The Pharisees and scribes were enjoying their time with Jesus until the tax collectors and sinners started joining the crowd to listen to Jesus. In fact, the gospel story says the tax collectors and sinners were "drawing near" and that made the Pharisees and scribes very uncomfortable. Jesus should know better than to associate with or to have meals with tax collectors and known sinners. When they complained, Jesus told them three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (not included in today’s reading). Each of the parables is a story about God’s attitude toward sinners, which was in opposition to the attitude of the religious leaders.
It’s a matter of motivation. The Pharisees and scribes were looking out for themselves. They didn’t want to be contaminated by sinners. They looked upon sinners as non-people to be ignored and rejected. But Jesus tells us God is very willing to be with sinners; in fact, that is why God sent his only Son in the world. Jesus thought of the other person, the one who was lost and needed help. The sinner doesn’t need to be rejected, but included with compassion, understanding and forgiveness.
With these parables Jesus is teaching the religious leaders that God loves and searches for lost and sinful people. These tax collectors and sinners were of infinite value to God. Jesus understood this and that is why he reached out to sinners. In fact, Jesus said: "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
It’s exciting and reassuring to know that our God’s circle of love is infinitely large and embraces saint and sinner. To believe this is critical when I know myself to be a sinner! I’m not rejected, but valued, searched for and invited back into the Kingdom.
The parables challenge us to enlarge our circle of love.
Fr. Don Webber, C.P., is Provincial Superior of Holy Cross Province and resides in Chicago at Immaculate Conception Monastery.