Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 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.
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We might say that this text answers the question: Does God care about sinners? And maybe one more question: If the answer is yes to the first question - that He cares about sinners, then, how much does He care about them?
There’s an assumption in the beginning of the text, that certainly God does not care about sinners. It’s made by Pharisees and scribes - the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. They are assessing whether or not Jesus is to be considered someone who represents God, or not. They conclude He doesn’t, because, after all, He receives sinners and eats with them (the word “sinners”, here, means those whose sins are outward and public).
I heard someone say this phrase one time: The legalist sleeps well at night. He was talking about a person who gives himself the luxury of holding up the law, and judging those who seem to obey it to be the “good people” and those seem to disobey it to be the “bad people” and not give a whole lot of thought to it beyond that. The person imagines God must think about it that way too (after all, it’s His Law). The legalist sleeps well at night. With things so neatly categorized as “good” and “bad”, what is there to keep Him up? He doesn’t really have to care about what might happen to the “bad” people. He just has to perceive which category they belong in, and leave it at that. “They had their chance like everybody else, and they blew it, so…” A lot of self-righteousness there; not much compassion.
Look how different God is from that; that’s the lesson Jesus teaches with these two short parables. Does God care about sinners? Of course He does. We certainly see it in our Old Testament lesson. Look how the prophet Micah talks about Him: Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?
It’s possible for people to make themselves un-savable, you know. God doesn’t force anyone into His kingdom. It’s possible for people to so completely resist God’s effort to save, that it can’t be done.
For many of God’s people in Micah’s time that was the case. They were wicked and idolatrous. It was in order to save some of them that God turned them over to their enemies. They needed to be shown through suffering, that their actions were about to result in them being lost from God forever.
At the same time He was pleading with them through the prophets, to turn from their idolatry and wickedness so that it wouldn’t be their undoing. And in our Old Testament lesson, Micah was praising God for this steadfast, covenant love that He was showing to any of them who would humble themselves and let Him save them. He delights in steadfast love, Micah says. He cares about sinners. He cares about you.
How much? God cares about sinners, says Jesus in our text, like someone who has lost one of his hundred sheep. He doesn’t say, Well, I still have the others. He doesn’t say, I trained it stay under my care and not wander off. If it did, well…
Jesus was putting that question to the religious leaders. What would they do? “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” They know that - that one of the sheep is much too valuable to just cast aside like that. They would do whatever it took to find it, and then they would celebrate having done so.
In the same way, someone who has lost one of ten silver coins doesn’t just cross a few items off the shopping list, and say, Well, nine is still a pretty good number. No, the coin is valuable. The person does everything it takes to find the one coin that has been lost, and then celebrates having done so.
God couldn’t ever be like those Pharisees and scribes, simply turning His back on sinners, unconcerned about what happens to them. He’s the One Who says, Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (Isaiah 49:15). When Jonah was urging God to forget about the wicked Ninevites, and let them get what they have coming to them, God stated that He valued the more than 120,000 Ninevites who do not know their right hand from their left - even though they’d been His own people’s enemies (Jonah 4:11).
God cares about sinners. He searches them out so that the lost might be found.
What does it mean for a person to be lost from the Lord, though? We get a clue from St. Peter, who writes our epistle lesson. He says, Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. Humble yourselves; that’s what the scribes and Pharisees weren’t doing in our text. By saying that God wouldn’t be wasting His time with sinners they were exalting themselves as if they weren’t sinners. No wonder they were rejecting the Savior God had sent. They didn’t think they needed one. Refusing to humble oneself before the Lord in repentance is what it means to be lost from Him.
Meanwhile, the ones who were gathering around Jesus - eating with Him (to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ disdain) - these knew they needed a Savior. They were recognizing Jesus to be the God Micah addresses in the Old Testament lesson - the faithful one who pardons the iniquity of the humble, Who has compassion on sinners who repent. They knew Him as the One Who showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery, telling her to go and sin no more (John 8:11). They knew Him like the tax collector Zacchaeus did, who experienced mercy from Jesus that compelled him to make right about his life the things that had been wrong, and to follow Jesus. (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them so that He might find valuable souls that had been lost, and so that heaven might celebrate having found what was lost.
You might imagine Jesus welcoming you in this way through the Sacraments of the Church. Think of yourself like the lost sheep or the lost coin, before you came to faith in Baptism or through hearing the message about Christ. You had a sinful nature at your conception, according to Psalm 51; you inherited it from your first parents. Luther’s Meaning to the Third Article of the Creed says what that means: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, My Lord, or come to Him.” There isn’t room for anyone to think like those Pharisees and scribes, is there? Every person who comes about in the natural way is a sinner.
The illustration of Jesus eating with sinners works even more conveniently when we think about the Lord’ Supper. Jesus isn’t welcoming the righteous to the rail; He’s welcoming humble sinners. He’s welcoming you, who have repented of haughtiness and legalism, and a tendency to see yourself as deserving of God’s good things while others are to be cast aside. Yes - you and I can be Pharisees and scribes, and have been. Don’t doubt it for a minute. St. Peter warns in our epistle lesson: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith. Resist pointing out the sins of others while ignoring your own, for one thing. Resist exulting yourself like a Pharisee or a scribe.
In that knowledge of yourself as one of the lost ones that God considered too valuable to stay lost, you come to the Table. You come to receive…Him. It’s mysterious to be sure. The Mystery of the Supper is a truth that isn’t received by everyone, though it is clearly stated by Jesus in the words: “This is My body, which is given for you. This is My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of your sins.
You come like one of the ones who were being received by Jesus in repentance and faith, to eat with Him the heavenly meal. It’s the meal eaten by the lost who have been so valued that nothing has been spared in order to find them, and to restore them to the One from whom they were lost. That One is the One Who receives sinners and eats with them.
You are one of the ones Jesus is talking about in our text, when He says, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Your faith, brought about by the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament, is evidence that God cares about sinners. He so loved sinners, that He gave His only-begotten Son. That Son did everything you couldn’t. He humbled Himself so that God could exalt you. He lived without sinning so that you could be forgiven of your sins. Who is a God like you? - We say along with the prophet Micah. His steadfast love endures to this day. God be praised. Amen.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old.
1 Peter 5:6-11
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Collect of the Day
O God, the Protector of all who trust in You, without whom nothing is strong and nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us Your mercy, that with You as our Ruler and Guide, we may so pass through the things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.