Do you remember last week’s passage when Jesus was talking to the crowds that were traveling with him about what it costs to follow him? This week’s passage is a continuation of that story.  He’s still speaking to the same crowd, and more and more are gathering in to hear him.  Imagine, if you will, the Pharisees and their scribes standing off to one side, grumbling and whispering to each other … “Hmph! This man eats with tax collectors and sinners!” seemingly implying that who Jesus hung out with was cause enough to dismiss what he had to say.

In response to their grumbled dismissal of him, Jesus poses some questions to the crowd: “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and one came up missing. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine there in the open country and go after the lost one until you found it? And if you found it, wouldn’t you lift it to your shoulders, take it home, gather up all your friends and have a celebration because you found your lost lamb?”

Then he goes on to ask, “What of the woman who had ten silver coins, lost one, and tore her house apart until she found it? And when she did, she called her friends and celebrated her good fortune.”

Jesus made strong concluding points at the end of each set of questions: All heaven will rejoice and there will be more joy among the angels in heaven over the saving of one sinner than the over the ninety-nine already righteous people.

So, then, what are we to make of this passage?

Looking first at what the Pharisees said …  “This man eats with tax collectors and sinners!” While it’s likely they were expressing their disdain at the kind of people Jesus tended to spend most of his time with, they inadvertently did something else … they announced the good news: Jesus not only welcomes sinners and the unwanted, he eats with them. In those days, sharing a meal meant there was a relationship. Sharing a meal meant acceptance. It wasn’t like a restaurant with tables full of strangers all eating at the same time. Sharing a meal meant he had placed himself on their side.

The gospels are full of stories about Jesus choosing to spend his time and share meals with the wrong kind of people. It was those people who were drawing near in that crowd he was speaking to, those people who came to listen to what he was saying. Jesus gave them something the Pharisees wouldn’t and no one else could. It’s also why the Pharisees were so disgruntled … Jesus broke the law, crossed lines, and made God far too easily available to all those wrong kinds of people.

And yet, the Pharisees’ statement proclaimed the good news. Odd, isn’t it, that when I first read the passage or even when I restated it at the beginning of this message, we didn’t hear the good news in what the Pharisees said? We only heard their frustration and disapproval. Perhaps that’s because we don’t see ourselves as the one sheep, but as the ninety-nine righteous sheep with no need of repentance. We don’t see ourselves as the crowd of tax collectors and sinners gathering near to hear him speak.

No, we work really hard to be the right kind of people. We mess up occasionally, but we recognize when we’re guilty and do what’s needed to correct things. For the most part, we at least try to do what’s good, what’s right. We act the way we’re expected to act, speak the way we’re expected speak, look the way we’re expected to look … at least when anyone else is looking or listening. We love and are faithful to our spouses. We care for, nurture and love our children. We’re honest in business, kind and friendly to each other, and work hard to provide for our families and help our friends.

We’re loyal to our country, pledge allegiance to the flag, go to church every Sunday … well … almost every Sunday … say our prayers, care for the poor, and donate time, money, food and clothes to the needy.

Are we doing this wrong? Are we supposed to suddenly become the wrong kind of people?  No, not at all.  But it does mean we shouldn’t become complacent or take for granted that we’re doing all we can do.

Jesus gives us the benchmark for assuring we stay true to following him, a new rule for engagement of all we encounter … that benchmark is grace, extravagant, endless, all-forgiving grace. To search for truth rather than blame, to help find lost souls instead of punishing them, to rejoice instead of condemn. The first question for Jesus is not one of sin, who’s in and who’s out, or who gets a dinner invitation. For Jesus, everyone is already in. Everyone is invited. The first question and primary concern is one of presence. Have we shown up or are we lost and missing?

Too often we see sin as a legality, physical actions. We fail to see that sin applies to conditions and relationships. Sin is something to be judged, not diagnosed and healed. That’s why we have trouble recognizing the good news and rejoicing at the meals Christ offers and shares with the sinners and tax collectors. We struggle to see ourselves as sinners. Compared to “those kinds of people” we think we look pretty good. The Pharisees and scribes thought they looked pretty good, too. For Jesus, however, the defining characteristic of sin is not misbehavior but being lost.

The stories, the parables Jesus offers are not about being wrong. They’re about being lost … the lost sheep, the lost coin.  Jesus is not concerned with finding blame. His only concern is finding the one that is lost, missing, or absent. He doesn’t tell us how they became lost, only that they were lost and are now found. His messages are about recovering and reclaiming those who are lost.

Admittedly, humanity gets itself lost in the darkness of sin. Throughout history, we’ve done terrible things to one another. But we can also be really good and lost at the same time. We can be good, hard-working, and successful in our career and still feel lost, without a true sense of direction or meaning. We can be holding it all together and still be lost in the depths of grief or despair. We can be a good spouse, doing all the right things, giving all the right appearances, and still be lost in a loveless marriage. We can have a good reputation and be lost in questions of our own identity and purpose. We can be so busy and productive that we are lost to the wonder, beauty, and mystery of life. We can be financially secure and still be lost in fear. We can say and do all the right things and be lost in a secret life that is self-destructive and hurts others.

Jesus expanded the definition of sin, but he also expanded grace.  Where the Pharisees and scribes wanted to make it about the character of the sinners, to define it as only a legal category based on bad behavior, Jesus made it about God’s character.

God’s character, God’s grace is the point of the lost sheep and the lost coin. God’s grace and character are shown to us in the way Jesus searches, finds and rejoices. Searching, finding and rejoicing are three manifestations of God’s one grace. They’re the continual presence of God in Christ in each of our lives, and we experience grace as one or more of those manifestations depending on the circumstances of our lives. It means that we … that all … have a seat at his table.

We matter. We’re important to God and he wants us. This man who eats with sinners and tax collectors is continually searching for all of us, finding all of us, and rejoicing when we accept that seat at his table.

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Let’s pray …

Father, God, we thank you for the lessons your word brings to us. We pray for strength to live into your word. We pray for opportunities to demonstrate the lesson you’ve given today. We are grateful for your love and for the grace we’ve been given and continue to receive. Please never stop searching for and finding us. …

In Jesus’ name.

Scripture reading (Luke 15:1-10):

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, 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? When he has found it, 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.’ 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.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 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.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”