Matthew 18:12-14 (NIV) “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
Luke records Jesus telling this same parable in a different context (Luke 15:1-7). There Jesus was responding to Pharisees and teachers of the law who were complaining that He was spending time with tax collectors and sinners. That context emphasized that God is ever on the lookout for those who had gone astray, even sinners and tax collectors, to seek and to save them.
These instances of the same stories being used in a different context are not a writer’s error or a copyist’s blunder. Like every good preacher or teacher, Jesus often retold the same story to a different audience or in different circumstances because they were necessary lessons and effective illustrations. And, like every good preacher or teacher, He knew that telling the same story in a different context brought different elements of that story into focus.
In this case, the context is Jesus’ focus on the humble “little ones” who make up the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3-4), as well as God’s watch care over them, and the dangerous stupidity of those who try to lead any of them astray (verses 6-10). The parable demonstrates the degree to which God’s love and care for any one of the least of those in His kingdom will go.
If one of the people of God’s kingdom is led away into sin by someone else, or wanders away on their own, they will not slip off His radar any more than a missing sheep will go unnoticed by a good shepherd. A good shepherd is always keeping track of all of his sheep, always counting them, and making sure that each one is safe and where it is supposed to be. If one goes missing or is taken away, the shepherd is very quickly aware of it.
As soon as one of God’s people slip off the path, God Himself is in pursuit of them. He seeks them, and follows them through every thicket, down into the darkest valley, and along every treacherous drop-off, calling out to them, and trying to get their attention so that they will respond and come back into the safety of the fold. He often runs interference, keeping many dangers at bay. And He continues to pursue and call out as long as there is any hope for that lost sheep to return, sometimes protecting, and sometimes allowing mishaps and tragedies. But all is done in an effort to get the lost sheep back home.
Some never respond, resisting every effort at restoration, and even blaming the consequences of their disobedience on God Himself. But many do respond. Some respond and turn just a few steps away from the gate. Others respond only after a wild chase over treacherous terrain, full of dangers for body and soul. But whether they respond and turn back early or late, whether they turn back whole in body and soul, or bearing the inner and outer scars of their rebellion, they all find that they are returning to their Savior, not their judge; to a Father, not a foe, and to one who pursued them, not to punish, but out of love. And there is great rejoicing!
Father, there are many of Your lost sheep wandering in the world today. Some of them are sure that You have written them off, because we, the Church, seem to have written them off. Both they and we need to hear this message today. As long as there is hope, You don’t give up, but relentlessly continue the pursuit. Help us, as Your people, to be just as loving; to join You in the pursuit of Your lost ones, to help them to understand Your love for them, and Your pursuit of them driven by that love. Help us to encourage them to return, so that we can join You in Your celebration when they return at last. Amen.