There was a time when Jesus could be found eating with the religious leaders of his day. No longer. They quit inviting him to their cocktail parties when he would not conform to their standards of doctrine and conduct. This led to a greater problem: Jesus began socializing and eating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners.” It seems that when the clergy took Jesus off of their invite list, he found another group with which to associate, for he goes where he is welcome. But this group, at least in the eyes of the robe-clad reverends, was not worthy of friendship – not even for a self-styled rabbi like Jesus.
Who were these “notorious sinners?” No one knows for sure. They were likely a collection of social outcasts and the ones your mother warned you to stay away from. Barflies, prostitutes, addicts, drunks, gang members, the sexually questionable, the indicted, and paroled: You get the idea. This was a salty crowd. This saltiness is confirmed when we note that “tax collectors” were often associated with Jesus. Tax collectors, certainly expendable by many evaluations, were more than helpful representatives of the Internal Revenue Service.
Tax collectors were employed by the Roman government to collect tribute from the Empire’s occupied territories. In a largely agrarian, uneducated society few knew what their actual tax bill was and had little recourse to correct injustices. So tax collecting was rife with obscene levels of over-taxation and extortion. As a consequence, tax collectors were hated for not only collaborating with and giving comfort to the enemy, they were also obvious criminals breaking the backs of the populace while enjoying the protection of the foreign invaders. Still, Jesus sat with and shared meals with these outcasts intentionally. He did this to show that God had come to the world not with a fuming, clinched fist, but a compassionate, open hand.
One of these compassionate pictures Jesus paints of this God is one of a seeking shepherd. A shepherd would lead his sheep out of the pen early each morning to graze on the surrounding hillsides. Like golf balls scattered across the practice range, the sheep would spread out over the terrain, far and wide, but always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. In the evening, with full bellies, the sheep would be led home to the pen.
There the shepherd would count them as they entered the gate. Often it would be very late in the day when the discovery was made that a sheep was missing. The shepherd had a choice: Leave the lost sheep out in the wild for the night, exposed to all manner of danger but happy for ninety-nine in the pen, or leave immediately to find the lost animal. God is a caring shepherd who realizes a sheep is missing while the entire herd is still out grazing. This shepherd will not wait until the evening to begin his search. He is afraid to leave the animal in distress any longer than necessary.
So he begins immediately searching for the one that is lost. Ninety-nine bawling, hungry sheep were surely enough to keep the shepherd busy, but one lost sheep was one too many. The shepherd must scour the hills until he finds what is lost, for the sheep is of great value to him.
To believe in God is to believe in the redemption of people. It is to believe that heaven’s grace will not quit. Just because the pews of our churches are filled on Sunday morning with our respectable neighbors does not mean God is happy with the number of those in his fold. He goes out into the wastelands – the highways and the byways – to pick up his wayward children in his arms and carry them home. This is not a story about a wayward sheep. This is a story about an unrelenting God who will not rest until he finds those who are lost.