Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:1-7, ESV)
This independent-minded sheep made a serious miscalculation in wandering from its shepherd. The act earned it only one adjective —”lost”— which is the last thing a sheep should want to be in the wilderness. There is nothing for it in this wasteland: no shepherd to lead it beside still waters, no rod to defend it from the wolf and the lion, no staff to guide it to green pastures. There is no safety, comfort, or life outside of its pastor’s care. By the time the shepherd found it, it had to be carried; it must have been in sorry shape, and would surely have died if not for its master’s undaunted and unrelenting compassion.
I see my life’s story summed up in that sheep.
If the shepherd were weighing purely economic and pragmatic considerations, he might have just absorbed the loss. 99% retention is not a bad rate. Who knows what difficulties a rescue attempt might entail? Instead, the pastor valued each sheep’s welfare personally. He ventures out into the desolate and wild lands “until he finds it.” There was no cap placed on effort or time; the shepherd is willing to go wherever is required, invest whatever time is needed, and make whatever effort he has to in order to save his lost sheep. How long did he search? How far did he carry it on his shoulders? Only he will ever know.
I see my Savior in that Shepherd.
And for all the admiration I have for this shepherd’s actions, they are a faint shadow of the troubles the true Good Shepherd went to in order to seek sinners wandering in the world. As Ira Sankey expresses in a hymn, “But none of the ransomed ever knew how deep were the waters crossed; nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through ere He found His sheep that was lost.”
The Friends and Neighbors
It is best in the text to see the friends and neighbors, called to rejoice in the restoration of the lost, as the angels in heaven (cf. Luke 15:10). However, the question of the moment has been: how will the Pharisees and scribes (religious leaders among the Jews) react at the repentance of the tax-collectors and sinners? Will they rejoice along with the host of heaven?
No. They disdain the call to celebrate. They grumble, and repeat the old accusation, calling these contrite hearts, “sinners.” Their theological system of justification by law left no room for a sinner to ever be anything other than a sinner. Indeed, the Pharisees took pleasure in keeping things that way, for they felt that the sinful status of another person confirmed their own righteousness, and they congratulated themselves. Little did they care to know that they were also lost sheep, wandering in the wastelands of self-righteousness. They ignored Jesus the Shepherd’s repeated calls to come back to the fold of God’s mercy.
This parable powerfully conveys God’s attitude in our wandering. Instead of anger and frustration, all his compassions are aroused. He desires our restoration so much that he is willing to give his all to seek us out. Our repentance will bring him great joy!
We must be as the tax collectors and sinners that drew near to him. Others, like the Pharisees, might have driven them away again. Christ received them. Thus Jesus beautifully proves true the promise of James 4:8, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”