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 neighbours, 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 people 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 neighbours, 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.’ (NRSV).
Jesus was a controversial figure in the religious world.
Events like the one described in this reading did not help. The Pharisees, by their own confession, are not happy with the level of attention that these ‘tax-collectors’ and ‘sinners’ are receiving from Jesus. Surely if he is putting himself out there as a Rabbi he should behave more like one?
And for many religious leaders this implied selecting very carefully who your friends were. Association said a lot about character.
Jesus’ parables are given, according to Luke, in direct response to their grumbling, negative attitude: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Much has, rightly, been made regarding the way these parables point to grace. Both stories climax with all heaven in celebration ‘over one sinner who repents.’ These are stories asking whether heaven’s generous response can be imitated among those who claim to seek after God.
But perhaps less has been made of the fact that Jesus uses these two stories to point to the gracious behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees themselves.
Each parable begins by asking them a rhetorical question. The first: ‘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’. The second question: 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?’
Both queries assume that the listener will answer in the affirmative. Jesus expects them to look closely at their lives and see that they behave in the same gracious and generous manner that Jesus is displaying to these social outcasts.
Admittedly, these situations are different. Neither deals with sinners or people. The stakes in these stories are somewhat lower: a sheep; a coin.
Both are property. They are to do – not with people – but with profit. A lost sheep was lost income. A lost coin was lost money.
And in both cases Jesus assumes – in front of his listeners – that they act towards these commodities with determination and unashamed celebration.
The only difference is where this determined seeking, grace, and rejoicing is directed. The Pharisees and scribes seek after – and celebrate – profit.
In fact the two behaviours are so similar that Jesus can point to their seeking after lost profit as an example of how God behaves towards lost people.
Yes, they are so similar – and yet so very different.
Jesus’ unvoiced question is not so much whether they are seeking and celebrating, but what they are seeking and celebrating?