There has to be three interpretations to these parables. Because of the pronoun “them” in Verse 3, who is Jesus speaking to: 1) the tax collectors and sinners, 2) the Pharisees and the scribes, or 3) all of them? There is a lesson to be learned if we say that all of the above is correct. Before we get to the parables, let’s begin with the first two verses.
St. Ambrose tells us: “You had learnt by what went before (previously in Chapter 14) not to prefer transitory things to eternal. But because the frailty of man cannot keep a firm step in so slippery a world, the good Physician has shown you a remedy even after falling; the merciful Judge has not denied the hope of pardon; hence it is added, The drew near to him all the [tax collectors and sinners].” Veneral Theophylact reminds us: “For this was His [habit] whereof He had taken upon Him the flesh, to receive sinners as the physician those that are sick.” We should also pay attention to the words “were all drawing near.” The tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus. These are people in sin, in need of repentance. Today, many people want to “draw near” to Jesus in their minds. They want to be the Judge that they are drawing near, but they are not the Judge. Just because we “think” something or “believe” something does not make it necessarily true. When we are in sin and need of repentance, the only certain way to know that we are drawing near to Jesus is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The priest sits in the Office of Christ; therefore, we are approaching Jesus, not a man.
The Pharisees. I do not like to attack the Pharisees because many times I see myself doing and thinking exactly as they do. I do not believe that Jesus is putting them down but, in love, is trying to lift them up, trying to get them to repent. This is the “tough love” we see that Jesus was referring to when He was saying that His disciples must “hate” their fathers, mothers, wives, etc. St. Gregory makes a good point: “…True justice feels compassion; false justice, scorn—although the just [should be in the practice] rightly to repel sinners. But there is one act proceeding from the swelling of pride, another from the zeal for discipline. For the just, though [outside] they spare not rebukes for the sake of discipline, within [they] cherish sweetness from charity. In their own minds, [they set those they correct above themselves], whereby they keep both them under by discipline, and themselves by humility.” This is what Jesus is doing. The saint continues: “But, on the contrary, they who from false justice are [accustomed] to pride themselves, despise all others, and never in mercy condescend to the weak; and thinking themselves not to be sinners, are so much the worse sinners. Of such were the Pharisees…” And, frankly, this applies to me oftentimes, which is one reason why I say I am like the Pharisees. Now, we turn to the parables.
Let me go back first, and answer the question: Why would Jesus be only speaking to the tax collectors and sinners, or why would He only be speaking to the Pharisees when the tax collectors and sinners were, perhaps, closer to Him? If by “drawing near” the evangelist is referring to proximity, it is possible that the Pharisees and scribes were in a group separate from them but were listening in, listening to what Jesus had to say, in order to persecute Him. It is possible then that Jesus was speaking only to the tax collectors and sinners. On the other hand, Jesus could be rebuking the Pharisees, while the rebuke would be a warning to the others to be watchful and not become like the Pharisees. Each scenario that we discuss will be beneficial to us.
Sts. Gregory and Cyril tell us that one hundred is a perfect number, referring to the sum of angels and men, the rational creatures, and that, “out of these, one has wandered, namely, the race of man which inhabits earth” (St. Cyril). In this scenario, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine that are already in the Kingdom and goes to rescue the one that is lost. St. Gregory says: “He placed the sheep upon His shoulders, for taking man’s nature up Him, He bore our sins. But having found the sheep, He returns home; for our Shepherd having restored man, returns to His heavenly kingdom. In this scenario, Jesus could be speaking to both groups, that they all be brought to repentance; or He could just be speaking to the tax collectors and sinners, knowing the hardness of the unrepentant hearts of the Pharisees and scribes.
On the other hand, we have the Pharisees and scribes murmuring, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” This murmuring is within the hearing of Jesus and the tax collectors and sinners; therefore, Jesus is going to rebuke them, desiring that this also be a lesson to the tax collectors and sinners. In this scenario, the one hundred sheep refers specifically to the Jews but also to the entirety of the human race. The ninety-nine are the self-righteous and presumptuous who believe they are already in the kingdom or have no need of salvation; the one that is lost is the one who recognizes that he is a sinner and is in need of salvation and reconciliation. Because He leaves the ninety-nine means that He was with them but, because of their hardness of heart He leaves them. You can also see the ninety-nine as the nation of Israel and the Gentiles as the one that is lost. Therefore, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees and scribes and is warning the tax collectors and sinners that, if they become self-righteous and presumptuous, He will leave them also.
I think our epistle reading supports all scenarios we have covered. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God. (Ro 14:7-12, RSVCE)
Our Responsorial Psalm is the prayer of thanksgiving and plea for perseverance of the one who has been found, has been made the image of our Savior: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord! (Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14, RSVCE).
As we have learned from the early Church fathers, let us not look at “one” being an individual, but a group, a unity. I fear that too many are so concerned about the individual self that they lose sight of the fact that we are a body. They want to think, “I want a personal relationship with Jesus,” instead of, “I want us to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” “None of us lives to himself.” We do not make it alone. We can go to hell as individuals, but those that are baptized do not live to themselves, nor do they die to themselves. We are a body, the Body of Christ.
--Tommy TurnerThis theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: stpaulcatholic.net