If we were to see our pastor (or priest or preacher) sitting in a pub with what appears to be a glass of whiskey and sharing a joke with a woman who looks like she might be a prostitute, what is the first thing that would cross our minds? I am certain that a lot of us would think that the pastor/priest/preacher was up to no good and revealing his true character!
Should it surprise us, then, that the religious leaders of his time questioned the character of Jesus when they saw him constantly consorting with people they believed to be of low morals. He sat with the tax collectors, generally considered extortionists because they often collected more than what was fair for personal gain, and traitors for their collaboration with the Roman government. He hung out with women, some of them known to be adulterers, allowing them to even travel with him as part of his team. And he seemed to enjoy eating and drinking with them generally having a jolly good time. One day they made the mistake of grumbling in his hearing about how he welcomed sinners and he immediately got into story telling mode, telling them three parables in quick succession, undoubtedly hoping that at least one of them might make them realize the great love that God had for his people and what his own mission was all about. All are to be found in Luke 15. The first parable was about a sheep that was lost, the second about a coin that had gone missing, and the third, which we looked at in our last issue, was about a son who had moved out of his house and got swallowed by the world. In all three cases, the featured object or person was found, resulting in great joy to the person who had lost them. Let’s take a look at the first story, which is short, but still has a lot of lessons to teach us. “Which one of you,” Jesus asks, trying to let the Pharisees see their own hypocrisy and double standards, “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?” (v.4). These were people from an agrarian culture and they would know the value that every single sheep had to its owner. “And when he has found it,” Jesus continues, “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’” (v.5). God is like that shepherd, with a seeking love. He does not simply wait for us to return, but continuously tries to reach out to those who are lost and bring them home. As evidence of this love, God sent his son Jesus to save the world. Scripture, in what is perhaps the most quoted sentence of all time, declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This came at a high cost, a sacrifice by God of his Son, and although the sacrifice was yet to be made, Jesus had already given the Scribes and Pharisees several clues about what was to happen in previous allegories about shepherds and sheep. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15). The difference between a good shepherd and a hired hand is obvious. The hired hand does not have anything personally invested in the sheep he is looking after. When danger threatens he flees for his life. But it’s different for the shepherd, who looks after the sheep as his own and will guard them and protect them with his life, prepared to lay it down if necessary. Jesus laid his life down for his sheep—us—even though perhaps we are not worthy of saving, which is another sign of the great love that God has for us. Paul, in his brilliant letter to the Romans puts it wonderfully when he writes: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). That is the point that Jesus was trying to drive home to the Scribes and the Pharisees, who were so caught up with their own sense of righteousness, they looked down upon everyone else. Soon after Jesus had asked Levi (the Greek name for Matthew) to follow him, the tax collector gave a great banquet for him in his house, inviting a great number of people that the Scribes and the Pharisees thought way below them. They asked: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:30-32). Jesus came for the lost, the sinners, and that is all of us “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Pharisees and Scribes thought they were righteous because they believed they fulfilled what the law demanded, but that was only in their eyes. On several occasions Jesus tried to strip them of this self-righteousness so they would understand they were in as much need of salvation as the people they considered sinners. On one occasion he told them: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Over the years many of us have become Pharisaical in attitude, looking down upon those we believe less than us, forgetting that at one point we were all sinners and were it not for the grace of God we would all still be lost; and the Church, instead of becoming a haven for the lost, is largely becoming the trumpeting ground for the self-righteous. There is the story told of the pastor who met a prostitute who was depressed to the point of being suicidal. After encouraging her in the best manner he could, the pastor suggested she come to church that Sunday. “Why would I want to do that,” the woman replied. “I feel depressed enough already.” The woman knew that only condemnation awaited her should she come to church. She probably had experience of it before. In order to draw people to Jesus—and salvation— we have to open the doors to everybody graciously. In his document Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy). Pope Francis said that the church’s “very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy.” We can learn again, and in the manner of the Good Shepherd we have to go out to find the lost again, letting people know that they can expect merciful and compassionate love, not judgment and condemnation. And for this we may need to go to places some people might deem unacceptable to be in. Scripture does tell us to be separate from the world and not to yoke ourselves with unbelievers, but this does not mean we need to isolate ourselves from others. We are told to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but salt needs to be mixed with the meat, and light has to shine in the darkness, to fulfill their purposes. Many people came to Jesus, but he didn’t wait for them; he went out to them, eating with them and drinking with them; mixing with them. And when we do the same and bring one of these lost ones home, all of heaven will rejoice with us, in the same manner a shepherd and his friends rejoice at finding a sheep that is lost.