- What was it about the “tax collectors and sinners” that caused such angst among the Pharisees, but who were the object of much of Jesus’ ministry?
Luke 15 presents an interesting confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus. Since the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spent the most time with those who were outside of the accepted realms of religious life. The Pharisees and scribes were obsessed with ritual purity. Whether it was ritual washing (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38) or being around people of “unclean lifestyles” (John 8:1-11), the Pharisees took extreme measures to remain ritually and religiously clean. Thus, when Jesus’ ministry concentrated on those they deemed unclean, they were repulsed by his placing value on those who were considered society’s refuse. The Pharisees called such folks “People of the Land.” Barclay’s commentary quotes the Pharisaic regulations:
“When a man is one of the People of the Land, entrust no money to him, take no testimony from him, trust him with no secret, do not appoint him guardian of an orphan, do not make him custodian of charitable funds, do not accompany him on a journey.”
But Jesus, through the next three parables, demonstrated that those who were People of the Land were those whom the Father valued. They were lost and in need of finding. According to Jesus, they were not only lost, but they were worthy of a thorough search. God loves those whom the Pharisees would cast out. Bringing the lost back into fellowship was not only the Father’s mission through Jesus but something that should bring rejoicing and celebration.
- What is the significance of rejoicing over found items in relation to sinners being found by God?
Jesus marked the end of his three parables in Luke 15 with episodes of rejoicing. Both the lost sheep and the lost coin caused the protagonists in the story to invite others into rejoicing over their recovery. In both cases, Jesus added spiritual commentary to reflect the eternal significance of sinners coming to faith:
“‘I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance.'” (15:7 emphasis mine)
“‘I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.” (15:10 emphasis mine)
This heavenly joy elevates the celebration beyond human happiness, but to eternal significance. This joy contrasts with the Pharisaical attitudes which came into fullness in the parable of the lost son. When the lost son returned home (sinner returns to God) the father (God) ran out to meet him. The cultural understanding of a father running out to meet the son is significant. In Jesus’ culture, father disgraced by his son would not run out to greet him. It would be unusual (if not scandalous) for a father to run out and greet a son who had disgraced him. But Jesus turned the expectations of his audience upside down. The father passionately greeted the lost son. A grand celebration erupted for the son’s (sinner’s) return. But the older brother (Pharisees) could not bring himself to partake of the celebration because of his preconceived notions of moral purity and because of his jealousy. As Jesus told through the older brother:
“‘(The older brother) replied to his father, “Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders…”‘ (15:29a) – obeying the moral law and following all of the rules.
“‘”…yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends.”‘” (15:29b) – jealousy.
However, like the lost sheep, and like the lost coin, the father (God) explained that they had to celebrate because a child of supreme value was once dead (lost) but now alive (found).
I love to read testimonies. Nothing inspires my heart more than to hear stories of folks who have come to faith. The website I Am Second provides many videos of people, famous and ordinary, who have gone through the hardness that life has to offer and have come to faith in Jesus. Watching videos and reading about those who have come to faith remind me how much God loves those reconciled to Him through Christ. One of my passions is prison ministry. In prison, the inmates represent “People of the Land” to a lot of folks in the church. These guys are the lowest of the low. Most of them are in prison for very good reasons. Surrounded by murders, thieves, and rapists (modern-day sinners and tax collectors) I sense the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts. One of the most profound moments in that ministry was when, during a foot washing ceremony, an elderly inmate, in prison for decades serving a life sentence for murder, joined me in washing the feet of other inmates who had just come to faith. Tears were streaming down our faces as we showed humility and love towards those whom society had thrown away.
The three parables in Luke 15 show us that the Gospel is not just for those who do the right thing and believe the right way. The Gospel is for all mankind, regardless of station in society or life. It takes the act of searching out the lost to bring those whom He loves back home. When they do come home, it is a time for celebration. God gives us as believers the ability to be searchers. As searchers, God gives us a specific ministry and calling. Sometimes we are to search out those who have been abandoned by society – the homeless, the addicted, the abused. Sometimes we are called to search out those whom our culture sees as successful – the celebrity, the businessman, the athlete. When reaching out the lost, then the Holy Spirit does His work to bring them, through our testimony and the Gospel, to faith. Whatever our ministry, the Gospel is there for the lost to be found and for the dead to come alive.
 The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible Series. — Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 199.
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. Vol. 10. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006-©2012), 255.