That Jesus of Nazareth consorted with the wicked and outcasts is one of those historical “facts” upon which scholars agree. Not only did he consort with them; but he actively sought their fellowship, freely eating with them without first requiring their repentance and reform, thereby incurring the denunciation of the Pharisees. The Gospel of Mark records Jesus eating with tax collectors. When the Pharisees saw this they asked his disciples, “Does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). Upon hearing this Jesus responds: “Those who are strong have no need of a physician, but rather those who are ill; I came to call not the upright but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus succinctly summarizes his mission: “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 25:24). As the respected biblical scholar E. P. Sanders writes:
The one distinctive note which we may be certain marked Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom is that it would include the ‘sinners’. . . . The promise of salvation to sinners is the undeniably distinctive characteristic of Jesus’ message.”1
The significance and offense of Jesus’ table fellowship with the wicked is made clear in his interaction with Zacchaeus:
And, having entered Jericho, he was passing through, And look: a man called by the name of Zacchaeus, and he was a chief tax-collector, and he was wealthy; He wished to see “Who Jesus is,” and was not able on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. And having run ahead he climbed up into a sycamore tree so that he might see him, because he was just about to pass by there. And Jesus, as he came to the place, looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, be quick, come down, for it is necessary for me to stay in your house today.” And, making haste, he descended and welcomed him with joy. And seeing this everyone murmured, saying that “He went in to lodge with a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7)
To be invited by Jesus to dine with him is to be unconditionally admitted into his Kingdom—no ifs, ands, or buts. The messianic banquet has broken into history. The feast has been prepared, the table is laid, the music is playing, the wine is flowing plentifully, already the guests are laughing and singing. Perhaps there will even be dancing.
Table-fellowship has loomed large in recent discussion of Jesus. His eating with tax collectors and sinners has, probably correctly, been seen as a proleptic indication that they would be included in the kingdom: the meal looks forward to the ‘messianic banquet’, when many would come from east and west and dine with the patriarchs (Matt. 8.11). Several parables tell us that the kingdom is like a banquet, to which many are called. And, most tellingly, before his death Jesus looked forward to drinking the fruit of the vine in the kingdom of God (Mark 14.25//Matt. 26.29//Luke 22.18). Thus it would appear that Jesus’ eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ promised, as clearly as words, that they would inherit the kingdom; and thus it is likely that Jesus saw his eating with tax collectors and sinners as promising membership in the coming kingdom. . . . It seems to be the case . . . that Jesus offered the truly wicked—those beyond the pale and outside the common religion by virtue of their implicit or explicit rejection of the commandments of the God of Israel—admission to his group (and, he claimed the kingdom) if they accepted him.2
Hence the scandal! Not even the rigorous Pharisees would have objected if Jesus were offering salvation upon the condition of repentance; on the contrary, they would have welcomed his preaching and ministry. But here was this Nazarene (who does he think he is‽) promising the Kingdom to the unrepentant.
And this brings us to the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
Now drawing near to him to listen to him were all the tax-collectors and sinners. And both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured a great deal, saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And he spoke this parable to them, saying, “What man among you, owning a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that has been lost until he finds it? And finding it he joyfully places it on his shoulders, And entering the house he calls his friends and neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I found my sheep that had been lost.’ I tell you that such will the joy be in heaven over one sinner changing his heart, more than over ninety-nine upright men having no need of a change of heart. (Luke 15:1-7)
Robert Capon observes that the decision of the shepherd to abandon his flock to search for one lost sheep is just bad shepherding:
This parable can hardly be interpreted as a helpful hint for running a successful sheep-ranching business. The most likely result of going off in pursuit of one lost sheep will only be ninety-nine more lost sheep. Accordingly, I think it best to assume that Jesus is parabolically thumping the tub for the saving paradox of lostness. He implies, it seems to me, that even if all one hundred sheep should get lost, it will not be a problem for this bizarrely Good Shepherd because he is first and foremost in the business of finding the lost, not of making a messianic buck off the unstrayed. Give him a world with a hundred out of every hundred souls lost—give him, in other words, the worldful of losers that is the only real world we have—and it will do just fine: lostness is exactly his cup of tea. (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 185)
Such is the exuberance of Christ to save all who have fallen into darkness and evil. He is willing, apparently, to risk the all to save the one and thus save the all. “For the Son of Man has come to save the lost” (Matt 18:11).
The point, of course, is that the shepherd refuses to abandon the one lost sheep. He will search for it; he will find it; he will bring it home. He does not ask its permission. He does not ask our permission. He simply shoulders the sheep and restores it to the fold. As the Lord states in the Matthean parallel: “So it is not a desire that occurs to your Father in the heavens that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt 18:14). God will save all!
Or what woman possessing ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently till she finds it? And finding it she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, because I found the drachma that I lost.’ Thus, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner changing his heart.” (Luke 15:8-10)
Once again, God drops everything to search for the one lost soul. But what about contrition, repentance, conversion, restitution? we always ask. Surely these are minimal preconditions for reconciliation with our Father. The question of repentance nags our conscience, yet neither sheep nor coin possess the capacity. They are simply found and restored.
It is usual, when expounding the word metanoeein (repent), to go about the job etymologically. Since the word is a compound of meta (after) and noeein (think), its root meaning is to change one’s mind or, better said, to change one’s heart about one’s sins. That approach, however, does not serve well here. Neither the lost coin nor the lost sheep was capable of any repentance at all. The entire cause of the recovery operation in both stories is the shepherd’s, or the woman’s, determination to find the lost. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin does a blessed thing except hang around in its lostness. On the strength of this parable, therefore, it is precisely our sins, and not our goodnesses, that most commend us to the grace of God. (p. 186)
Capon urges us to keep our eye on the parabolic ball. God seeks the lost. Our repentance is not at issue here, contrary to moralistic interpretations. Christ searches, Christ finds, Christ restores—this is the evangelical assertion. And it leads Capon to his provocative interpretation: to be lost is to be dead. A dead person is incapable of repentance, alteration, self-improvement, or anything else. The dead are . . . dead. They cannot save themselves; they must be found and raised into life!
Hence if in our interpretations we harp on the necessity of a change of heart—if we badger ourselves with the dismal notion that sinners must first forsake their sins before God will forgive them, that the lost must somehow find itself before the finder will get up off his backside and look for it—we carry ourselves straight away from the obvious sense of both stories. And since that violates not only the parables but also Rom. 5:8 (“while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”), I propose to take a different tack altogether and to look not at etymologies but simply at the stories as Jesus tells them.
Consider the following propositions, all of which I think are true. A lost sheep is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep; a lost coin is likewise a dead asset. In addition (if I may look forward a bit to the parables of the Unforgiving Servant and of the Prodigal Son), a debtor about to be foreclosed on is a dead duck and a son who has blown his inheritance is a deadbeat. These parables of lostness, therefore, are far from being exhortations to repentance. They are emphatically not stories designed to convince us that if we will wind ourselves up to some acceptable level of moral and/or spiritual improvement, God will then forgive us; rather they are parables about God’s determination to move before we do—in short, to make lostness and death the only tickets we need to the Supper of the Lamb. In all of them, it is precisely the lost (and thus the dead) who come to the party; in none of them is any of the unlost (and thus the living) in on the festivities. More than that, in none of these parables is anything (except the will of God) portrayed as necessary to the new life in joy. Neither the lostness, nor the deadness, nor the repentance is in itself redemptive; God alone gives life, and he gives it freely and fully on no conditions whatsoever. These stories, therefore, are parables of grace and grace only. There is in them not one single note of earning or merit, not one breath about rewarding the rewardable, correcting the correctible, or improving the improvable. There is only the gracious, saving determination of the shepherd, the woman, the king, and the father—all surrogates for God—to raise the dead. (pp. 186-187)
It’s all about Pascha!
 E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985), p. 174.
 Ibid., p. 209-210. Also see E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), pp. 230-237.