Today, we have another story where Jesus has a confrontation with the religious readers of Israel. They are grumbling about his companions, whom the leaders define as sinners. It’s important to recognize that in Jesus’ time, people believed it was possible to not be a sinner. If they obeyed the commandments of the Torah and the oral rules they were righteous in God’s eyes. The tax collectors, prostitutes, and others were called sinners because they were not obeying the commandments.
In this confrontation, Jesus tells the Pharisees three parables in which someone goes looking for something missing. The first parable is about a shepherd who discovers that one of his young sheep is missing. The shepherd wants so badly to find the missing sheep that he leaves the 99 to chance and hunts until he finds the missing one and returns it to the flock. Then, when he has returned, he gathers his friends and invites them to celebrate with him.
The second parable is about a woman who has lost one of her ten coins. The silver coins are probably denarii, each worth a day’s wage, so this is a significant loss. The woman lights a lamp and looks in the darkest corners of her house, wherever a coin might have rolled. When she finds this coin, she also gathers her friends and celebrates.
The third parable, which we read during Lent, is the story of the runaway son and his father and his brother. The father never stops watching for him to return. When he finally returns, hungry, dirty, filled with shame, the father gives him lavish gifts and throws a party for the whole household. Most of the people are happy the younger son has returned, but the elder son is not pleased.
As the Pharisees hear the stories, they agree that God is pleased when sinful or missing children return to God’s flock. All of God’s children should join in celebrating with God the wonderful news. But, when it comes to the third story, the elder son refuses to share in the joy.
Do the Pharisees and scribes realize that this parable is aimed at them and at their refusal to welcome and accept all people? Probably, but like the elder son, they cross their arms and refuse to be happy, and in the end they use their political power to get rid of Jesus.
The story is also aimed at those who have been labeled sinners by the righteous. Jesus wants the tax collectors and all the other sinners to know that they are God’s beloved children, too. He demonstrates this love and acceptance by eating with them, even though righteous people are not supposed to associate with sinful people.
A different way to look at these three parables is too notice that the numbers are complete or incomplete. Ninety-nine sheep is not 100. Nine is not 10. In order for the flock to be complete, the 100th sheep must be found and returned to its place. The 10th coin must be found, so the woman could rejoice. The missing son left a hole in the family, making it incomplete as well.
Jesus is saying that no one should be excluded from the faith community. He is adamant that all people are welcome and until all the people who are supposed to be present are actually here, the community is incomplete.
As we work with Jesus to grow this congregation in faith and in numbers, it may help us to look at ourselves and ask, “Who is missing from the community?” Hope’s demographics describe a mostly white, mostly older, mostly middle-class congregation. We are missing some younger families, who can learn to be leaders and disciples among us, and to remind us what it means to balance faith, family, and work. We are missing some people of color, to enrich our understanding of the world, and to partner with us in ministry. We are missing teenagers, to keep us honest, and to learn from us how to have faith in a challenging world. We are missing some very wealthy families, to share generously of their wealth. And we are missing some poorer families, to remind us that life’s meaning is not found by possessing a lot of stuff. Rather, it is found in rich relationships with other people and with God.
What would it mean to welcome them here? How would their presence make us more complete? How would they be changed by our welcome? How would we be changed by their coming to serve with us? How would Jesus feel, to see us intentionally opening our doors, our arms, and our hearts to those who have not felt welcome in other places?
Please pray with me: Jesus, you ate with Pharisees and with sinners, and invited all to have a relationship with you. Help us to reach out to the people in our community, and to welcome them with open arms, open minds, and open hearts. Amen