We may not admit it, but we like to complain.
We are not unlike the Israelites, who escaped from the unjust wrath of Pharaoh and then complained that they didn’t have leeks, garlic, and cucumbers to eat (Num. 11:5). We complain about colds and cold weather — grumbling against God’s sovereignty in various sufferings and in the natural order God has ordained in this world. And we complain about evidences of grace, because we didn’t receive as much as we thought we deserved — or because someone else received more than what we believe they deserved. Instead of being satisfied with having a job, we grumble that someone else received a raise; instead of being happy with a bowl of ice cream for dessert we complain that “she received more than me,” or “I don’t like chocolate.”
And in this, we are just like the Pharisees and scribes who observed the activities of Jesus and “began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:2). Their complaint was not that Jesus was merciful. Rather, their objection was that Jesus was merciful to “undeserving” people (as if mercy could ever be merited!).
Jesus then tells three stories that are all intended to validate the object of the Pharisees complaint. Yes, in fact, He is merciful to the very kinds of people to whom the Pharisees would never be merciful. He is the kind of Messiah who will leave 99 sheep in the safety of a fold to pursue the one sheep that has wandered away and gotten lost. Notice also Jesus’ application of the story — God rejoices in sinners who understand their need for repentance and does not rejoice in sinners who do not think they need repentance (v. 7).
And God is the kind of God who searches for sinners, even as a woman might carefully search for a lost coin in her home. He initiates the search and does not weary of the search until the sinner is found and repents. He is not begrudging of the search, but is joyful in both the search for and the return of the sinner.
And like a father who restores a wayward son into fellowship in the home, so Jesus is a compassionate Messiah who lavishes favor on sinners who repent of their sin.
So the Pharisees are right — Jesus is a compassionate and merciful God. As Thomas Watson has said, “Mercy is an innate disposition in God to do good, as the sun has an innate property to shine.” We are capable of mercy; we will put band-aids on wounds and we will change a tire for a stranded driver. But there are limits to our mercy; we are unlikely to bail a son out of jail a seventh time. But Jesus keeps pursuing the lost sheep, the lost coins, the wayward sons. That’s just the kind of God He is.
And notice this — those who receive His mercy do not deserve it. And that’s the very truth that the Pharisees could not, or refused to, understand. They believed others were unworthy of mercy and themselves to be above the need for mercy, or the only “worthy” recipients of mercy. But just as every child needs the assistance of a doctor or nursemaid to be born, so every man needs the mercy of God (and is undeserving of that mercy) to be born again.
The Pharisees had a complaint against Jesus. It was a complaint against the very mercy they needed. Instead of complaining at Jesus’ choice of dinner companions, they (and we) should rejoice that God is a merciful God who intentionally and actively searches out sinners and leads them to repentance.