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Hope for the Lost

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Luke 15:1–7 ESV
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.
Good things happen to good people, right? When you see a successful person, you see a good person. If you want to hear support for this in the Bible, it’s there; after all, God is a good God. He likes righteousness. And he is the source of all blessing. Covenant blessings about Israel obeying God and parents translates not only to getting into the promised land, but living long there. The book of Proverbs tells us all kinds of good things to expect from being a good person. And how can we forget The Prayer of Jabez?
But then we get to Jesus. He’s teaching, and it’s a very particular kind of crowd gathering around him. Luke describes them as tax collectors and sinners. This is not what we’d expect from what we see in the Old Testament. We would expect winners, good people, people that have it together. But instead, gathering around Jesus are the bad people, the losers, the outcast, the people who disregarded the wisdom found in the Law and looked out for themselves. Those are the people Luke points out as gathering around Jesus. Scholars think in this context that this label of sinners, would be literally accurate, but was likely made up of people too poor for a proper education. They didn’t know the Law, and so they weren’t following it. So, if God favors the good people, and if Jesus really is God, why would the sinners be gathering near to Jesus? It seems like a fair enough question. And the Pharisees grumble it out.
One reason, if you look over the previous chapter, is that Jesus had been teaching about banquets, banquets where the winners were too busy winning and so they were disinvited. Instead in these parables, new invitations go out to the losers, people sleeping outside, some of them on whatever drugs were available in first century Palestine. Some of them had abandoned their families, others abandoned by their families. People seen as cursed, those who couldn’t walk right or at all, people who couldn’t see, or couldn’t hear, for whom it seemed that God wasn’t with them. The invitations were not only withdrawn from the winners and extended to the bad-things-happen-to-bad-people people. But in Jesus’s parable, the master of the banquet instructs his servants to compel these abandoned, lawless people, seemingly cursed by God, to come to the banquet. And this is friendly compelling, like a “compelling” story. It’s not a kidnap someone and force them to go somewhere kind of compelling. In Jesus’ stories about banquets, the master tells the servants to do whatever they can to convince the losers, the accursed, the law-breakers to come to his banquet. And the winnings that the winners wouldn’t let go of, a field, some oxen, some nice new things, chasing after those winnings shows them to be losers, not from merely possessing them, but from holding them so tightly that they chose their winnings over the heavenly banquet. This resulted in losing an invitation, a chance to even change their minds and go to the master’s banquet anyway. So this is the kind of story Jesus had been telling. He’d been telling winners not to throw banquets for their winner friends so everyone could revel in their winning. But to go find the people who were different from them. Go find those who lacked, who couldn’t increase their social standing or impress them with a banquet of their own. Go find those people who will probably drop your china and stain your great grandmother’s wing-backed chair, go find those people and invite them over for a banquet, with your good stuff, not hamburgers and hotdogs, but veal and lobster and champagne. The GOOD champagne. Not the they-won’t-know-the-difference-anyway champagne. Throw those people a banquet if you want God to smile when he looks down on you.
What banquet-throwing winner would want to hear this? So as Jesus is telling it like it is, there was probably a bit more room by him than the winners would normally give up. There were a lot more good seats open. And the bad people, the losers, the sinners, were grabbing their lunch and scooting right up to hear more. And this is when the Pharisees speak up.
They were obviously not listening because they accuse Jesus of eating with sinners, which is exactly what he had been instructing people to do. Either they just showed up or hadn’t been listening, or they were just holiness robots. After listening to Jesus talk about banquets where the whole point is that it’s ok to eat with sinners, all they can see is that he’s eating with sinners. They don’t even engage with the teaching, they are just too fixated on their small categories, their small rules, their small god, that they can’t hear actual God when he actually speaks. They just echo back the rules like robots. They are acting like what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” Their minds worked. They know the rules. Their guts worked. When they saw the rules violated, they could get terribly indignant, even angry. Their emotional reflexes worked. But they lacked hearts, chests, real human decency. They were shells of the image of God. They couldn’t see what was important. They couldn’t connect the dots and see how the Law of God pointed to love in the context of righteousness, not just righteousness for its own sake. And so, Jesus goes on to connect the dots for them.
This parable in Luke is the first of three parables about lost things; this one is about a lost sheep. The next parable is about lost coins and the last one is about a lost, prodigal son.
Jesus had been teaching about losers being acceptable to God and now Jesus ratchets things up a step further. Not only are the losers acceptable, not only can they fill a spot at a banquet, they are worth leaving the rest to pursue.
He puts it in terms any lingering winners might understand. What man of you having a hundred sheep (since you’re winners and totally have a hundred sheep) if he’s 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? For the grumbling Pharisees who knew Scripture like the back of their hand, they would have received a coded message. For the rest of the listeners, it’s a truly hope- and life-giving illustration of love that is unearned. For the winners, the people who knew their Bible, it was a blatant throw-back to Ezekiel 34. There the Lord talks about gathering in the lost sheep. Let’s turn there for a second and see if you agree that there’s a connection between Jesus’ parable and this passage in Ezekiel 34. The Lord is talking about sheep. We’ll pick it up in the middle. If you look at verse 11, it reads:
11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
The Lord is seeking out the lost sheep. So when Jesus calls for the lost sheep to be sought out, he is showing that he’s doing the things that God does.
Look at verse 15:
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in…justice.
This boldly answers the Pharisees inference that Jesus should be disregarded for associating with lawless, sinful, lost people. In fact, Jesus is doing what God does. Which says a lot about Jesus. We are seeing a fulfillment of Ezekiel 34. At the end of this passage in Ezekiel, we see that God after gathering the lost sheep, places them under the care of his servant David. Look at verse 23:
23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.
Jesus’s parable about lost sheep not only beautifully reflects God’s care for even the most hopelessly lost sheep, this parable claims a LOT about Jesus.
If you look earlier, this chapter in Ezekiel is even more biting when applied to the Pharisees. It’s an indictment to the priests who instead of feeding the sheep, had been feeding on the sheep. There the Lord ends a long tirade against the priests with verse 10 that reads:
10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
In other words, in this lovely image of looking for the lost sheep, in this strong allusion to Ezekiel 34, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to BACK OFF. Not only is Jesus doing what pleases God, but the Pharisees have not been doing what pleases God. The reason Jesus had to come and act as shepherd was because the Pharisees had not cared for the sheep. These people that disgusted the Pharisees should have been taken care of by the Pharisees. So this is what the experts in the Law would have heard, when they heard Jesus’s tender parable of the lost sheep. Not only was Jesus doing his job, not only was Jesus inferring the truth—that He is God, but the Pharisees who are complaining about tax collectors and sinners are showing that they are just feeding on the sheep instead of taking care of them like people who know the Law should. If you don’t like having sinners and tax collectors nearby, Pharisees, don’t let your sheep wander away, don’t withhold the Law from them while you enjoy prestige and honor. This should make us thankful for godly leaders who take the time to instruct in God’s word, doing the work of a faithful shepherd, even as they imitate the Great Shepherd. Not every sheep is this lucky. Even in our time, especially in our time, there are plenty of shepherds who are out to feed on the sheep.
So there is this strong, blatant connection to Ezekiel 34 that the Pharisees would have picked up on in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. But of course this message is more than just a throwback to Ezekiel. On its face, it’s a message to the lost and formerly lost, about lostness and being found. It’s a message to the sheep from their Shepherd. To those who have been denied access to the Law, to those who have wandered off for whatever reason, God has not forgotten them. And every one that has been forgotten or lost their way is going to be brought in. Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, while we are perfectly content to sit in the back yard making mud, Jesus is calling us to a holiday by the sea. While we’re lost, not knowing what we don’t know, Jesus sees us and is faithful to call us to himself.
When he finds the lost sheep he picks it up and puts it on his shoulders, rejoicing. There is more rejoicing over finding this one lost sheep than keeping the found sheep. More joy over a sinner repenting than 99 righteous who don’t need to repent. This flies in the face of the obsession with worldly success that we see in the church in America today. It was the same thing in the heart of those Pharisees who showed up grumbling about tax collectors and sinners being near Jesus. “How can we attract the most solid Christians, the best-resourced people, how can we use this church thing to boost our standing as winners?” The answer is, “winners in whose eyes?” Jesus is pitting the church of winning against the church of God, the church of sacrificial love. Righteous people gathered together is a good thing, but there is no arriving, there is no final sense of accomplishment while one sheep is lost. The church is not a lifeboat, but a search and rescue boat. God values the repentance of one sinner more than 99 righteous people.
How Jesus communicates radically different messages to two groups of people in this moment is astounding! Jesus is communicating God’s love and peace, comfort and assurance, to one group and a rebuke to the other group! It was the lost sheep’s lack of understanding, their lostness that let them hear Jesus’ parable in its plainest sense. God’s loves and values them. While the Pharisees’ knowledge of the Bible would have made them see only their lack of faithfulness. There is something here for us. As we move from being lost sheep, to rescued sheep, to knowers and doers of what the Lord asks of us, we are made aware of our duty to the lost sheep. The losers become winners in God’s eyes. They have been invited to the banquet, but we also have a commission:
First, we need to be slow to grumble about the lostness of the lost. If we find ourselves judging people as unworthy of Jesus, we have proven that we have the moral and spiritual insight to love them with the compassion that Jesus has for the lost. Once you recognize the lost as lost, you have the basic tools to participate in their being found. So participate in their being found!
Second, as the shepherd picks up the lost sheep and carries it back, rejoicing, it’s a moment for community. God with all the heavenly realm rejoices in a communal moment. One of our own is back. The shepherd has gathered another one to where it belongs. When we see this happen, the right response is not, “Good for him,” or, “Good for her.” We should feel a personal gain from learning about someone coming to Jesus. And not in a team sports kind of way. There’s no scoreboard. It’s more like a new family picture that’s updated after a new baby is born. There should be a feeling of personal gain, a certain gratefulness.
One last thing to take away from today. If this parable makes us take too much time and energy focusing on ourselves, we are missing what is going on. This parable was not given for us to feel pride or guilt. It was given for us to look to Jesus. To realize his true claim to being the Lord, the true Shepherd of Ezekiel 34 who says:
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them in… justice.
So look to Jesus, rest in his work, and enter into it wherever you can.
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