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 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.
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (NIV)
Now is the time to ask some questions.
Is Jesus telling these stories to the tax collectors and sinners? Or to the grumbling Pharisees and other law abiding citizens? Why is Jesus telling them these stories?
Let’s take a closer look…
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep…” That is a large flock. That is a LOT to keep track of. If a shepherd is taking care of one hundred sheep alone, it would be no surprise to lose one, so that wouldn’t be smart. A team of shepherds would be necessary. The sheep would spread out quite a ways to be able to have good grazing. A shepherd on foot can’t get to the other side of the flock without scattering the sheep in between. A shepherd alone with a hundred sheep is in an impossible situation.
“Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” The people in the crowd are going to be listening to the story thinking “No. That would be dumb. Cut your losses. Don’t risk the 99 for one. That is a terrible idea.” It is better to tend the rest of the sheep and keep them together than go after the one and the rest scatter due to lack of tending. Because you see, sheep are dumb. They don’t pay attention. They just wander and graze. If they go behind a rock or a bush and cannot see the rest of the flock, they don’t know the rest of them are there. They don’t know how to get back to the flock. It is a 50-50 chance. Will they wander away? Or will they by chance wander toward? Leaving the 99 is an invitation lo lose the whole flock.
“And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” He doesn’t even go back to the flock!!! The shepherd has been so overcome with joy over the one he abandons the rest! What kind of a shepherd is that??? It is a joyful shepherd, that’s what. That shepherd is so happy he throws a party. “Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” This is no ordinary shepherd. And remember, this is a parable. The point isn’t to be realistic. The point is to suck in the listeners and surprise them with the twist in the story so they remember it!
What are the tax collectors and sinners going to remember about this story? My guess is they are going to identify with the sheep that wandered away from the flock who no one is going to look for. They know they are written off by ‘polite society.’ They know they didn’t intentionally turn out bad. They know they still feel like they belong to the flock, but they are out on the fringes alone. Imagine their surprise when the shepherd comes looking for them! Imagine their double surprise when the shepherd rejoices over them rather than scolds them! They are used to being scolded. They are used to being scorned. They are NOT used to being rejoiced over.
What are the Pharisees and other law abiding citizens going to hear in this story? They are going to be scandalized. You see, they expect the shepherd to stay and praise the 99 good sheep who didn’t wander away. They expect the shepherd to take better care of them because there are less to take care of. They expect they are going to get more grass because the dumb louts that wandered off aren’t going to get anything! But what they get is surprised. And not in a good way.
They are left behind. The shepherd has gone home to rejoice over that one.
“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.”
That is not what they expected to hear at all! It must have left a sour taste in their mouths. They must have left shaking their heads, thinking of the ridiculousness of it all. Jesus was never going to amount to anything if he got it that wrong. Because you see, Jesus was their golden child. When he was a boy, just age 12, he had impressed them all that time in the temple (Luke 2:41-47). He was the best student in Torah. He got the highest marks in Hebrew school. But now? Now he was making a mess of things. And yet, the people flocked to him. He attracted the rabble. And he didn’t even try to change them. He didn’t try to reform them. He didn’t reject them until they got their act together. He loved them. He went to them. He rejoiced over them. And because of that, they mended their ways.
So yes, Jesus is speaking to the tax collectors and sinners. And yes, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and the law abiding citizens. He is talking to them both, with the same story, and they will both get something different out of it. They will both get what they need.
In the American church we have had it so backward so much of the time. We seem to put out the vibe that we have our act together. We let others assume that we know what we are doing. We ask people to repent and come to church rather than to come to church to be loved, accepted and valued, just as they are.
Jesus rejoiced over the lost sheep. He loved the sinners and the tax collectors. We might be wise to be nicer to the unchurched. We might do well to go looking for some lost sheep of our own and rejoice over them when we find them. Does that mean go find the people who used to be part of the church but aren’t any longer? It just might. Does that mean to get to know people who aren’t part of a church? You bet! Does that mean we are to love up on the people who don’t think they are worthy of being in the church? Absolutely.
To do that, we have to get to know them. So many church people I know only know church people. They don’t know anyone who isn’t already part of the church. How then are they going to have anyone to rejoice over? We would do well to have conversations where we get to know the joys and sorrows of people in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our world. We would do well to love our neighbors who are different from us. We would do well to spread the love Christ has for us to others in our life.
Blessings to you,
Who do you know that might not believe God is rejoicing over them? What can you do to let them know you see it differently?
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.