Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 NIV)
This introduction leads to Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (prodigal) son. Not for the first time Jesus’ welcome of “tax collectors and sinners” provokes criticism and rebuke. The words that follow are directed not to these sinners but to the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Even the Bible warns against spending time with the sinners and the wicked. The traditions and culture of Jesus’ excluded these people from the religious community. So the standards of the day would say the Pharisees and teachers were correct in criticizing Jesus, something we often overlook.
I am struck that when we – I – hear the parables of Jesus that follow these words as speaking to us as the lost ones. We speak of Jesus’ love for the lost sheep, Jesus’ searching for the lost ones valuable to God, Jesus welcoming the lost sons and daughters who have squandered their divine inheritance yet have found by the Father’s grace their way home.
But these words are NOT spoken to the lost but to the elder brothers of the world, to the leaders and teachers of religion. To those who knew the law and the prophets, to those who best understood what God had said through the ages but simultaneously missed how those truths applied to their world and to their hearts.
I am caught by the realization that I am not as much a lost son as an elder one as I would like to think. I have spent my whole life in the church. I have never been a wanderer except in a temporary way. I have been in the fold, I have been one of the 99.
Oh Lord of the One and the Ninety-Nine, I confess today how much I am like the Pharisees and teachers. I may not criticize but I exclude and ignore. I do not look to see where you are calling and searching and leading. I am lost but do not recognize or admit. May I hear anew the words of Jesus spoke to the religious as he speaks them to me today. Amen.