The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 "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? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7 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.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins [a] and loses one. Doesn't she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Every now and then you will see a sign up on a post advertising that someone is looking for a lost pet. Most people, when they see those, will sympathize and take a look at the sign, determined to keep their eye out for the lost companion but that is usually the extent of it. I’ve even seen a few instances where someone will walk through the neighborhood calling out their lost dog or cat’s name. The other day, while I was out working in the yard with my sons, we had a lost little dog come through. We tried to grab him, thinking that we could then go and try to find the owner once we had secured the dog. But the dog had other ideas and had little to interest in allowing himself to come under our control. As soon as we tried to get closer than arm’s reach, the dog ran off. We tried to follow him for a while but he ran into a neighbor’s yard, ran through the back and disappeared. At that point, he was beyond where we could realistically follow him and we went back to work. A few minutes later, the owner came by looking for the dog, we pointed him in the right direction and he quickly found him.
I can certainly sympathize. We have a naughty little terrier who loves to escape from the house from time to time and go explore the neighborhood. A few months ago he got out at night which is terrible because he’s a dark color so he blends in at night and once he’s out he doesn’t necessarily like to come obediently when he’s called. He likes to take advantage of his little forays and go exploring. But this was different than just a passing sympathy for a lost pet and a faint hope that he would be united with his master. This was our dog. He belonged home and we would worry about him until he was back at home and safe. I didn’t sit there with my boys and speak aimlessly about my belief that he should not have run off and that he could find his way back when he wanted to. He was in danger, as there are a lot of busy roads just a block or two away from our quiet cul-de-sac. He need to be home and be safe. So I dropped what I was doing and left my boys at home where they were safe, took a flashlight and went looking for my mischievous little dog. I went into backyards, I climbed in ditches, I would go wherever I had to, and would continue to look until I found that dog. I finally did and when he saw me he ran into my arms and I took him home.
So what was the difference in the way that I looked for him? Why was I so adamant about leaving my sons at a safe place and going out to great lengths to find him, whatever the personal effort that it cost to do that? Why would I not give that same effort to find other dogs. It’s very simple. It’s because he is mine. This is his home and it’s where he should be.
At the heart of Jesus’ two parables here stands the idea of belonging. The Pharisees were fiercely opposed to the fact that Jesus would treat sinners and undesirables as though they belonged at the same table with the righteous. Why, people might even get the idea that they would be welcomed into God’s kingdom! The Pharisees believed that to be a dangerous notion. Of course people could come to God if they repented. But in their minds that meant holding tighter to the law and putting faith that in doing so, one would become holy enough to show themselves as rightful members of God’s household. But these were people that seemed so out of touch with that as a reality, that for them to truly repent in the way that the Pharisees demanded was virtually impossible.
Jesus was presenting a vision of God’s kingdom that was sharply opposed to that. For Jesus, repentance wasn’t about adopting stricter standards of purity and the Mosaic law, but rather it consisted of nothing more than turning away from their life and completely turning themselves over to him as Lord. The way was open to all but it was still narrow.
The first parable that Jesus told was deeply rooted in a common Old Testament symbol of the shepherd and the sheep. Why would Jesus eat with sinners and welcome them into his so-called kingdom movement? Well, to answer that they must imagine that they were shepherds going out to look for a lost sheep. A good shepherd would presumably leave the ninety-nine in a safe place and they would go and look for that sheep because it belonged to them.
Would they act in such a way? Would they risk their own safety or comfort to go find one lost sheep? The point was somewhat obvious. No, they wouldn’t. They were like the shepherds of Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23 that were denounced and had woes spoken against them for their failure to properly shepherd God’s people. Woe to those shepherds who cared for themselves but did not care for the flock. Interestingly, Jeremiah promised that God would send someone who would be a true shepherd to his people, but in Jeremiah, Yahweh himself promised that he would return to shepherd his people. He would bind their wounds and care for and lead them. He would be the good shepherd for his people that David celebrated in Psalm 23.
Jesus not only answered their question as to why he are with sinners, he gave a clear indication of who he was, and why his movement had so much celebration surrounding it. Rather than being a movement of somber expectation and fasting and waiting, like the Pharisees, for God to return to Jerusalem. Jesus was having a party that was open to everyone. Why would he do that? Because his ministry was a reflection of what was going on in God’s presence. These were his children, his lost sheep, that were being searched for and found. Jesus was the good shepherd of Psalm 23, the fulfillment of the promises of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel. God had sent a shepherd and he had come to shepherd his people himself. So each one of those sinners that repented and trusted in the life of Christ alone, was another child that belonged to God’s family. They belonged to Jesus and were coming home and that was a cause for celebration.
But the sting of this first parable was multi-pointed for the Pharisees. Jesus rejoiced and celebrated in his ministry about sinners who came to follow him because that was a reflection of what was going on in heaven. But more than that, heaven was rejoicing because the Good Shepherd had finally returned to look for his lost sheep. That was good for everyone except the unfaithful shepherds. The unspoken question here was, “who was acting more like the faithful shepherd?” Was it Jesus who was looking for the lost sheep and binding their wounds (cf. Isa. 40:11; 49:22) or was it these men who not only didn’t look for them, but denounced the lost sheep altogether?
The second parable was an even more relatable and common occurrence than the first. A woman who lost a coin that was worth about a day’s wages for an average worker would take considerable effort to look through her entire house for that coin. But this wouldn’t just be a cursory check. She would light a lamp so that she could see every dark corner and she would carefully sweep the entire house, under and around every nook and corner until the coin turned up. And when she did find it, she would call her neighbors over and ask them to rejoice with her and share in her joy. Again the point is clear. Why was Jesus eating in a celebratory fashion with sinners and those that were clearly undesirable? Because he was like that woman looking for her lost coin and each sinner who put their faith and trust in him alone was a reason for celebrating. They didn’t have to somehow earn God’s respect, love, or concern. They didn’t have to prove their worth to be in God’s family. They simply had to know that they were lost and allow Jesus to find them. He was more than willing to come looking for them and celebrate when he found them.
Perhaps the biggest reason, then, that the Pharisees objected to stories like these were that Jesus was pretty clear in one important aspect. They had asked him about his own ministry and he had answered with two stories that responded with what God was doing. Jesus was, in other words, stating in no uncertain terms, that what he was doing was what God was doing. His actions in their midst corresponded directly to what was going on in heaven. God had promised that he would come himself to shepherd his people and that was exactly what Jesus was doing. Jesus was the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11, 14) When he invited in a lost sinner, heaven celebrated. To oppose Jesus’ ministry then, would be to take up opposition against God himself. To claim that his ministry was the earthly correspondence of God’s own heavenly actions was to leave the Pharisees no middle ground at all. Either they would have to fully embrace Jesus or completely reject him.
The question that we need to ask ourselves, though, is not so much why Jesus took constant criticism for the fact that his ministry was full of joy and celebration and was so attractive to so many of the outcast and downtrodden while being such a source of concern and anger for the self-righteous and religious. The question that we need to ask ourselves is are we doing things in our churches and lives that elicit the same sorts of responses? And if we’re not, why not?
Do you actively take part in Jesus’ ministry to look for those lost sheep and coins? If their return to God was relying solely on your effort what kind of chance would they stand? What do you need to do today to have the same sort of commitment to finding the lost that Jesus did during his lifetime?