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Thought for the week - 11 September

But the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

When we look at the gospel stories and ask what it was that the leaders of the Jewish people, and particularly the Pharisees, objected to about Jesus, there are various things that spring to mind. One obvious thing is Jesus' attitude to the Sabbath day and to the Jewish Law. Jesus was particularly criticized for his attitude to the Sabbath day; and on numerous occasions the Pharisees are outraged because he healed people on the sabbath day. Indeed, did not Jesus say that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. It was almost as though he put himself above the sabbath. And then there was his attitude towards the Jewish law. Again it seemed to the Pharisees that he claimed a higher authority for himself than the law. "You have heard it ... but say I unto you."

Another charge that they brought against Jesus was that of blasphemy. That he put himself on a level with God. The very fact that he healed people was seen by his critics as a sign of his blasphemous nature.

The other offence which Jesus guilty was in his attitude to sinners. "This fellow", they said, welcomes sinners and eats with them." There are several other episodes in the gospels in which Jesus is criticized for mixing with sinners. But who were these sinners? They were those people whose way of life or profession excluded them from the privileged position which all law-abiding Jews claimed to possess in God's kingdom. They were people like the despised tax-collectors, Matthew and Zachaeus. They were the woman taken in adultery. They were the hated Samaritans. They were all those who were seen to be failing in keeping God's law. In fact they were those who were not religiously observant, and that included the poor of the land.

No wonder the Pharisees were shocked by Jesus' behaviour. No truly religious leader would consort with such people. And so the Pharisees sought to undermine his claim to be a religious leader. It was clearly expected of Jesus, as the leader of a new religious movement, to be as careful about the company he kept , as the exclusive fellowship of the Pharisees.

Now, to be fair to the Pharisees or to any of the Jewish religious leaders, it wasn't that they believed sinners could not repent and be forgiven. On the contrary they took it for granted that a truly penitent person was accepted by God, and they made no objection to welcoming a "sinner" if he was genuinely repentant. But the initiative had to come from the sinner - he must actively seek out God's forgiveness. And there is a sense in which we also believe this.

But Jesus switches the focus or emphasis, by placing the initiative with God who actively seeks out the sinner. And he tells a number of parables or stories to emphasise the point. The good Shepherd if he loses one of his hundred sheep leaves the ninety nine and goes out to seek for the one that is lost. He doesn't wait for it to find its own way back. He doesn't accept that it is lost to him for ever. He searches for it until he finds it. And when he finds it he joyfully carries it on his shoulders and takes it home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him. "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep." Then Jesus hammers home the point: "I tell you that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."

The second story makes the same point. A woman loses one of her 10 coins. She can probably ill-afford to lose it and so she makes a light and diligently sweeps the room until she finds it. That lost coin is precious to her. When she finds the coin, like the shepherd, she calls her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her: "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin." And again Jesus hammers home his point: "In the same way I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." The cycle of stories is completed by the parable of the prodigal son. The story ends with the words of the Father addressed to the older, resentful brother: "My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

These parables illustrate Jesus teaching on forgiveness. But it is not just by his words that Jesus illustrated his point. He does it in his own person. "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Jesus dispute with the Pharisees is not that he is offering forgiveness without penitence - note the words "I tell you there is more rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." His criticism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law is that, good men though they undoubtedly are, they are an exclusive fellowship who pride themselves on their observance of the law. Jesus is equally observant and rejoices in God's law. But he sees quite clearly that his task is not to convert the converted. He is come not to call the righteous but the unrighteous to repentance; and that he can only do by actively seeking them out, as the shepherd seeks the lost sheep and the woman the lost coin.

I suppose there is a message here somewhere for those of us who think ourselves righteous in comparison with others. But the example of Jesus surely must lead us to see that our contempt and disgust of the outcast and sinner will never bring them to repentance. Nor will forming ourselves into a tight exclusive group, as some Christians do, serve to proclaim that good news that there is indeed joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety nine who need no repentance. Yet even in these words there is an irony. For how many of us would want to count ourselves one of the ninety and nine. Wasn't that the real sin of the Pharisees, that they counted themselves righteous; when the fact is that we are all in need of repentance and forgiveness. Of course we are. But then the good news that the Church exists to proclaim is that forgiveness is readily available to those who seek it and that there will be rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.


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