“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 15:7, NRSVue)
God delights in searching out and finding those who are lost. Luke 15 is a chapter about lost things—sheep, coins, and children. While it’s tempting to think that when Jesus tells these three parables, he’s challenging us to go out and seek those who are lost, there’s more to the context that reveals a different kind of lesson from his stories. Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, people who are considered unclean to those in the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees, the official interpreters of God’s Law, see Jesus defiling himself and are shocked at his openness in associating with those who are unclean.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2, NRSVue)
Whether Jesus heard them grumbling about his choice of company or possibly intuiting their displeasure from their body language, he decided to share some parables. In the
first parable, Jesus asks a ludicrous question,
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the
ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4, NRSVue)
The obvious answer to everyone within earshot is a resounding, “Not me!” No experienced shepherd would ever leave ninety-nine sheep to go in search of one—it is too great of a risk. Then Jesus continues, probably speaking over the laughter of the crowd,
“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:5-6, NRSVue)
Jesus had everyone’s attention by this point because his question wasn’t the setup to a joke but instead was an invitation to consider the countercultural nature of God the Father. Jesus’ question is the first clue that we’re not the shepherd in this story. We would have counted the cost and stayed with the ninety-nine sheep, dismissing the loss of one as the cost of doing business in the wilderness. Jesus’ story indicates that God is the Good Shepherd who is so attached to the lone lost sheep that he would risk everything to go out and find it. It seems foolish, but for those who feel like lost sheep and unworthy of the shepherd risking all to find them, it means their life is worth something to God.
Not only does the Good Shepherd scoop the foundling up in his arms, then throw it across his shoulders, but he rejoices all the way home and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. Contrast this “rejoicing” with the “grumbling” of the Pharisees, and we see the next point of Jesus’ parables. The Good Shepherd invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him, but if you’re not willing to join in, you’re not a friend of God!
Jesus makes the same two points with the following parables. As a side note, the woman in the second parable in Luke 15 who sweeps every nook and cranny looking for her lost coin is the only female in the New Testament used as a metaphor or an allegory for God. Jesus’ reference to the woman in this way would have angered the Pharisees and made them more intent on destroying him. But in their anger, they would have missed Jesus’ points altogether—that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and we who are friends of God rejoice when Jesus finds anyone that was missing—even those we think should be beyond the mercy and grace of God.
Join us this Sunday as we explore the mysterious ways that Jesus surprises the Pharisees (and us) in reaching out to the “tax collectors and sinners” of our day. And be sure to invite a friend—maybe even someone who feels like a lost sheep—so we can celebrate God’s finding them together.their displeasure from their body language, he decided to share some parables. In the first parable, Jesus asks a ludicrous question,
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4, NRSVue)
— Senior Pastor Rev. Dale Cohen