Then drew near to him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.…
The heathen philosopher Seneca made a practice of dining with his slaves, and when challenged for an innovation so directly in the teeth of all customary proprieties and so offensive to the Roman mind, he defended himself by saying that he dined with some because they were worthy of his esteem, and with others that they might become so. The action and its defence was alike admirable, and read a salutary lesson to the aristocrats of Rome. But it was even a greater shock to the Pharisees, and if possible even more unaccountable, that Jesus should prefer the society of notorious sinners to their own irreproachable manners and decorous conversation. They could not understand why a teacher of holy life, instead of frowning upon the notoriously profligate, should show a preference for their society. Our Lord's explanation is ample and thorough. He devotes, therefore, the three parables recorded in this chapter to this purpose. It is perhaps worth remarking that on one point He felt that no explanation was required. Even the Pharisees did not suspect Him of any sympathy with sin. These critics of His conduct had not failed to remark that in His presence the daring profanity and audacious license of wicked men were tamed. Those who so narrowly criticized our Lord's conduct might have seen its reasonableness had they been able to look at it from another point of view. With equal surprise they might have exclaimed: "Sinners receive this Man and eat with Him." These dissolute and lawless characters could themselves have explained the change. They were attracted to Jesus, because together with unmistakable sanctity, and even somehow appearing as the chief feature of His sanctity, there was an understanding of the sinner's position and a hopefulness about him which threw a hitherto unknown spell over them. Separate from sinners, as they had never before felt any one to be, He seemed to come closer to their heart by far than any other had come. He had a heart open to all their troubles. He saw them through and through, and yet showed no loathing, no scorn, no astonishment, no perplexity, no weariness. Instead of meeting them with upbraiding and showing them all they had lost, He gave them immediate entrance into His own pure, deep, efficient love, and gladdened their hearts with a sense of what they yet had in Him. Therefore men whose seared conscience felt no other touch, who had a ready scoff for every other form of holiness, admitted this new power and yielded to it. The contrast between this new attitude of a holy person towards the sinner and that to which men had commonly been accustomed has been finely described in the following words: "He who thought most seriously of the disease held it to be curable; while those who thought less seriously of it pronounced it incurable. Those who loved their race a little made war to the knife against its enemies and oppressors; lie who loved it so much as to die for it made overtures of peace to them. The half-just judge punished the convicted criminal; the thoroughly just judge offered him forgiveness. Perfect justice here appears to take the very course which would be taken by injustice." It is this, then, that calls for explanation. And it is explained by our Lord in three parables, each of which illustrates the fact that a more active interest in any possession is arroused by the very circumstance that it is lost.
I. The first point, then, suggested by these parables is THAT GOD SUFFERS LOSS IN EVERY SINNER THAT DEPARTS FROM HIM. This was what the Pharisees had wholly left out of account, that God loves men and mourns over every ill that befalls them. And this is what we find it so hard to believe.
II. Secondly, these parables suggest THAT THE VERY FACT OF OUR BEING LOST EXCITES ACTION OF A SPECIALLY TENDER KIND TOWARD US. God does not console Himself for our loss by the fellowship of those who have constantly loved Him. He does not call new creatures into being, and so fill up the blank we have made by straying from Him. He is not a Sovereign who has no personal knowledge of His subjects, nor an employer of labour who can always get a fresh hand to fill an emptied post: He is rather a Shepherd who knows His sheep one by one, a Father who loves His children individually. He would rather restore the most abandoned sinner than blot him from his place to substitute an archangel. Love is personal and settles upon individuals. It is not all the same to God if some other person is saved while you are not. These parables thus bring us face to face with the most significant and fertile of all realities — God's love for us. This love encompasses you whether you will or no. Love cannot remain indifferent or quiescent. Interference of a direct and special kind becomes necessary. The normal relations being disturbed, and man becoming helpless by the disturbance, it falls to God to restore matters. A new set of ideas and dealings are brought into play. So long as things go smoothly and men by nature love God and seek to do His will, there is no anxiety, no meeting of emergencies by unexpected effort, hidden resources, costly sacrifice. But when sin brings into view all that is tragic, and when utter destruction seems to be man's appointed destiny, there is called into exercise the deepest tenderness, the utmost power of the Divine nature. Here where the profoundest feeling of God is concerned, where His connection with His own children is threatened, Divinity is stirred to its utmost. This appears, among other things, in the spontaneity and persistence of the search God institutes for the lost.
III. The third point illustrated by these parables is THE EXCEEDING JOY CONSEQUENT ON THE RESTORATION OF THE SINNER. "Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance." The joy is greater, because the effort to bring it about has been greater, and because for a time the result has been in suspense, so that when the end is attained there is a sense of clear gain. The joy of success is proportioned to the difficulty, the doubtfulness of attaining it. All the hazards and sacrifices of the search are repaid by the recovery of the lost. The value of the unfallen soul may intrinsically be greater than the value of the redeemed; but the joy is proportioned, not to the value of the article, but to the amount of anxiety that has been spent upon it.
(M. Dods, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.