Him the meal that He has prepared for us. If for no other reason than it gives our Lord, Jesus Christ so much joy.