By Mark Buetow
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:10-14)
Just as the shepherd goes into the wilderness looking for that lost sheep, so Jesus comes to save sinners. But He’s not here to save those who aren’t sinners. He’s only looking for sinners. After all, those who aren’t sinners don’t need a Savior. Jesus comes for the lost sheep of sinners and heaven rejoices over that one repentant sinner more than the 99 who need no repentance.
Wait a second! Aren’t all people sinners? Well, the Bible says so, but people don’t think so. Those who are sinners are those who know that they don’t fear, love, and trust in God as they should. Those who are sinners know that they despise their neighbor and are always trying to put themselves first. Those who are sinners recognize and believe that they’ve got nothing coming except the wrath and punishment of God because of their sins UNLESS God is merciful to them.
On the other hand, those who have no need of repentance are those who don’t think they’re such bad people. Those who have no need of repentance are pretty sure they’ve got God all figured out and that they’re pretty good and doing what He says. Those who have no need of repentance are those who look around and do good works to impress others with how holy they are and are quick to condemn those who aren’t as holy as they are. Those who have no need of repentance are those who don’t really believe that their sins are really bad enough that the Son of God has to die for them. They’ll be on their own on the Last Day.
Notice how so often, those who are sinners crowded around Jesus to hear Him and His Word. Those who have no need of repentance complained that Jesus receives and eats with such people. In one of the other Gospels, the Pharisees pointed out this same thing, that Jesus eats with sinners. His reply: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31). When the sinners come to Jesus, what does He tell them? “Eww, gross! Sinners! Get away from Me, you sinners!” No, that’s why He came. To save sinners. To call them to repentance.
And what is repentance? Repentance means doing a 180. It means that the Spirit, by the preaching of the Word, turns you away from your sins to faith and trust in Christ. Repentance is ALL the Lord’s work. You can’t repent on your own. You can’t decide to turn away from your sins. Rather, Christ Himself calls you away from your sins by His Word and Sacraments. What does the sheep do? He wanders away. It takes the shepherd to find that sheep. Just so, it is the Lord who must come to us in our sins and die for them on the Cross.
It is the Lord who must come to us through the water and Word of the font. It is Christ who seeks us out by the preaching of the Gospel and the speaking of Holy Absolution. It is Christ who draws us to Him to eat and drink His Body and Blood. These things are His Gifts for sinners. Those who have no need of repentance have no need to be baptized or absolved or fed with Jesus’ Body and Blood. They might as well stay away. But you, sinners, if you have nothing going for you but Jesus, do like those tax collectors and sinners: Come to hear Jesus. Live in your Baptism and feast at His Supper. That’s what Jesus has for sinners.
And this teaches us what this parable is NOT about. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is NOT about us, who go to church and those who stop coming to church and we don’t know what happened to them so the pastor has to go figure out where they went. I’ll tell you where they went. They stopped being sinners. At some point, those who leave the church behind have come to the realization that they’re pretty good people and they don’t need what Jesus has for them. They have no need of repentance. Oh, some might claim they don’t come because they feel TOO sinful. But that’s just talking in the opposite direction. That’s just saying their sins can be bigger than Jesus. And you can’t think that unless you really aren’t concerned about your sins ultimately.
If you don’t have need of repentance; if you think you’ve got God all figured out; if you’re convinced you’re not perfect but you try hard; if you think your good works are really so good and you’re better, at least, than most other people; if you think God must be happy that such a person like you goes to church; then repent! Weep and despair of yourself! Or at least recognize that Jesus didn’t come to help you because you must not need any help. And good luck with fending for yourself on the Last Day!
But if you are a sinner, then rejoice! If you are one who doesn’t love God as He commands, who doesn’t love your neighbor like you should; if you are one who has nothing going for you with which to persuade God how great you are; if you know that your life and sins deserve nothing from God but His eternal wrath and condemnation, then rejoice! Rejoice because it is for such sinners that Jesus has come into this world. It is for YOU that Jesus has given His life and rescued you by His Word and Sacraments. With such a Shepherd as that, it’s a good day to be a sinner! Amen.
Rev. Mark Buetow is the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church and School in McHenry, IL.
This article was originally published on the Higher Things website in June 2008.