Sometimes when we read about the life and words of the Lord Jesus, He can seem wild and untamed. He is unpredictable. He does what we would never expect. It is almost as if He came from another world and brought all of its strange customs and beliefs with Him.
It seems that way because it is true. Jesus came into our world from a place of perfection. Our world, the realm of human life where God gave us the responsibility of stewardship at the beginning of time (see Genesis 1-2) is distorted and twisted with sin and pride. Even things that should be righteous and good are used for wickedness and wrong. But the King of Heaven came to our world and brought with Him His perfect, straight goodness. When He began to speak, many of His listeners knew that they were broken and bent, and they were overjoyed to learn how to become straight. What a relief to have a Teacher who could help make things right.
But many in Israel truly believed that their were already okay. In fact, they were quite proud about how much better they were compared to everyone else. Jesus came to them and said, “Nope, you’re crooked, too.”
They weren’t happy about it at all. The Jewish leadership was enraged that anyone would dare challenge them, and so the great conflict began.
For the religious leaders, the worst part was that this arrogant young Jesus spent all His time healing and teaching all the really messed up people…the sinners they thought He should reject…and the people loved Him for it. These were the folks the Pharisees and scribes kept a wide distance from. They refused to teach them because they were unholy, and they would never, ever dream of eating with them. What was wrong with Jesus? Didn’t He know these people were sinners? Didn’t He know the rules of the game?
The truth is, the tax gatherers and sinners in Israel really were despicably bad.
The tax collectors were terrible cheats. They went around collecting tax money from the Jewish people in order to give it to their harsh and oppressive enemy, the Roman Empire. That alone made them traitors. But then they made it worse by raising the taxes even higher to fill their own pockets. They were extremely greedy and often grew very wealthy by forcing their neighbors to give far more than they really owed. Imagine how angering it would be to watch these men take the money that you needed from your own family in order to make themselves rich.
The people that were called sinners in the Bible stories were people that did genuinely bad things…the kind of things that Christ followers are truly meant to stay away from. Some of them took the sacred, private act of love that is meant to happen only in marriage and they bartered it around with others, sometimes even paying for it. While many sinners cheated on their sacred covenants, others could not be trusted with money and gambled it away. Others stole or were abusive or gave themselves over to excessive drinking and recklessness. Some of them refused to work, and some abandoned their families and children in order to pursue their own selfish pleasures. They were not a pretty sight. Their sin was real, and the effects of their sin on their own lives, the lives in their families, and the life of their community was evil.
And yet, these sinners and these tax collectors were still drawn to Jesus. Somehow, His presence did not overwhelm them with shame. Why? Why would they want to be near the Holy One, the Man of sinless perfection?
Moreover, why did Jesus give them His time? And why in the world would He eat with them? In Jewish culture, that was like declaring that He accepted them!
The relationship that Jesus had with sinners was unheard of in the nation of Israel, and it infuriated the Pharisees and the scribes as they watched Him. They sat back in their little huddles and judged Him, critiquing His words and rolling their eyes at His foolishness. If He were truly sent from God, He would know better.
Jesus knew what the religious leaders were saying against Him. He also knew that their complaints were a sign of how darkened their own hearts were. Their sin was just as great…and perhaps even worse. While a tax collector was bent by pride and greed, the religious leaders were bent and broken by pride and malice. So Jesus explained Himself to the Jewish leaders through parables. Once again He was offering them a chance to see the Truth and repent.
In the first parable, Jesus said:
“‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”’”
Can you see how good and wonderful it is when everyone rejoices over the one who was lost and has been found? Instead of holding his sin against him, instead of resenting the cost of her freedom, the pure response of simple delight? That is the way of God’s heavenly Kingdom. The angels shout for joy and the Father delights on His throne…one of His children has come home! That amazing scene has already happened for every one of us who has given our lives to Jesus.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine the Most High God and His glorious angels throwing a party over you. That is what Jesus said you are supposed to imagine and believe happened when you gave your life to Him.
But as Jesus told the story, the Pharisees did not rejoice. As sinners and tax collectors listened to Jesus and repented, all they could do was gripe and judge. How bent, broken, and twisted they were! They were the religious leaders! It was their job to lead people back to God!
In the last sentence of this parable, Jesus says that Heaven will rejoice more about one coming to salvation than for the ninety-nine who do not need to repent. Do you think there have ever been ninety-nine people that don’t need to repent? Everyone needs to repent. Everyone sins. (Check out 1 John 5:1-10). Only One Person in history is free from sin, and that was Jesus Himself. The ninety-nine in this parable are there to show us just how much God delights when someone who is lost is brought back into His fold…He knows every person on this planet, whether they have given their lives to Him or not, and He loves them (see John 3:16). He longs to give the gift of salvation.
Do you think this parable helped the religious leaders see how sweet the repentance of every sinner is to God? Do you think they saw how ugly their contempt for the lost was? Do you think it helped them realize how lost they were? Jesus went on to tell another parable to help them understand:
“‘Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
Wow. In the perfect, bright, and true ways of God’s Kingdom, the transfer of a lost sinner from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light brings on a party! The Father and the heavenly host know exactly what is at stake. They know how magnificent the change is when someone that was in rebellion against God and headed for wrath turns towards His glorious light. It is the breathtaking gift that Jesus knew He was going to make possible when He gave up His life on the cross.