This should be a little surprising to us, because it is just the opposite of what we might expect. In the experience of our own day, the “sinners” of our society largely tend to reject the teachings of Jesus, relegating his words as something that “church people” listen to (present modern-day spiritual equivalent words for "tax collectors" and "Pharisees").
But in fact, it was the religious people of Jesus’ day who mostly spoke against him, accusing him of everything from drunkenness to gluttony. For instance, there is one account that is found in the Bible where the Jesus had been speaking in a public place, and where he was beginning to draw a crowd that consisted mostly of people who were known as “tax gatherers” and “sinners.” These were the individuals who were basically rejected by the more religious people of the society.
The Pharisees and the scribes (the upright religious people), who were also present in the crowd, began to grumble against Jesus. They said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
These religious and highly respected men certainly would not have done that! They would not be found associating with these “sinners” in any way, much less eat with them! After all, what would people think?
Although the grumbling that the Pharisees and scribes were doing was among themselves, Jesus seems to have heard what they were saying about him, since he began to address what they were murmuring about. He did this by telling three short stories.
The Lost Sheep
The first of these stories is one that is well known even in our present day. It is the story of the shepherd who had a flock of one hundred sheep, one of which had become lost. Leaving the ninety-nine, the shepherd sets out for the wilderness to look for the one who was missing.
Astoundingly, the shepherd actually finds the lost sheep in the vast wilderness. When he does, he lifts the newly found one up on his shoulders and carries it home. Once the shepherd arrives home with his lost one, he calls his friends and neighbors and tells them, “Come and rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which I had lost!”
The Lost Coin
The next story that Jesus told the religious people was one to which, in one way or another, all of us can relate. It was about a woman who had ten silver coins. Perhaps you cannot relate to the fact that she had silver coins, since our coins in these days are only made to look like silver, but the point of the story was that the woman had lost one of the coins that she owned, and she was frantic about finding it. The coin was pretty valuable.
That is the part to which we all can relate. At one time or another, probably all of us have lost something of value that set us in a bit of a panic mode – perhaps some car keys or a credit card. If you have had this experience, you know that you could not rest until you found it. You looked through every pocket of your clothes, every drawer or any place where you think you may have left your lost keys or your credit card.
Or, thinking your keys may have fallen into the “black hole” that cars have between the front seat and the center console, you searched under the seat. Wondering if you left your credit card on the store counter, you ran back into the store to ask, hoping that no unscrupulous person had already picked it up.
This is the same type of frantic search that the woman in Jesus’ story had. Since she never took the coins outside, she thought that she must have lost the coin someplace in the house. So, she took a light and looked in every corner. With her broom, she swept the house cleanly until at last she found the lost coin.
So overjoyed was she with her success at finding the coin, she simply had to share that joy with someone. As did the shepherd in the previous story, this woman also called her friends and her neighbors to tell them what had happened. She told them, “Come on over and rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin!”
The Joy of Recovering Something that was Lost
Both of these stories illustrate the joy in the recovery of something that was lost. The fact that the shepherd had ninety-nine other sheep that had not been lost was not the point of the story. Neither was it that the woman still had nine other silver coins. These were not the things that brought them joy at the time. What made them rejoice in the moment was the fact that they had found their lost one.
This is why Jesus ate with the sinners who were despised by the society of their day. It is also why these people were attracted to his teachings. Jesus did not reject them. In fact, he cared enough about them to seek them out as a shepherd searching for his sheep or a woman looking for her lost coin. They were important to him.
The religious people on the other hand, rejected the teachings of Jesus largely because he associated with the sinners. The Pharisees considered themselves as the righteous ones of their society—too righteous in fact to bother themselves with the sinners around them.
But there is one other story that Jesus had to tell these people who considered themselves so righteous. It is also one that is still commonly known in our day.
The Prodigal Son
In fact, so well-known is the story of the prodigal son that it has basically changed the definition of the word “prodigal.” Because of the rebellious attitude of the son of the story, many people think that this is also the meaning of this word—to be rebellious.
It is not of course. The word actually means to be wastefully extravagant and reckless in the way that one spends his money. But even this undesirable trait was not the primary lesson of the story that Jesus wanted to emphasize to the self-righteous Pharisees. It was not that the prodigal son had been wasteful with the money given to him as an inheritance.
There may also be a lesson also in this, but truthfully, the individual in the story from whom it was the most important for the Pharisees to learn was the other son, the elder of the two. This was the righteous son, the one who stayed home and continued to serve his father.
Most of us know how, in the story, the prodigal son finally returned home after squandering all of his inheritance in a distant land. Upon his return, his father was so overjoyed that he arranged for a big party for his new-found son. He replaced the son’s ragged clothing with new apparel and reinstated him in his position as the son of a wealthy man. Like the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin, the father of this story was beside himself with joy. His lost son had returned!
The returned son was no doubt greatly relieved and elated over the reception that he received. He had not expected it. His only expectation had been that perhaps he could live as one of the servants of his father, which, after he had wasted all of his money, was much better than how he had ended up living in the distant country.
But the father would have none of that! He said, “My son was dead, but now is alive again! He was lost, but now is found!”
The Older Son
The older son however, was not joyful about the return of his brother. The older sibling had not been present at the moment that his brother returned, nor had he been home at the time when all the planning and preparations for the party were being done. He had been, as always, about his work in the fields.
When the older son neared the house as he came from the fields, he heard the music and the dancing. He asked someone what was going on, and learned that his brother had returned and that their father had arranged for a big, welcome-home party.
The older brother refused to go in to be a part of it. He was incensed that their father would make such a big fuss over this younger brother. When the father appealed to the older brother about coming in to join in the merriment, the older brother protested. He was envious over the celebration that the father had made for the prodigal son.
The prodigal son may have been living in a distant country, but it seems that the family must have had some knowledge of his whereabouts and activities. The older brother knew what the lifestyle of his younger brother had been in that distant land.
“Why should I come in?” the older son asked his father. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command. But in spite of this, you never gave me even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came (notice that he did not call him “my brother”)… when this son of yours came who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
If it were indeed true that the father had never made a celebration in this older son’s honor, this of course would have been unfortunate. But it is more likely that this was simply the perspective of the elder son at the moment. Because Jesus was addressing this story to the Pharisees and the scribes, it seems that the issue of self-righteousness was more the central problem.
In the older son’s self-righteous opinion of himself, instead of being joyful over the return of his brother, he was envious because of how he considered himself more deserving of recognition. This attitude struck right at the heart of the Pharisees, because they also saw themselves as the morally virtuous ones who had no need of repentance.
Jesus also alluded to this same attitude in the story of the lost sheep when he said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
By speaking of persons who need no repentance, Jesus could only mean those who were righteous only in their own opinion of themselves, since in reality, there is none so virtuous that there is nothing evil found within them. The Pharisees and the scribes often had this self-righteous opinion.
Those who are righteous in their own eyes believe that they are never given enough recognition. They seek the respect and the constant affirmation by others. They feed on this admiration. It is what they live for. As Jesus said at another time concerning the Pharisees, “They seek the approval of man rather than the approval of God.”
When that affirmation is given to another, whom the self-righteous one believes is far less worthy than he is, it strikes right at the root of his own image that he has of himself. All that he can see is that how eminently unfair it all is. This I think, was the older brother’s perspective.
But there is yet another perspective that we must see.
We may have heard often about the prodigal son and the older son. Probably you have also heard a great deal about the father’s response to the two boys. The father had long waited for the return of the younger son, and warmly welcomed him when he returned. The father also tried to affirm the older son, despite this son’s envious response to his brother’s return.
However, the most important part of the story as it related to the Pharisees and the scribes is one that often goes unnoticed. It may be understandable to see why it passes overlooked, since in the midst of all the drama of the whole story, the main point of the lesson is contained in a single phrase.
It is the phrase that the Pharisees should have realized spoke to the very heart of the problem as they saw it. They saw the problem as being that Jesus was eating with sinners. He was associating with those “ungodly ones.” But with this single phrase that Jesus used, they should have realized it as being the part of the story that addressed directly what they had been murmuring about.
This main point of the story is found in the very last phrase of the account, words spoken by the father as he was speaking to the older son. The father says this: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead, and now is alive. He was lost, but he now has been found!”
What else does one do when he has found something that was lost? Just as in the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin, what else does one do when a loved one who had been estranged comes back home?
It is not that the other ninety-nine nice sheep were unimportant. It is not that the other silver coins had no value. The question of which son is more deserving or more righteous should not even come into consideration at this time. The simple fact is that the lost son has returned! It is time to celebrate!
That Which has Value
In three separate stories Jesus illustrated the joy of regaining something that had been lost. It seems that the Pharisees only saw that these people whom Jesus received merely as sinners to be avoided. The Pharisees and the scribes were content to view these as lost and leave them lost.
But Jesus welcomed them. He sought them out. He ate with them.
Eating with sinners? Jesus was the shepherd searching for his lost sheep. He was the woman sweeping her house seeking her lost coin. Jesus was the father, watching and waiting for his lost son. That is why he ate with sinners. He was seeking the lost ones.
Seeking the Lost
It is true that we can sometimes happen upon a lost item by chance. Sometimes the lost item just “shows up.” However, how many of us would be content to let a set of keys or a credit card simply remain out in the public without making great effort to find it? These are valuable to us, and their loss may cost us a great deal if they fall into the wrong hands.
To Jesus, every person holds a great value. In our own day when it seems as if so much in the world is spiraling out of control, many are wondering if we are entering the beginning of the last days, the time when we should be expecting the return of Jesus. I myself wonder this.
I do not know, but do I know that Jesus has told us that we must always be vigilant. He told us that we must always keep watch for his return (Matthew 24:42).
I must also say that I am ready for his return. Conditions in the world seem to be deteriorating day by day. But you see, there is a reason Jesus has delayed his return. It is because he is still searching for the lost sheep. He is still sweeping the corners of his house, looking for the lost coin. He is still standing at the end of the driveway, waiting for the return of the prodigal son. His is still eating with sinners.
The Apostle Peter tells us that “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 BSB).
If you are that lost sheep, Jesus is searching the wilderness of the world for you. He is sweeping clean every corner looking for you as if you were a lost and valuable coin. If you are that prodigal, like the father in the story, Jesus is waiting for your return.
Your time of squandering your life in the world must end. Why would you want to share in the pig slop of the world when you could be feasting at the banquet table of your father?
Your Father continually scans the distant horizon, hoping to see your silhouette against the sky. He is waiting to see you walking home.
It was not only in the days of the New Testament that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He still does so today. He is still seeking and is still asking you to dine with him. Accept his invitation. Give up your ways that will lead only to death and allow the Father to put on a feast for you.
“My son has returned! My daughter has returned! It is fitting that we celebrate, for this child of mine was dead, but is now alive. He was lost. She was lost. But now they are found!”
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”