Once Jesus is confronted by some Pharisees over the fact that he dines with some unsavory characters. This results in Jesus telling parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin. These parables say something important about the nature of God and how to respond to others.
For their part, the Pharisees are all about keeping themselves pure. They donít only have the Ten Commandments with which many of us are familiar, but they have hundreds of laws that act as a kind of hedge around the core commandments.
While this might be well and good for the Pharisees, it is not for the average person trying to make a living in the rough and tumble world of ancient Palestine. Such people find it impossible to maintain this rigorous personal piety. The Pharisees believe it is incumbent upon them to avoid contact with such people in order to avoid moral and ritual contamination. Thus they are scandalized by Jesusí questionable dinner partners.
In response to his opponents, Jesus confronts them with two parables featuring examples of two classes of people they consider offensive: shepherds and women. The first parable is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep and leaves the 99 to find just one who is lost, and the other is about a widow who has 10 coins and searches the whole house to find just one that is lost.
In teaching these parables, Jesus reveals a God different to that of the Pharisees. God does not stand aloof and demand people be pure enough to have a relationship with him. Jesus reveals a God who loves every human being as his special creation and who seeks relationship with each one. Someone whom others might consider a black sheep is to God a dear lamb. Someone whom others might consider a bad penny is to God a valuable coin. This truth about Godís nature is seen in Jesus, who dines with sinners and who spreads his arms on the cross in the ultimate act of sacrificial love to embrace the world; including its black sheep and bad pennies.
Therefore, the Pharisees have it all wrong. Their extreme piety isnít a reflection of what God is like. Jesusí fellowship with people the Pharisees consider offensive is a reflection of what God is like. Jesus is God in the flesh embracing a lost humanity; touching that humanity with his divinity to redeem it. The pure, in this case, touches the impure and makes it pure. This is a stark contrast to the Pharisees who are concerned about avoiding contact with the impure so as not to be rendered themselves impure. Their logic leaves them concluding Jesus is made a sinner by his contact with sinners. They miss the point about who Jesus is and what he reveals about God.
For those who follow Jesus today, there is an obvious conclusion to draw. We are not called by Jesus to form a cult of the pure that avoids all contact with others deemed impure. We are called to imitate the Good Shepherd in putting lost lambs on our shoulders and carrying them home.
Deacon Scott Watford is pastoral associate at St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church.