Jesus is in trouble again. This time it's his attitude to 'sinners' that has provoked the scribes and pharisees. Jesus seems to be just too open to the despised margins of Jewish society. He eats with tax-collectors, he drinks with sinners: doesn't he know he is being contaminated by their company? How can Jesus be a holy man, when he behaves like this?
Jesus' critics are rightly concerned with holiness: all are called to be holy as God is holy. But have they really understood God's holiness? Jesus doesn't think so. He and his opponents have very different ideas about what holiness means.
The scribes and Pharisees think that eating and drinking with sinners would wipe out their holiness. Holiness can be so easily destoyed, and it is their duty to avoid whatever threatens it!
But Jesus thinks that the holiness of God is quite different from that. God is open to the outcast: his merciful holiness reaches out to the sinner. Jesus is explaining why he himself acts towards sinners as he does. Jesus acts just as God acts towards them: his holiness reaches out to them in mercy and love. He acts towards them like that because that is how God acts: the merciful holiness of Jesus is the merciful holiness of God.
Jesus explains further with some parables: a lost sheep found by the shepherd, a lost coin found by a woman, a lost son found by his father. These explain what Jesus has been doing. He has been doing the work of God by finding what had been lost. When he ate with sinners, he was eating with the 'lost'.
There is no pretence that the tax-collectors and sinners were anything other than 'lost'. That is a judgement against them: their way of life, their behaviour had put them in the wrong. Jesus' behaviour, God's behaviour, was intended to put them in the right. So to call them lost is a judgement against them.
But look how it is already a judgement in their favour! To judge something lost is to judge it precious! We don't describe something as lost and so go searching for it, unless we judge it to be something worth finding, something precious.
If the sinners are the lost, then they are precious to God and therefore precious to Jesus. So off he goes in search of them. And when he finds them, he calls on others to rejoice with him.
Look at how each of Jesus' parables ends. The shepherd finds the lost sheep, takes it on his shoulders, and when he gets home calls together all his neighbours and friends and asks them to rejoice with him at his find. When the woman finds her lost coin, she calls in her friends and neighbours, again to rejoice with her that what was lost is now found. And finally, the father calls for a feast to celebrate the return of his son: the one who was dead has returned to life, he who was lost is found.
This tells us how we should share in God's holiness. We should join in the celebration, the scribes and pharisees should take their place at the feast, the brother of the son who was lost should celebrate too and not sulk outside. There is rejoicing among the the angels of God, Jesus tells us, over one sinner who repents. It is for us to rejoice with the angels, to celebrate with Jesus, to share in the divine joy.
But perhaps there is something else to be said in all this about the holiness to which all Christians are called. Our holiness is not simply to rejoice in the mercy of God by welcoming the sinner. Surely we too can be called to go out and find what is lost, to sound the call to repentance. This means surely that we recognise that what is lost is lost, and there is much that is lost in violence, in revenge, in hatred.
But it also means that we must recognise that if something is lost, then it must be precious. What is precious to God, precious to Jesus, must be precious to us too, or we will never be holy.