Text: Luke 15:1-10
In Luke 19, just before the Triumphal Entry, our Lord passed through the town of Jericho. Now, in the town of Jericho there was a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Or, rather, he was a “chief tax collector,” and he was quite wealthy. (Luke 19:2, English Standard Version) In Bible times, tax collectors were sort of the prototypical sinner. When the Romans took over a land they, of course, imposed taxes. Tax collectors would bid on opportunities to collect these taxes for a certain region or town. The way that they would make money back was by deception (telling people they owed the Romans more than they really did), or extortion of various kinds. For this reason, many felt that tax collectors were irredeemable. They were “unsaveable.”
Yet, when the Lord came to town, Zaccheus rushed up a tree so that he could see Him. Then, Jesus came right up to him and called him down, “for,” Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.” (Lk. 19:6) Of course, at this, the rest of the people grumbled. How could such a man be part of God’s chosen? How could Zaccheus, a chief tax collector and great sinner, be forgiven? Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19:10) We see this beautifully illustrated in our text this week.
The setting of our text this week is the same as it was last week. Our Lord was invited one Sabbath to break bread in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees. St. Luke’s account of this meal includes our Lord, first, healing a man right there. Of course, since this was the Sabbath, the Pharisees began to grumble. Then, our Lord gave the parable we heard last week, the Parable of the Great Banquet. In that parable those who first received the invitation to the banquet were, in the end, excluded, while the outcasts and outsiders were brought in to the heavenly feast. Many of the Pharisees were probably offended by this, but many others were encouraged by it. St. Luke tells us at the start, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].” (15:1) They were encouraged by the reports and teachings of Jesus, of His promises of forgiveness and life for all who believe.
Some, however, were unhappy that Jesus should be in the proximity of sinful men and women. St. Luke writes, “The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (15:2) Our Lord responded with beautiful words explaining who He is, who we are, and why He became flesh. This is the parable of the Lost Sheep:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’Luke 15:4-6
Our Lord often uses agricultural illustrations, and here is no exception. Shepherding was a common profession in His time. It is the shepherd’s job to take care of the sheep. In the morning, he leads them out to pasture; in the evening, guides them back to the fold. But this isn’t as simple as it sounds. For one thing, sheep wander. Although I myself have never worked with sheep, I’m told that that they will. They will wander and get lost. Then, when a sheep realizes it’s lost, it’ll sit down and not move. It will likely stay there, even at its own peril. The only solution is for the shepherd to come and save it. This is how the parable starts. A sheep wanders off from the flock and its shepherd.
Now, the shepherd notices this. He leaves the rest of the flock in the care of the other shepherds, and goes to seek the sheep that wandered off. Like a woman searching for a lost coin, the shepherd searches diligently until he finds that lost sheep. When he does find that sheep, he puts it on his shoulders, rejoicing. He carries it home and then calls together his friends to celebrate with him, because the lost sheep is found. In the parable, Jesus is the shepherd. And the thing that made the Pharisees grumble – that Jesus should associate with sinners – is exactly what He came to do.
Back on Trinity Sunday, we gladly confessed our faith – that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. He, along with the Father and the Spirit, is the creator of all that exists – our own selves, included. In Hebrews it says, “He upholds the universe by the word of His power.” (1:3) In the Psalms it says, “We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” (95:7) Jesus is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. Only, we aren’t the sheep that stay put. We’re the one that wanders. All of us and each of us.
The word for sin in the Greek means – more or less – “to miss the mark.” Imagine firing an arrow at a target and missing. One might also say, to go off course or to wander. That’s what sinning is, it’s wandering away from our Lord’s good Commandments. “Wandering,” doesn’t quite describe it, though, because it’s wandering while also despising the boundaries the Lord has set for our good and the good of others. And, like a sheep sitting down and refusing to move when it’s lost, we hunker down when we’re lost in sin. But Lord comes and finds us. He does this through His Word.
First, through the Law, He points out that we are in fact lost. And, by lost, we mean, sinners. He shows us by the Law how far we have strayed from His will. We have not loved Him with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors like we love ourselves. He has revealed to us what is good, right and true, and we have preferred to create our own truths. By the Law, Jesus shows us our sin, but by the Gospel He places us on His shoulders. And, by the Gospel, we mean this: all the evil things that you have done, the wicked thoughts, the unclean words and harmful actions – against other people, yourself and God – those are paid for. By His death, Jesus paid the debt you owe. Not because you deserve it, but because “God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:8) By the Gospel, Jesus places us on His own shoulders and carries us to His home rejoicing.
That is His mission, “to seek and to save the lost.” Should you feel today that you are lost, know that you are found in Christ. The sins you’ve committed and the debt you owe were paid for by Christ. You are forgiven, and He carries you now. You are His little lamb. In fact, in a way, He has already brought you home. In just a little while, we will gather at His table to receive the food of eternal life. In the Gospel reading, the people grumbled that Jesus should associate and eat with sinners. Well, He rejoices to do so and even does it again today. For, He came to seek and save the lost. Even you. Even me. Amen.