Click here for the reading: Luke 15:1-10.

The grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes is emblematic of the self-righteousness into which the religious can easily fall. If the wanton and wicked fail to apprehend God’s wrath over sin, the self-righteous misappropriate God’s wrath. They are pleased to have God’s judgment against that sin of which they themselves feel they are innocent. And they imagine that God will enforce their manmade standards for righteousness. They condemn Jesus, and so condemn God, for they believe that anyone less scrupulous than them must be against religion. But it is not a difference of degree, as they suppose. It is a difference of kind. It is not because Jesus imagines that the sinners are righteous that he eats with them. He eats with them precisely because they are sinners who need to receive life from their savior.

To misunderstand God’s wrath over sin, which is to misunderstand his righteousness, means also missing his mercy all together. Mercy remains abstract and without application if there is no one to receive it or to benefit from it. The Pharisees and scribes can make no sense of Jesus because they reject the prerequisite for knowing him: repentance. In their appraisal of the world, there are sheep in the fold and sheep outside the fold. The former have always been there and the latter may never enter in. There is no room for repentance – not for the sheep who have strayed, nor for themselves, since they think they are safely in the fold.

Jesus speaks plainly to his purpose in the flesh: to seek and call the lost. To gather up the straying. To bind the injured. To raise the dead. He has nothing to do for the self-righteous who would deprive the wandering of God’s mercy and who think they have no need of it themselves. He has no joy to share with the well, who have no need of a physician, for his joy is all spent in celebration over sinners who repent. If you think that you are religious and do not rejoice to see a sinner receive mercy, then you deceive your heart and your religion is worthless. If, on the other hand, you have drawn near to Jesus because he is gracious and abounding in steadfast love, then your joy will be full.

The wandering sheep may not presume on the kindness of the shepherd to seek him out. These are not parables about the security that the renegade or independent-minded may feel in the presence of an indulgent master. These are parables about the concern of the Lord for his lost children. They are parables about how the righteous should understand the Lord’s mercy toward sinners. They are parables that show all who believe that their salvation depended entirely on the goodness and loving-kindness of God.