“Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to him to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-3).
The self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was showing through. They were the theologically educated, publicly revered, practically perfect in every way contingent of experts. The publicans and other sinners were dirty, vile and common. They were uncouth, untaught and unknown. If Jesus is supposed to be this great rabbi, why would he choose to sup and study with them and leave the nobility seething in the street?
Well, if the scribes and Pharisees were really as pious as they claimed, they would not need to talk with Jesus anyway. And as long as they had these delusions, they were not ready to talk. They had complained before when Levi threw a feast for Jesus, who answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 7:31-32).
In the proud estimation of the scribes and Pharisees, certain people were beneath their concern. Perhaps they had the wrong occupation, not enough income, or some other blemish. The result of their attitude, however, was that an entire class of people was neglected and despised. They were considered a lost cause, not only beyond repentance, but also beyond instruction. It was not because they had previously rejected the truth, but now they were not even given the opportunity to hear it. To assault their pride, Jesus teaches three parables in Luke 15, showing the value he placed on the lost souls of these sinners:
The parable of the lost sheep casts the Lord as a shepherd, having 100 sheep, who discovered that but one of them had wandered away. Not content to have 99% of his flock in tact, he set out to find it and carried it home on his shoulders when he did. Despite the fact that his flock had not actually increased at all, he called his neighbors to come and rejoice with him over the found sheep, that is, a formerly lost human soul reclaimed from the clutches of the devil. “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
The second parable concerns a woman who lost one of her ten coins and then commenced a house-wide search for it, not resting until that coin was again discovered. Having found it, she is not governed by the indifference of merely finding what was lost and having nothing more than before. Instead, she calls her neighbors together to celebrate, as Jesus says the angels rejoice in heaven over one sinner who repents.
The third parable is the most famous, about a man with two sons, who lost one to the world. While that man bemoaned the departure of his son, the lad was learning hard lessons about reality and soon came to his senses and sought to return home. “But when he was still far off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” The son confessed his sin and the father embraced him back into the family, convening a feast on fatted calf. Every lost soul that returns to God is represented in that lost son; the Pharisees are represented in the other brother, who complained that his steadfastness was unappreciated, his status threatened.
Earlier this summer, my wife misplaced her wedding band, an anniversary ring purchased only a few months earlier. She began an exhaustive search at work, while I turned the house upside down. Finally, when all hope seemed lost, the diamonds glistened on the floor behind an end table. Informing her of this discovery was not a matter of mundanely announcing that we are right back where we were yesterday while it was on her finger. Instead, we rejoiced because what had been lost and almost given up had been found and reclaimed. If we can search diligently and rejoice over reclaimed sheep, coins and even rings, why not God's children, why not lost souls?
Could it be that we are as guilty as the scribes and Pharisees of having an idea in our minds about what a person worthy of hearing the gospel should look like? And if someone is not dressed the right way and saying the right things, he will never be approached. Trouble is, Jesus recognized and showed that it was the folks with wrong ideas, sinful occupations, and other shameful habits who needed to hear the message most of all.
Sometimes that class is called “unlikely candidates for conversion.” Yet John converted harlots (Matt. 21:31), Ananias baptized the church's harshest persecutor (Acts 22:12-16) and Paul numbered some of Caesar's household among his brethren (Phil. 4:22). When we start dismissing the unlikely candidates, we are licked before we even start. We are telling God that he will have to get by with one less sheep, because we don't like the logistical sacrifices or limited potential for success. We are telling God that we know the coin is behind the couch, but it is just going to have to stay there; after all, we still have nine left. (With that attitude, not for long.) We are telling God that the soul he created is too dirty for us to approach, what with all that wallowing in sin's mire.
John and Jesus proved that men and women of great faith can be among the unlikely candidates for conversion, diamonds in the rough waiting to be polished by the sword of the Spirit. We have seen converts who had to give up a bottle, an unnatural hairstyle, salty language and even an unscriptural spouse. And sometimes they become the most devout, for they are most grateful, having had the most guilt removed (Luke 7:36-50).
You have to give people a chance to reject the truth if you are ever going to find some to accept it.
Tucked between the toolbox and spare light bulbs on a shelf in the corner of a garage is a packet of wildflower seeds. Their owner received them a few years ago with the intention of sowing them in his flowerbed and watching them grow and reproduce.
Due in equal part to neglect, disinterest and old-fashioned laziness, he has never gotten around to planting those seeds. “Maybe next year” seems to be a frequent apology in their presence. Sometimes he cleans up the garage and comes upon that packet of seeds, which are then arranged more prominently with the intention of sowing them soon. There they wait but never get any closer to the soil.
You can visit his front yard today, but you won't see any bluebonnets there. He never sowed the seed, so the plant never had a chance to grow.
Therefore, hear the parable of the seeds on the shelf. The packet of seeds is the gospel message, the good news of a risen savior, which James called “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). That seed, when sown, has the power to change people's hearts, when those hearts are like good and receptive soil. The obstacles to hearty growth are many, but unless the seed is sown, it is certain nothing will grow.
The shelf is the tendency of too many Christians to neglect their duty before God to spread the gospel message. Opportunities abound when relatives complain of life's troubles, when neighbors complain about the world's moral decline, and when coworkers mention impending surgery or trouble at home. The seed could be sown by an offer to pray or by attributing moral decline to a lack of attention to the Bible, but the seed stays on the shelf. The could-be sower fears offending the soil with such a foreign object as the gospel seed and so he mutters some secular words of comfort instead. No one is hurt? No one is helped.
Indeed it is God who gives the increase, but he requires men to plant and water (1 Cor. 3:5-8). Are you sowing the seed of the kingdom, brother?