Luke 15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance [ESV].
So which are you? The 1% or the 99%?
This text fools us much of the time. In the Church, we see this text applied often in the direction of those who leave a church or fall into lackadaisical reception of Christ’s gifts, or no reception of them at all. THEY are the wanderers. THEY are the 1%. This implies that WE are not. We must be the 99%. And that’s good. Or so we reckon.
The reason this is deceptive is because it causes us to miss what Jesus is really saying about the 99% AND, in the process, it causes us to miss where we are in this picture. By verse 7, Jesus has let us in on the 99 sheep as those who “need no repentance.” This is not a complimentary statement. It raises the question of who is who in the zoo. The 99% are not the faithful. They just think they are. What we conclude about being the 99% does not jive at all with what Jesus says about them.
Context is determinitive of meaning and in the broader context of the entire Gospel of Luke–as well as the narrower context of just Luke 15–the shepherd who goes after the one sheep begs a proper understanding of who that one sheep is. First we consider the broader context.
All through his Gospel, Luke makes the case for the salvation of the outsider. Implied in this term is the Gentile, who has no connection to Israel and its worship and history. But even more powerfully, especially in the run up to chapter 15, the “outsider” is to be seen as “outcast.” In Jesus’ society, these are the ones who the Pharisees continually refer to as “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the demon-possessed, inter alia). If one comes to Luke 15 having read the Gospel straight through, the theme of Jesus scolding the “good people” of His day (namely, Pharisees, Scribes, and Jews with no disability that limits them) for not paying attention to the outcasts has been heard many times. In Luke 7, for instance, Jesus heals the slave of a Gentile centurion, repeats Elijah’s miracle of the raising of a widow’s son (the original miracle was done in Gentile country), and in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus is anointed by a woman who is likely a prostitute. The lesson Jesus gives to Simon the Pharisee is that He has been received more by the woman than by him. Jesus’ salvation is for those who need it. It is not for those who do not. The Pharisees continually assert that they do not need salvation as they believe they have had it all their lives. Indeed, they believe they have earned it or see it as some sort of birthright.
In Luke 15:1, the stage is set for three “parables” to hammer this point home. A crowd of two different constituencies comes together in verse 1: The tax collectors and “sinners” and the Scribes and Pharisees. Many commentators see this chapter as the theological center of the Gospel and by all estimations they are right. The action begins with the complaint of the Pharisees that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” Thus the table is set for Jesus to teach.
In the first analogy, Jesus teaches of a shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep in order to reclaim the 1 lost sheep. The angels in heaven rejoice over this one’s return.
In the second analogy, a woman sweeps a room looking for 1 lost coin out of ten. After finding it she alerts the neighborhood so they can join her in her rejoicing.
In the third, a son puts a death wish on his father, takes the inheritance, wastes it away, and returns in humiliation seeking his father’s mercy…and gets it. By contrast, the “faithful son” who never left the Father is seething in rage over his brother’s restoration.
The key is in the first analogy when Jesus refers to the 99 as not being included in the angels’ rejoicing because they “need[ed] no repentance.” So it is with the other brother, he too did not get a party from the father because he thought he was doing the father a favor.
The Pharisees and Scribes are angry with Jesus because He receives sinners and eats with them. The 99 sheep do not get the celestial celebration that the one lost sheep gets. The other brother cannot understand how the Father can kill the fattened calf for that ingrate brother of his who ran off and came back with his tail between his legs.
So which are you? The 1% or the 99%?
We do wrong to think that the 99% is the Church, the “choir.” These parables show us the difference not between faith and unbelief, but rather between true faith and false faith. True faith is demonstrated in repentance (turning around, sorrow over sin) and facing the Father again. False faith is the belief that we are the good people who would never wander off from God in the first place. True faith is demonstrated in the return of the one sheep. False faith is demonstrated in the self-righteous judgmentalism of the 99%.
Our “righteous” concern over all who have wandered away presumes our “righteousness” over against their lack of it. This is the error. The Pharisees were not righteous. They were self-righteous. Jesus rather cleverly uses the term “righteous” for the Pharisees all the time. If they want to live by the term, Jesus must figure, they can hang by it too. The term only means “self-righteous” when Jesus uses it of the Pharisees.
On Sundays, after the entrance hymn, we confess our sins. If we were the 99%, this would seem like a strange thing to do. After all, the other brother makes no apologies for his anger over the party for his ingrate brother. He has not sinned. But what we are saying at the outset of the Divine Service on Sunday is that we are not part of the 99%. We are the 1%, the ones who have wandered away, the ones who need the shepherd’s crook of the Word to draw us back. We have made a mess of our lives and we return to the Father, heads hung low, because perhaps He will have mercy on us.
Upon our confession, we are forgiven and the feast begins! Of course, if the Gospel is for all those other sinners who really need to hear it, then we are saying we need no party thrown for us. We always had it right.
But that’s not how it works in Luke 15, is it?
Be a sinner and sin boldly, but trust even more boldly in the grace of God in Christ Jesus.–Luther.
Waste no time denying your sins.–Luther
Better to be the 1% than the 99%. The party is for you.