I always felt it might be a little economically foolish to leave 99% of your investments to go off in search of 1%. And yet, Jesus does just that. And in some ways, when there is one missing thing, we can obsess over it. Think of getting a 99 on a test. Isn’t it the case that a lot of time is spent thinking about the one wrong answer, and not the 99 we got right? For the sheep, the 99 were in the presence of the shepherd. They did not need to be found, because they were already. The story is quite different if we think of it from the point of view of the lost. When we are the one who strays from Jesus, we are very grateful that he always seeks us out.
The prayer of the Pharisee in the parable told by Jesus is interesting. First, he prays to himself. Think about that phrase for a moment. The Pharisee may address God, but the gospel starts by saying the Pharisee prays to himself. Second, the Pharisee is the best in his own mind. Listen how often his prayer has the word “I” in it. And rather than seeking the grace of God and his mercy and forgiveness, upon which we all rely, he does just the opposite. He makes it a point to tell God how wonderful his is and how awful everyone else is. The one who goes home saved is the publican, the tax collector in the back who knows who he is. A sinner. One in need of God’s mercy. One who knows that even though he does not deserve God’s mercy, he can receive it if he asks with humility. What about you? Do you pray to God, or do you pray to yourself?
This is a great gospel. Some version of this story is in all four gospels. It had to be quite a scene when Simon, who was expecting a dinner with a mover and shaker named Jesus found him big moment interrupted by this sinful woman. And what a scene she created! Without knowing her, or perhaps because he knew her in the biblical sense, Simon was mortified by her presence. But Simon learned a very important lesson about the spiritual life. Even though the woman was sinful, she loved more. And when she approached Jesus in love to seek forgiveness, he forgave her great sin. While love does not give us permission to sin, it does allow us to receive great forgiveness when we turn to Jesus in contrition.
I remember the first time I really heard today’s gospel. It was September 12, 2001. When I read the words of today’s gospel, the hair on my neck stood up. After the horrific events of September 11, I heard the words of Jesus in a way that cut me to the heart. ” “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” And just when I thought I had been rattled enough, Jesus continues. “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” And I realized on that day that it was too simple to think that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He did. In fact, he died for our sins. I know that I cannot live these words on my own. But I can try to be open to his grace. I can seek forgiveness. And I can seek a deeper relationship with him that even makes these hard words possible.