The Parable of the Lost Sheep is a familiar parable told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 15. It is the story of a shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and then leaves the 99 to search and find the lost sheep. It is a parable of redemption, of rescue, of love and of concern.
Luke begins telling the story by writing, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” (Jesus) Whenever I read this opening statement I immediately have to ask myself a few questions:
1. Are sinners coming near to listen to me? If not, why not?
2. Are sinners coming to our churches to listen to what we have to say? If not, why not?
3. If sinners were attracted to Jesus, why aren’t they attracted to many Christians today?
4. To what degree am I the tax collector or sinner in this story?
In the United States and Europe people are leaving churches in great numbers. I think this parable could be really important in helping us understand this trend, and hopefully help us to begin to reverse it.
Who were the tax collectors and sinners?
Tax collectors were Jews who had gone to work for the Romans, collecting taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Roman Empire. They were despised by their communities and were treated like traitors.
Sinners were people that the religious establishment of the time had excluded from life in the religious community. They might have been people who had violated one of the many laws that the religious leaders found important, or they may have not been paying their tithes. But they may also have been sick, blind, poor, lame or disfigured in some way. All these conditions were considered to be curses from God. According to Deuteronomy 28, these conditions were what God did to people who were disobedient! This is one of the things Jesus came to sort out for us. Jesus went about healing people like this, not cursing them!
The grumbling religious leaders
Luke goes on saying that the Pharisees (religious leaders) and scribes were grumbling about Jesus eating with these tax collectors and sinners. They thought that being righteous and holy meant that you had to be un-welcoming to traitors and sinners. But here was Jesus, eating, conversing and welcoming them! Sadly, this un-welcoming attitude is present in many of our churches today. This is why not many are interested in listening to what we have to say. These churches look more like grumbling Pharisees than Jesus. Lord, have mercy!
This sets the stage for the parable that Jesus tells, which begins like this: “So he told them this parable”.
Jesus tells this parable TO the grumbling religious leaders while enjoying a meal with the people they had excluded. And he tells it primarily BECAUSE of their grumbling attitude.
The cast of characters
Let’s consider the ninety-nine sheep in this parable to be the grumbling religious leaders and their followers. Let’s consider the tax collectors and sinners to be the lost sheep, and lets consider Jesus to be the shepherd.
Jesus begins with a 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?”
First, where does Jesus locate the grumbling religious leaders? In the wilderness. Not in the Temple or in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness. Keep this in mind. It will be important in a moment.
Second, there is an assumption in the way Jesus asks this question. Do you hear it? The question is framed such that leaving ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness would be the most obvious thing to do if one had been lost. But is this what the religious leaders would have thought? I don’t think so. To leave a flock alone in the wilderness would be to leave them without guidance and without protection. It would be like asking a banker today to leave his bank unlocked and unguarded to go after one lost customer.
This question, from a practical perspective seems irresponsible – even reckless! But there is another perspective from which to hear this question…the perspective of the lost sheep. If you were a lost sheep, isn’t the way Jesus frames the question the way you’d like it to be framed - with the assumption that your shepherd found you valuable enough to go seeking until he finds you?
This is how Jesus the shepherd frames the question while surrounded with lost sheep…the traitors and sinners. From the perspective of the lost sheep, any sign that someone is coming to find you would be great news! Jesus the shepherd goes on to say that, having found the lost sheep he brings them home rejoicing! Now do you see why they all wanted to be with him – listening to every word he had to say?
A recurring Scriptural theme
This picture of many against one is a recurring theme in Scripture. Joseph’s brothers became jealous of him and sold him into slavery. The man of the Gadarenes had been scapegoated by his community. The religious leaders used the woman caught in adultery in an attempt to unify people against Jesus. Everybody that Jesus healed and delivered had been rejected by their religious communities, and the entire religious and political system turned against Jesus, leading to his crucifixion.
An inversion of the Day of Atonement
On the Day of Atonement the priest would lay his hands on the head of the scapegoat and ritually transfer the sin and guilt of the people to the scapegoat, which was then led out into the wilderness. The parable of the lost sheep can also be understood as an inversion of the Day of Atonement.
In the parable, it is the religious leaders who are in the wilderness while Jesus is with the scapegoats! Now, those who thought they were on the inside find themselves in the wilderness, while those who had been excluded find themselves eating and celebrating with the Good Shepherd!
So as we come to the end of the parable, and if we understand the parable of the lost sheep as an inversion of the Day of Atonement we can ask this question:
“If the scapegoats are safely celebrating with the Good Shepherd, who in fact are the lost sheep?”
Perhaps there is something for our declining churches to learn here…
Communities that continue to find unity through excluding others are lost in the wilderness, but Jesus is with the outcasts.