I once had a call from a car thief who needed counselling. I am not making this up; this is a true episode from my life as a rural pastor. He called me in desperation; ‘Alliance’ was the first church he could find in the local phone book, but the Alliance pastor was out, and ‘Anglican’ was next on the list! He had left his girlfriend in a fit of temper, driven over five hundred miles in one day and tried as best he could to stop drinking, cold turkey. When he came to see me it was obvious that he was barely hanging on to his sobriety.
At first he didn’t tell me he was a car thief. He told me about his alcoholism and his destroyed relationship with his girlfriend, all of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Still, I was able to get him hooked up with Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the next two weeks I drank more coffee than I ever have in my life before or since, because every day he wanted to get together to talk at the local greasy spoon.
It was during those conversations that I found out he was also a car thief. Well, not strictly a car thief; he actually made a good living by stealing heavy machinery – graders, gravel trucks, combine harvesters – that sort of thing. Obviously, the other people drinking coffee in the restaurant didn’t know he was a thief, but a few months later they discovered that he was a disreputable character because he was arrested and charged with growing marijuana! One of my older AA friends, who had spent a lot of time with this man, just shook his head and said “One day he’ll learn!”
If I had been having these conversations with my car thief friend in Jesus’ time, no doubt the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would have been muttering about me, too: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (v.2). And we need to remember that they weren’t taking this attitude because they were bad or malicious. They were taking it for the same reason we tell our children to be careful about the company they keep. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ is the old saying; if you want to stay on the right road in life, watch the crowd you run with. Run with the wrong crowd and you can get into trouble. Bad company ruins good morals. These are all things we were told by our parents, and no doubt most of us who have children have said something like that to our kids as well.
This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t want to associate with the people Jesus was associating with - the loan sharks, the prostitutes and thieves and Roman soldiers and all the rest. Their motives were good - they wanted to stay pure from sin and holy in God’s sight. But in order to do this there were some very important things they forgot. I want to give you a list this morning of four things the Pharisees forgot. And of course this isn’t just a history lesson; I’m sharing them with you because I think sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting them too.
So here we go. First, they forgot that everyone is a sinner. Hopefully this is obvious to any Christian who reads the New Testament, but in Jesus’ time many people would have denied this. They would have divided the world into two camps - the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners, the ones who were in and the ones who were out. If you made an honest attempt to live by the commandments, kept away from bad company and followed the Jewish ritual laws, you were ‘in’. If you didn’t, you were ‘out’. As far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned, they were ‘in’, but Jesus and his friends were ‘out’.
But in fact the situation is much more complicated than that. Some sins are obvious for all to see - murder, or adultery, or stealing cars. Other sins are not so obvious, but Jesus treated them just as seriously - the love of money and the things it can buy, lack of love for the poor and those in need, covetousness, self-righteousness and so on. Jesus summed up the law of God with two commandments - love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If you fall short of these two commandments, you have sinned. Do you qualify? I know I do; therefore I am a sinner.
And we need to remember this, because it gives us an appropriate sense of our own need. I love the way people introduce themselves as A.A. meetings: ‘Hi, I’m Ken and I’m an alcoholic’. That serves as a good reminder that they aren’t gathered together on the basis of their strengths but on the basis of their weaknesses. And we Christians are the same. We don’t come together each week because we’re good; we come together because we know we fail, and we need God’s help and the help of our fellow Christians to kick our sin addiction. I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness; so are you. There’s no room for me to look down on you. There’s no room for you to look down on me. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
So the first thing the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot was that everyone is a sinner. The second thing they forgot was that every person is important to God. Not just as a part of the crowd, but as individuals. God loves each one of us, notices when we stray away, and goes out looking for us to bring us home. He would not do this if we weren’t important to him.
God’s math, you see, is a little different from ours. If we had gathered ninety-nine sheep together we would probably have weighed up the risks of leaving them and going out to search for the one that was lost, and decided “I’ll stick with the ninety-nine”. Or if we still had the nine coins we might be tempted to chalk up the loss of the tenth to bad luck and leave it at that. Not so in Jesus’ stories. Every single person is significant to God. You’re not just a statistic that he can write off; you’re a person made in God’s image, a unique individual, precious in his sight. When you stray away, he feels the loss deeply, and he wants to find you and bring you home.
Jesus, you see, did not look on these tax-collectors and sinners with a condemning eye. He said that they were ‘lost’; in his parable he compared them to a sheep that wanders away. Most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! Their problem is that they’re so concerned about the need of the present moment - grass - that they take their eyes off the shepherd.
And that’s the way it is with so many people. We don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment - a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there - that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.
So that’s how Jesus sees people - we’re like lost sheep, and he’s coming to look for us. He came all the way from heaven to earth, and gave his life on the Cross for us. As he says in John’s version of this story, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul the great missionary says ‘The Son of God...loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner; they forgot that every person is important to God. The third thing they forgot was that love leads to change, not change to love. What do I mean by that?
The best way of explaining it is to refer to another ‘lost and found’ story from Luke, the story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19. We’re told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, and very rich. He wanted to see Jesus when he passed through Jericho, but he was so short that he couldn’t see over the heads of the other people in the crowd. So he climbed a tree and looked down on Jesus from up above. But Jesus saw him up the tree, called him down and went to have a meal at his house. Again, the Pharisees and teachers of the law started grumbling that ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’ (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus, however, responded to the love of Jesus by giving away half his possessions to the poor, and repaying all the people he had ever cheated four times the amount he had cheated from them. Jesus’ comment was ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).
That was quite a transformation in Zacchaeus’ life. I think the Pharisees and teachers of the law had probably been trying to make that happen for years. I can take a good guess at their tactics, too: I’ll bet they had scolded Zacchaeus, told him he should be ashamed of himself, warned him that he would go to hell if he didn’t repent and so on. None of this had any effect at all when it came to changing Zacchaeus’ heart. What changed Zacchaeus was when Jesus came to his house, loved him just as he was, and communicated by his actions that God loved him too. Once this message got hold of Zacchaeus’ heart, he was so thankful that he began spontaneously to repent and get his life in order.
And that’s the way the Christian Gospel works. God didn’t wait for us to smarten up and get our act together before he came to save us. Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The message of legalism is that people first have to obey God’s laws and get their act together, and then, if they are able to achieve a satisfactory standard of righteous living, they will be accepted by God. The message of Jesus is the very opposite; while we are still sinners, God comes to us in Jesus, loves us as we are, and then helps us to turn away from our sins and become the holy and loving people he wants us to be. We don’t have to change in order to earn God’s love; God loves us first, and when we accept that love, it helps us change. Love leads to change, not change to love.
So we’ve seen that the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner, and they forgot that every person is important to God. They forgot that love leads to change and not change to love. One last thing they forgot: They forgot that shepherds look for sheep, and not the other way around. The proper movement is for the Church to go out looking for the lost, and not for us to wait for the lost to come to us, because, as Will Willimon says, ‘The last time I went down to the farm, it wasn’t the job of the sheep to find the shepherd’. That’s why Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners; he was the good shepherd, going out to find his lost sheep. He was the woman sweeping the house and searching until she found her lost coin.
The God of the Bible is a God who goes out in mission. The word ‘mission’ is about ‘sending’, about ‘going out’; it’s not about waiting for people to come to you! A church that worships this missionary God can’t help being in mission itself. We are learning to see people as Jesus sees them: lost sheep who have strayed away from the Good Shepherd. We are praying that God will help us to demonstrate his love in the way we live our lives, and to take every opportunity to explain the Christian message in a way that people can understand and relate to. We are the Shepherd’s assistants – his sheepdogs, if you like. It’s our job to go out and find the lost sheep, not their job to come and find us.
So I suspect that this passage has comfort in it for us, but also challenge. God is telling each one of us this morning that we matter to him. We are so important to him that he left the glory of heaven and came among us in Jesus; the Good Shepherd laid down his life so that you and I, his lost sheep, could be saved and come home again to him. We are all sinners, but he died for sinners, so we all qualify. And he doesn’t wait for us to measure up to a certain standard before he loves us; he comes to us as we are, loves us and helps us learn to walk in the new way of life he teaches us.
But the challenge to us is this: if we’ve discovered this love of Jesus in our own lives, we have a responsibility to share it. There are plenty of other lost sheep out there, and not too many of them are finding their way to the door of the church. You and I will have to make the first move, take the initiative, leave our comfort zone and look for the lost until we find them. I doubt very much if Jesus will be impressed by the argument that ‘Lord, we told them what time the service was, but they wouldn’t come!’
We have received the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd has found us and brought us safely home. He wants us to rejoice in that. But he also wants us to know that there are thousands more who haven’t found their way home yet. Every single one of them is important to him. There is absolutely nothing that is more important on his agenda than finding them and bringing them home. And he’s calling for our help in that. Are we willing to answer his call?