It's always important to understand the context for Jesus' parables. Who is He addressing? What questions/issues is He addressing? This next parable we will examine is the one of the Lost Sheep from Luke, Chapter 15.
Let's set the scene: "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.'" Stop right there. Jesus is a fascinating and yet irritating presence to the religious leaders. They watch in horror as the low-lifes of their community flock to Him and listen to His words that seem to be cool water in a dry land.
They can't fathom why a rabbi would associate so freely with people who are so obviously disgusting to them and, must be to God, too. They are probably thinking, We strive everyday, God, to be good. We do all of the rituals You require and we even go above and beyond that. We work for You! Do You notice, God? Are You aware, with all due respect, of how much we strive? And then comes this hayseed from Nazareth, who seems to gather, without effort, those whom You despise. He seems comfortable with them--their smelly clothes, their dirty faces and their despicable habits. They seem to love Him. Love? You want order, respect and obedience. Love? We don't want it; why would You?
What are the people thinking? We try every day, dear God, to be good. We tithe from what little we have and yet, in the faces of the leaders, we see nothing but scorn. No matter how much we strive, we see the utter disgust in their faces. We know we are so unworthy to even call upon Your Name. You seem so distant; but this Jesus seems to bring You so close, we can almost hear Your voice. He doesn't notice our dirty clothes and ragged faces; we know we are not pleasant to be around--the leaders have made that plain enough. And yet, when we look into His face, we see kindness, openness, and a sense that You do care for us, warts and all. Yes, our hands are dirty, but this Jesus is willing to clasp them and look in our eyes. We feel the scorn burning into our backs from the eyes of the leaders; so we just keep our gaze on His face...are we seeing Your face, dear God, as well?
Then Jesus begins: “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 neighbors 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."
Everyone listening knew about sheep and how, if not shepherded, the sheep will wander. How often did an errant sheep wander into town, because some shepherd's afternoon nap went on a bit long? How often did a panicky shepherd come running into town, asking the townspeople if they had seen his sheep? So, everyone could understand the wandering of a sheep and the fretful reaction of the shepherd. Isn't interesting, though, instead of talking about a shepherd out there, Jesus brings His audience into the story: "Suppose one of you..." You, Mr. Obstinate Pharisee and you, Mr. Tax Collector, and yes, you, Mrs. Poor Woman. Everyone is invited to imagine themselves in the place of the shepherd.
Now, Jesus poses a question...a shepherd doesn't just fret over the sheep; what is he going to do? Go out and find it! He will not rest until he does. The other ninety-nine are safe in the flock, but the wandering one is subject to all kinds of dangers--wolves, falling into a ditch...how many times had one of the townsfolk come across a sheep whose shepherd had not been able to find it, and now its body was rotting in the sun? Everyone could picture the shepherd searching high and low for the sheep, having left the care of the other sheep to the other shepherds. He is focused on finding the one sheep...why?
Because each sheep is valuable. There is safety in numbers, but not value in numbers. Each sheep is as valuable as the next. No one sheep is inherently more precious than another. The shepherd knows each sheep and cares for each sheep's welfare. The shepherd doesn't say, Hey! I still have the well-behaved ninety-nine. They are staying in the flock, obediently grazing where I have told them to. What's one missing? Next spring, there will be more lambs to replace it...No big deal.
Our shepherd finds the sheep and puts it on his shoulder--"joyfully." He doesn't chide it, yell at it or condemn it for wandering away (Do you notice that, Pharisees? Do you catch that, everyone?) Yes, it is always preferable to stay obediently in the flock, following the shepherd's direction. But, what if someone wanders away? What if YOU wander away? Would YOU want to be yelled at? Would YOU want to experience scornful looks and judgement about how stupid you are for wandering away? Wouldn't YOU want a joyful Shepherd scooping you up, placing you on His shoulders and triumphantly marching into town to tell everyone of your rescue?
Doesn't the sheep know already of its inadequacies? The burrs in its wool, the scratches on its legs are reminders enough of how wandering off is not wise. The "tax collectors and sinners" are all too aware of how wandering off is not pleasant--no one has to remind them of that--their hearts condemn them enough.
The flock is content...perhaps too content. It's those who wander off that need God the most and feel His loving balm the most when they are recaptured by His love. Heaven rejoices! Why? Because the sheep knew it had strayed and is willing to come home with the shepherd and be restored to the flock.
Jesus looks at the listeners. Many of them have heads lowered, knowing that they have wandered from the Shepherd of their souls. Yet, in their troubled spirits, hope flutters--I can be forgiven and Heaven is rejoicing as I do!
Many of them are looking at Him, flummoxed. I am in the flock, obedient, and yet I am not in love with the Shepherd, only with my own goodness. Do I need to come home too?
Jesus' eyes scan the crowd. Are you willing to come home? Will you join Heaven and rejoice as others do as well?
The Shepherd will never stop looking for His wandering sheep.
will press on with the next two parables--the Lost Coin and the
Prodigal Son, driving home the point of God values each one of us. His love extends forgiveness to each one of us...do we extend it to each other as well?
For more posts in my parable series, click here.