I love this quote from the Bible: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach” (Luke 15:1). These weren’t the quiet sinners, the private sinners, or the popular sinners… the ones who make others feel good about their own failings and slip-ups. These were the rejects – the ones who made enemies by manipulating and taking advantage of others, the ones whose issues were so blatant that they became known as the bad guys. They were notorious. People talked about them behind their backs. And you better believe they weren’t going to the synagogue on any kind of regular basis. They may have gone for the festivals – the Easters and Christmases of our day – but they definitely got the side-eye and the whispered, “What is HE doing here? Ha!!” while they were there. In fact, the next verse says, “This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that [Jesus] was associating with such sinful people – even eating with them!”
But they came to listen to Jesus teach anyway. Why did they come? What drew them to Jesus? Was there something about Him that was such an obvious contrast to the religious leaders that they knew they would be accepted – or at least not rejected – by Him? Something comforting in the way He spoke? Were they hoping to slip unnoticed into the crowd, see some miracles or hear some wisdom, and sneak away?
If they were hoping to go unnoticed, they failed. Right after Luke makes this observation about the people in Jesus’ crowd, he shares three.straight.stories that Jesus told about lost things. The lost sheep. The lost coin. And the lost son. Each story upping the value of the lost item, each one illustrating just a little bit more of the intensity with which God searches for the lost – and the joy He feels when the lost are found. One thing is clear – if the “tax collectors and sinners” were trying to blend in, they couldn’t hide from Jesus. He saw them. And although I’ve always assumed that when it says in verse three that, “Jesus told them this story,” – ‘them’ referred to the Pharisees and religious teachers – maybe Jesus was also telling His stories to the lost ones. Not just to teach the Pharisees a lesson, but also to let the “sinners” know that He saw them… and that He had been searching for them all along.
I hope I can be like Jesus, the shepherd who goes after lost sheep; Jesus, the woman searches the whole house for her silver coin; Jesus, the father who welcomes back His prodigal son with a party. We just don’t get it, do we? We want to scoff at lost ones behind their backs instead of going out to look for them. We want to settle down with the 99 sheep or the 9 coins, shut the door, and call it good. We just can’t humanly comprehend the kind of grace and love that would go after the sheep who ran away – or the son who wastes his inheritance.
It’s only when I remember that I was a lost sheep, too… and that I still get lost on the daily…that I can finally get down off of my high horse, look the rest of the sheep in the eye, and whisper, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
We are all the lost ones, and we are all – miraculously and wondrously – treasured by the infinite God who created the universe. Let’s put our fingers (or hooves) down, graciously accept the grace of God for our own lostness, and be the kind of people who make others feel safe and welcomed – even in a crowd of religious leaders and Pharisees. Then maybe we can tell the story of how Jesus came after us while we were lost… and how He is still in the same business of rescuing lost people today.