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Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 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. ~Lk 15:1-7

The three parables were the response to the Pharisees and scribes [also known as the teachers of the law] who muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Before we study the parables, let us first understand the background of this incident.

The Pharisees and scribes were a special group of experts and devotees of the Old Testament Law, whose attitude and obedience to the Law were impeccable in the strictest sense. They were unlike the tax collectors and prostitutes who extorted money and committed sexual sins, instead, they fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of what they had to the temple. If anyone were to use the moral standards of the Old Testament Law to judge between the two groups, the former would prove flawless while the tax collectors and prostitutes would be completely found wanting. Therefore, the Pharisees and scribes were revered and honoured among the Israelites, while the tax collectors and prostitutes were detested and scorned. Thus, the Pharisees and scribes would never allow themselves to be found in the assembly of these sinners, but stayed far away from them as if they were stricken with leprosy. They abhorred these sinners and regarded them like filth and dirt in comparison with their highly exalted and dignified selves. They believed that they would in due course enter into the glory of Heaven while the tax collectors and prostitutes would be thrown into the fury of Hell. Their point of contention was this: Jesus who claimed to have come from God should have distanced Himself from these sinners just as they did, however, He welcomed them and even ate with them.