(This post was first published June 25, 2007)
One of my fundamental life questions comes from Luke 15. Why did “tax collectors and sinners” like to, choose to, want to hang around Jesus? This is particularly compelling to me as it seems that the same is generally not true about church. Sinners and tax collectors generally do not choose to show up around church. Or invite church to show up around “them”.
This could be because the people who were unhappy about the people who liked to be around Jesus were the most religious people of the day, the Pharisees. They spent their time arguing with Him, criticizing His actions, plotting to kill Him. So there was a tension: people who were identified as sinners liked Him, people who were identified as religious didn’t.
When faced with that question in Luke 15, Jesus told a story which may explain some of the attraction. (Although I need to be accurate. He wasn’t faced with the question, the Pharisees were mumbling about the sinners and tax collectors and Jesus, like a teacher who hears the side comments in the back of the room, walked over to their desks and let everyone know that He heard.)
Jesus talked about a shepherd who has 100 sheep and when counting them at the end of the day, discovers that one has wandered off and is lost. He leaves the 99 sheep huddled together in the open country and goes looking for the missing one. When he finds the missing sheep, the shepherd puts it on his shoulders, carries it home, and invites the neighbors over for a party to celebrate finding the lost sheep.
So here’s what I think:
1. The sinners knew that just like the shepherd in the story, Jesus was coming looking for them.
The shepherd was personally involved. He didn’t put up posters, he didn’t expect the sheep to come home eventually, he didn’t send someone else. He went looking. And Jesus went looking. He was not spending all His time in the temple, or with the religious people, or at committee meetings. He was wandering around, having conversations, going to parties. He wasn’t giving up what He believed, but what was at the core of what He believed was that people mattered. So He was looking for people.
2. The sinners knew that just like the sheep in the story, their lives were messed up.
The shepherd was specifically looking for a sheep that knew that it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He wasn’t trying to convince the sheep that there was something wrong with its current situation because it knew. Jesus was offering life, not condemnation. Now, for people who thought their lives were fine, or who were looking to be entertained by cool miracles, Jesus was interesting. For people who were religious, Jesus was a threat. But for people who knew that the way they were living wasn’t what they had been made for, Jesus mattered.
3. The sinners knew that just like the shepherd in the story, Jesus was wanting to hold them not scold them.
The shepherd picked up the sheep, loaded it on his shoulders, and carried it home. Didn’t make it follow, didn’t scold it, didn’t take it home and hide it. Jesus talked to people and gave them hope and told them that following him would be hard but worthwhile. He healed them without condemnation. He forgave them without condemnation. He gave them multiple chances to get it right. What’s not to like about that?
4. The sinners knew that being around Jesus made parties great.
The shepherd had this big party to let the neighbors know that the sheep had been found. Jesus went to parties that made religious people cringe, with people who made religious people cringe. He held parties for lost sheep.
5. The sinners knew that Jesus cared more about them than His reputation.
Just by telling this story, Jesus was saying to the 99 that He was willing to leave them to find the missing sheep. He preferred relationships that gave life to religion that drained life.
Now, does all this mean that Jesus believed just anything? Not really. He called for His sheep to live changed lives. But when you know that your life was completely wrecked and that someone came looking for you and carried you back home and was really glad to see you, it’s easier to think about what He said.
“Looking back” is a new series starting today. I’ll be republishing posts that I have found helpful…and you might, too.