Luke 15:3-7 (NIV) Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 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 context of this parable is Jesus’ willingness to associate with sinners, even eating with them, something no Pharisee or teacher of the law would ever do. Jesus’ parable takes the stand right at the beginning that these sinners and tax collectors belong to God by right of creation. When one of those who belong to God falls into sin, symbolized by the one sheep wandering off into the wilderness, that is cause for immediate action.
While leaving 99 sheep to fend for themselves in the open field might seem reckless, in context Jesus is talking about people who remain true to God, so the won’t actually be left “alone.” The emphasis of this parable is on the necessity, the urgency, of focusing on the lost sheep, the one whose life is in imminent danger because they have wandered out from the shepherd’s protective presence.
This whole worldview explains why Jesus did not typically hang out with those who were spiritually fine. He tended to spend His time among the sinners who had wandered far from God’s law and thus needed intensive search and rescue efforts in order to be found and rescued. Interestingly, the second-most-common group of people that the gospel writers document Jesus hanging out with is the Pharisees teachers of the law. These were just as lost as the sinners and tax collectors, but were far less open to acknowledging that, thus far less open to being found by Jesus. When they noticed that they were by themselves in the wilderness, they refused to admit that they had wandered off, but were insistent that they were fine – everyone else had wandered off!
In addition to showing God’s concern that the lost sheep be found, Jesus pointed out the celebration that echoes through the courts of heaven whenever one of these lost sheep is found, repents, and is brought back to the flock of God’s people. At that point, Jesus is successful in His mission to seek and to save what was lost, and God’s plan to reclaim the people of the world from sin, darkness, and death takes a step forward. That is cause for great celebration!
Of course, now that Jesus had returned to heaven, it is up to His Spirit-filled disciples to continue the search and rescue mission. That is the heart of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and the source of the urgency demonstrated by the first-century Church that pushed those initial disciples to take the gospel to the far corners of the known world.
Father, I don’t know that too many modern Christians see ourselves as tasked with a search and rescue mission to those lost in sin and darkness. I know that many of us want our lost friends and relatives and coworkers to be found, to be saved. But too many of us do not see ourselves as part of the team called to actually search for them wherever they have wandered, leaving the security of the flock behind to rescue them, and carrying them back to the safety of the sheepfold. It is a great privilege to have been commissioned by Jesus Himself with this work, simply as a Christian, one of His disciples. But it is a great responsibility as well. Amen.