The lost sheep, a tax collector, and what might have happened

I pushed in closer to hear the teacher, Jesus. The gaze of the Pharisees burned on my back —those religious men who wouldn’t speak to me in the street and paraded around like kings in their fancy garments meting out their judgements. I didn’t speak their language, and they sure didn’t speak mine.

One of them said about Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The shame washed over me as the words found their mark—they thought little of people like me.

Though some called him Rabbi, Jesus seemed different from the other religious people. He told stories and spoke in ways I could understand. Wearing a simple garment, he didn’t set himself apart by the way he dressed.

But following him might be more difficult than I imagined—he’d just told us a person has to give up everything to be his disciple.

My fingers tightened around my money bag. All right I’d admit it, I’d taken a cut of the taxes. Did this Jesus know? A woman I'd met by the well said he could look right into a person’s heart.

The teacher lifted his hand as he spoke, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”

Before my tax collecting job, I worked as a shepherd for a while—too lonely and dirty for my taste. I knew I would have been in big trouble had I lost one of the flock. I knew about being lost, too, me being an orphan from an early age, never had a home to speak of. I've traveled from place to place, doing various jobs, finally stopping here as a tax collector--only to be despised. 

“Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

All the shepherds I knew would have.

“Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

Another sheep herder I knew once lost a sheep and was sure glad to find it in a thicket, because he wouldn’t have to report it to his boss. 

Jesus shifted his gaze before he spoke again. And now, he stared straight at me. I swallowed hard.

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Those eyes. He could see. He knew what I’d done. Not just taking the money, but all of it—the lies, the envy, the jealousy, and the bitterness that controlled me at times. And yet, love radiated from him, not condemnation, and it overwhelmed me with its power.

For a moment I stood unable to move, and then, I broke away, slipping back through the crowd, as fast as my sandals would carry me. The teacher continued to speak, words about a lost coin ringing out over those gathered. My chest grew tight as I tried to hold myself together. I needed someplace private to do what I needed to do. I kept walking, almost running to get beyond the crowd, and then I saw it, out of sight from everyone—an empty sheep pen, the perfect spot.

I was that sinner Jesus spoke about who needed to repent—the lost sheep—hated by most. I collapsed, my face to the ground, and cried out, “Oh God,  I have sinned against you and others, too. Please forgive me.” My tears made tracks mingling with the dust and dirt on my face, and the sound of my sobs rose in the air. I threw  my money bag, my pride, my self-will, and my hatred of those who looked down on me in that same dust. I decided somehow, and I didn’t know how, I’d try to make it right about what I’d taken.

It didn’t matter anymore that the religious people hated me, because this Jesus saw everything about me and yet His love, His presence changed everything.

From a distance, the words of Jesus echoed again, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

As if on cue, a shepherd with a flock of sheep arrived from the field to spend the night in the pen.

I couldn't help but think that like them, it was good to be under the shepherd's care.

(Luke 15:4-7 in quotes, the rest fiction, but maybe not.)