Robin McMillan and I share the distinction of having preached at each other’s churches--but we’ve never met. Like ships passing in the night, we are both passionately in pursuit of the King and his kingdom, but we’ve never put into the same port at the same time. Robin is the pastor at Queen City Church in Charlotte, NC. He’s a man brimming with personal experiences with God: stories to tell and life to share. He blogs here and Tweets there. Check him out!
The parable of the lost sheep is one of a trilogy of stories found in Luke 15 that Jesus used in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of His choices of friends and social interactions. The New Testament reveals that some called Jesus a wine bibber and a glutton, others accused Him of being the illicit child of an immoral mother. He wasn’t from the right tribe, the right town, or the right school; he didn’t have the right doctrine as far as they were concerned. Jesus had no shortage of critics.
The Pharisees criticized Jesus for both eating with and receiving tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded by telling the story of a shepherd who had 100 sheep, and one of them ran off. Jesus assumed each of the Pharisees should leave the 99 for the 1 by saying, “What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” -- thereby identifying both himself and the Pharisees as shepherds, a despised occupation in their culture.
This parable doesn’t only locate the darkness in the hearts of the Pharisees, it identifies some in my heart as well. Most business men would cut their 1% loss and rejoice over still having 99% on hand. That would be my own business sense because that’s good business: it’s just not love, and certainly not the heart of God!
So far, what has Jesus done in just a few short sentences? Concluded that the Pharisees should identify with shepherds; revealed their self-centeredness and pride; and reframed their personal responsibility as ministers. Can anyone say “Ouch?”
Jesus also assumed some responsibility for the one sheep’s condition… “if he [the shepherd] loses one” (Luke 15:3). That’s a different approach than placing all the blame on the sheep for having run off!
Jesus said that a good shepherd would find the sheep and lay it on his shoulders, rejoicing. That’s not the normal response He knew to be present in the Hebrew culture, nor in ours today. I have heard (and others have taught) that the reason the shepherd put the sheep on his shoulders and carried him home was because the norm was for the shepherd to break the lamb’s leg for running off, to teach him a lesson. If we did the same with our children we would be put in jail or the Department of Social Services would come get our children! He put him on His shoulders because lost sheep are often paralyzed with fear and the only hope of getting home would be if someone picked them up and carried them. Jesus said a good shepherd would do so ‘rejoicing’!
Heaven’s joy is based on the returning of lost sheep to their true home, the shepherd’s house. Heaven rejoices more over one returning lamb than ninety-nine who need no repentance. Too bad there are no such ninety-nine who need no repentance. No one needs 'no repentance'. We all have needed to repent at one time or another, or maybe even more than that.
God is a good businessman. He knows the way to secure the hearts of the ninety-nine is leave them for love of the one. That one could have been you or me. In so doing He builds a house of love and honor that has the potential to shake the world and reveal the heart of God. The heart of God is thus revealed in this short four-verse parable. It begins to fulfill the prayer of Jesus in a dynamic way; “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” That's our calling. That's our challenge. That's our joy.
(For insights and inspiration I offer much gratitude to Kenneth E. Bailey and his book: The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle East Peasants.)