Here is, I. The diligent attendance of the publicans and sinners upon Christ’s ministry. Great multitudes of Jews went with him (Luke 14:25), with such an assurance of admission into the kingdom of God that he found it requisite to say that to them which would shake their vain hopes. Here multitudes of publicans and sinners drew near to him, with a humble modest fear of being rejected by him, and to them he found it requisite to give encouragement, especially because there were some haughty supercilious people that frowned upon them. The publicans, who collected the tribute paid to the Romans, were perhaps some of them bad men, but they were all industriously put into an ill name, because of the prejudices of the Jewish nation against their office. They are sometimes ranked with harlots (Matt. 21:32); here and elsewhere with sinners, such as were openly vicious, that traded with harlots, known rakes. Some think that the sinners here meant were heathen, and that Christ was now on the other side Jordan, or in Galilee of the Gentiles. These drew near, when perhaps the multitude of the Jews that had followed him had (upon his discourse in the close of the foregoing chapter) dropped off; thus afterwards the Gentiles took their turn in hearing the apostles, when the Jews had rejected them. They drew near to him, being afraid of drawing nearer than just to come within hearing. They drew near to him, not, as some did, to solicit for cures, but to hear his excellent doctrine. Note, in all our approaches to Christ we must have this in our eye, to hear him; to hear the instructions he gives us, and his answers to our prayers.
II. The offence which the scribes and Pharisees took at this. They murmured, and turned it to the reproach of our Lord Jesus: This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them, Luke 15:2. 1. They were angry that publicans and heathens had the means of grace allowed them, were called to repent, and encouraged to hope for pardon upon repentance; for they looked upon their case as desperate, and thought that none but Jews had the privilege of repenting and being pardoned, though the prophets preached repentance to the nations, and Daniel particularly to Nebuchadnezzar. 2. They thought it a disparagement to Christ, and inconsistent with the dignity of his character, to make himself familiar with such sort of people, to admit them into his company and to eat with them. They could not, for shame, condemn him for preaching to them, though that was the thing they were most enraged at; and therefore they reproached him for eating with them, which was more expressly contrary to the tradition of the elders. Censure will fall, not only upon the most innocent and the most excellent persons, but upon the most innocent and most excellent actions, and we must not think it strange.
III. Christ’s justifying himself in it, by showing that the worse these people were, to whom he preached, the more glory would redound to God, and the more joy there would be in heaven, if by his preaching they were brought to repentance. It would be a more pleasing sight in heaven to see Gentiles brought to the worship of the true God than to see Jews go on in it, and to see publicans and sinners live an orderly sort of life than to see scribes and Pharisees go on in living such a life. This he here illustrates by two parables, the explication of both of which is the same.
1. The parable of the lost sheep. Something like it we had in Matt. 18:12. There it was designed to show the care God takes for the preservation of saints, as a reason why we should not offend them; here it is designed to show the pleasure God takes in the conversion of sinners, as a reason why we should rejoice in it. We have here,
(1.) The case of a sinner that goes on in sinful ways. He is like a lost sheep, a sheep gone astray; he is lost to God, who has not the honour and service he should have from him; lost to the flock, which has not communion with him; lost to himself: he knows not where he is, wanders endlessly, is continually exposed to the beasts of prey, subject to frights and terrors, from under the shepherd’s care, and wanting the green pastures; and he cannot of himself find the way back to the fold.
(2.) The care the God of heaven takes of poor wandering sinners. He continues his care of the sheep that did not go astray; they are safe in the wilderness. But there is a particular care to be taken of this lost sheep; and though he has a hundred sheep, a considerable flock, yet he will not lose that one, but he goes after it, and shows abundance of care, [1.] In finding it out. He follows it, enquiring after it, and looking about for it, until he finds it. God follows backsliding sinners with the calls of his word and the strivings of his Spirit, until at length they are wrought upon to think of returning. [2.] In bringing it home. Though he finds it weary, and perhaps worried and worn away with its wanderings, and not able to bear being driven home, yet he does not leave it to perish, and say, It is not wroth carrying home; but lays it on his shoulders, and, with a great deal of tenderness and labour, brings it to the fold. This is very applicable to the great work of our redemption. Mankind were gone astray, Isa. 53:6. The value of the whole race to God was not so much as that of one sheep to him that had a hundred; what loss would it have been to God if they had all been left to perish? There is a world of holy angels that are as the ninety-nine sheep, a noble flock; yet God sends his Son to seek and save that which was lost, Luke 19:10. Christ is said to gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, denoting his pity and tenderness towards poor sinners; here he is said to bear them upon his shoulders, denoting the power wherewith he supports and bears them up; those can never perish whom he carries upon his shoulders.
(3.) The pleasure that God takes in repenting returning sinners. He lays it on his shoulders rejoicing that he has not lost his labour in seeking; and the joy is the greater because he began to be out of hope of finding it; and he calls his friends and neighbours, the shepherds that keep their flocks about him, saying, Rejoice with me. Perhaps among the pastoral songs which the shepherds used to sing there was one for such an occasion as this, of which these words might be the burden, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost; whereas they never sung, Rejoice with me, for I have lost none. Observe, he calls it his sheep, though a stray, a wandering sheep. He has a right to it (all souls are mine), and he will claim his own, and recover his right; therefore he looks after it himself: I have found it; he did not send a servant, but his own Son, the great and good Shepherd, who will find what he seeks, and will be found of those that seek him not.
2. The parable of the lost piece of silver. (1.) The loser is here supposed to be a woman, who will more passionately grieve for her loss, and rejoice in finding what she had lost, than perhaps a man would do, and therefore it the better serves the purpose of the parable. She has ten pieces of silver, and out of them loses only one. Let this keep up in us high thoughts of the divine goodness, notwithstanding the sinfulness and misery of the world of mankind, that there are nine to one, nay, in the foregoing parable there are ninety-nine to one, of God’s creation, that retain their integrity, in whom God is praised, and never was dishonoured. O the numberless beings, for aught we know numberless worlds of beings, that never were lost, nor stepped aside from the laws and ends of their creation! (2.) That which is lost is a piece of silver, drachmen—the fourth part of a shekel. The soul is silver, of intrinsic worth and value; not base metal, as iron or lead, but silver, the mines of which are royal mines. The Hebrew word for silver is taken from the desirableness of it. It is silver coin, for so the drachma was; it is stamped with God’s image and superscription, and therefore must be rendered to him. Yet it is comparatively but of small value; it was but seven pence half-penny; intimating that if sinful men be left to perish God would be no loser. This silver was lost in the dirt; a soul plunged in the world, and overwhelmed with the love of it and care about it, is like a piece of money in the dirt; any one would say, It is a thousand pities that it should lie there. (3.) Here is a great deal of care and pains taken in quest of it. The woman lights a candle, to look behind the door, under the table, and in every corner of the house, sweeps the house, and seeks diligently till she finds it. This represents the various means and methods God makes use of to bring lost souls home to himself: he has lighted the candle of the gospel, not to show himself the way to us, but to show us the way to him, to discover us to ourselves; he has swept the house by the convictions of the word; he seeks diligently, his heart is upon it, to bring lost souls to himself. (4.) Here is a great deal of joy for the finding of it: Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost, Luke 15:9. Those that rejoice desire that others should rejoice with them; those that are merry would have others merry with them. She was glad that she had found the piece of money, though she should spend it in entertaining those whom she called to make merry with her. The pleasing surprise of finding it put her, for the present, into a kind of transport, heureka, heureka—I have found, I have found, is the language of joy.
3. The explication of these two parables is to the same purport (Luke 15:7, 10): There is joy in heaven, joy in the presence of the angels of God, over one sinner that repenteth, as those publicans and sinners did, some of them at least (and, if but one of them did repent, Christ would reckon it worth his while), more than over a great number of just persons, who need no repentance. Observe,
(1.) The repentance and conversion of sinners on earth are matter of joy and rejoicing in heaven. It is possible that the greatest sinners may be brought to repentance. While there is life there is hope, and the worst are not to be despaired of; and the worst of sinners, if they repent and turn, shall find mercy. Yet this is not all, [1.] God will delight to show them mercy, will reckon their conversion a return for all the expense he has been at upon them. There is always joy in heaven. God rejoiceth in all his works, but particularly in the works of his grace. He rejoiceth to do good to penitent sinners, with his whole heart and his whole soul. He rejoiceth not only in the conversion of churches and nations, but even over one sinner that repenteth, though but one. [2.] The good angels will be glad that mercy is shown them, so far are they from repining at it, though those of their nature that sinned be left to perish, and no mercy shown to them; though those sinners that repent, that are so mean, and have been so vile, are, upon their repentance, to be taken into communion with them, and shortly to be made like them, and equal to them. The conversion of sinners is the joy of angels, and they gladly become ministering spirits to them for their good, upon their conversion. The redemption of mankind was matter of joy in the presence of the angels; for they sung, Glory to God in the highest, Luke 2:14.
(2.) There is more joy over one sinner that repenteth, and turneth to be religious from a course of life that had been notoriously vile and vicious, than there is over ninety-nine just persons, who need no repentance. [1.] More joy for the redemption and salvation of fallen man than for the preservation and confirmation of the angels that stand, and did indeed need no repentance. [2.] More joy for the conversion of the sinners of the Gentiles, and of those publicans that now heard Christ preach, than for all the praises and devotions, and all the God I thank thee, of the Pharisees, and the other self-justifying Jews, who though that they needed no repentance, and that therefore God should abundantly rejoice in them, and make his boast of them, as those that were most his honour; but Christ tells them that it was quite otherwise, that God was more praised in, and pleased with, the penitent broken heart of one of those despised, envied sinners, than all the long prayers which the scribes and Pharisees made, who could not see any thing amiss in themselves. Nay, [3.] More joy for the conversion of one such great sinner, such a Pharisee as Paul had been in his time, than for the regular conversion of one that had always conducted himself decently and well, and comparatively needs no repentance, needs not such a universal change of the life as those great sinners need. Not but that it is best not to go astray; but the grace of God, both in the power and the pity of that grace, is more manifested in the reducing of great sinners than in the conducting of those that never went astray. And many times those that have been great sinners before their conversion prove more eminently and zealously good after, of which Paul is an instance, and therefore in him God was greatly glorified, Gal. 1:24. They to whom much is forgiven will love much. It is spoken after the manner of men. We are moved with a more sensible joy for the recovery of what we had lost than for the continuance of what we had always enjoyed, for health out of sickness than for health without sickness. It is as life from the dead. A constant course of religion may in itself be more valuable, and yet a sudden return from an evil course and way of sin may yield a more surprising pleasure. Now if there is such joy in heaven, for the conversion of sinners, then the Pharisees were very much strangers to a heavenly spirit, who did all they could to hinder it and were grieved at it, and who were exasperated at Christ when he was doing a piece of work that was of all others most grateful to Heaven.