The shepherding profession was quite common and easily understood in Bible days. Therefore, a good, caring shepherd and his search for lost sheep -- became a popular picture for God’s search for -- and saving a relationship with his people. Jesus uses shepherding words to describe the salvation of a tax collector.
- Jesus said, “Today is the day for this family to be saved from sin... [and be] one of God’s chosen people. (ERV) The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.” [ICB] (Luke 19:9a-10)
- For the Lord God says: “I will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking [after] his flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places they were scattered in that dark and cloudy day… I will seek my lost ones, those who strayed away, and bring them safely home again. I will put splints and bandages upon their broken limbs and heal the sick... (TLB) (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16a)
The Search of Desperation, The Joy of Discovery
In a former community I was walking downtown and came across a church attendee who came mostly because his girlfriend came -- he wasn’t what you’d call a traditional parishioner (or maybe that is a traditional way people begin coming to church 😊). But he didn’t see himself as a very spiritual person and he was having lunch in an outdoor café and invited me to join him and I did. Since we were obvious to everyone who walked by in that small town, after a few minutes he said, “Maybe you don’t want to be seen with me.” to which I shrugged and said, “I’ll eat with anyone.” We both had a laugh about it.
We were later at wedding reception and even though he knew I didn’t imbibe, he thought it would be fun to put all kinds of pressure on me to drink. I politely refused, but that didn’t work because he was trying to show off in front of his friends at the table. So he put on more pressure, which was embarrassing even to his friends and they tried to get him to stop, but he said, “This is what we do all the time with each other.” (I thought, “No we don’t.”). And he launched into another attack trying to get me to drink. Finally, something popped into my head that I read that non-drinking businesspeople do when they are doing business lunches and face this kind of pressure. And their answer was, and this is what I told him, “I need to be at my best and keep my mind sharp when I’m with people like you.” I’m not sure he took it as a compliment as it is intended to be in business books, but his friends were relieved and enjoyed it and it did stop the argument and the direction of the conversation changed. And over the next few years I kept encouraging him to see a spiritual and ethical side to life.
There were only a few prophets -- who were rarely listened to in their own day -- that understood God’s attitude toward all of us sinners. But God’s attitude is familiar to most of us. We see it in John 3:16 -- That God so loved the world -- and John uses that word “world” in a technical sense -- not just the people who live on this earth. When we take it in that sense, it leads many to make distinctions between us sinners and those sinners; between those within and without the faith, those who are worthy or not worthy of reaching for salvation - depending on whatever factors or measuring sticks we want to use. But John’s technical sense of the word “world” and “worldly” is of those people who are directly opposed to God and his values. That is who he “loves so much”.
But we get it, at least in a general sense -- God loves all people wants all to be saved and therefore, reaching out in love and grace, he sent his Son to die on the cross to make that possible. And because most of us have probably believed and received, we get it in principle, and kind of get it in practice. But what is really hard for us to imagine is how utterly shocking this text was when it was lived, originally.
What John called the worldly, the religious leaders called “people of the land”. And their rules were quite clear: To allow a daughter to marry one was the equivalent of handing her over to a lion bound and helpless. You don’t entrust money, you don’t believe their testimony, you don’t tell them a secret, you don’t allow them to raise an orphan, you don’t let them watch over charitable funds, or go with them on a journey, and if at all possible, you don’t do any business with them. You were not to be their guest and you were not to host them as a guest (for eating with them was seen not just as association but welcome and recognition and an approval of their worldly ways. They were not to be trusted, and their influence was dangerously corrupting. Therefore, they were supposed to avoid any contact with people who did not observe even the smallest details of the law, even to instruct them in the law. They would never reach out to influence others toward God. Apparently, a person needed, on their very own, repent and convert to the faith, and came in faithful in the right way, and only then would these leaders begin to welcome them into the fold, the family.
Tax collectors, on the same hand, were seen as traitors of their fellow countrymen, for they were serving the administration of occupying Rome; and that was even if they were honest -- (which they often weren’t because Rome let them take whatever they could get as long as they got their cut).
Some of the more zealous leaders had a saying, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God." So it is not at all surprising to see these religious leaders appalled to see “those” kind of people hanging around Jesus. Nor was it at all surprising, given their pride-filled contemptuous attitude, that “those” people chose to hang around Jesus rather than the religious leaders who would have nothing to do with them.
Jesus disposition isn’t just humanitarian tolerance, it is an expression of God’s will and purpose, to tenderly love and highly value every person. He didn’t figure he could scare them into the kingdom by shunning them, but rather he showed them the way to salvation and real life by taking a sincere interest in them.
Sensing that the religious did not rejoice that at last someone had come to call the lost ones home, he uses three parables to explain his accepting attitude to their critical eyes. We’ll look at only the first two.
- “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? 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. (Luke 15:4-7 (NIV))
(“who do not need to repent” is tongue in cheek sarcasm, in case you didn’t pick up on that. Everyone needs to repent, this describes these leaders who felt no need to be sorry for anything in their life.)
This story, so familiar to us, lays down at least two truths that were contrary to the religious thinking of the day. No one would question the actions of the shepherd in the story. It was simply common sense and common practice of the day. Many flocks were community owned with 2 or 3 shepherds employed to care for them. Some were individually owned. But it doesn’t change the essence of their attitude or actions. Judean shepherds had a hard and dangerous task. Pasture was scarce and were often bordered by dangerous cliffs that had no protective fences, and if one fell, if meant plummeting down to the wilderness below.
The 99 were important and valuable to the shepherd, but no shepherd worth his salt would not worry about and go to great lengths -- even life-endangering lengths, to find (they were expert trackers) to find and recover the one sheep that had wandered off into potential danger from cliffs or wild animals; and they would never stop until it was found. If is was a community flock, the whole village would be notified of the loss and wait anxiously until they saw the shepherd striding home with the sheep over his shoulders; and there would be grateful joy…
George Adam Smith painted the picture, "On some high moor across which at night the hyaenas howl, when you meet him [the shepherd], sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people's history; why they gave his [profession’s] name to the king and made him the symbol of providence [of protection and provision]; [and] why Christ took [the shepherd] as the type [the model] of self-sacrifice."
God (the shepherd) diligently seeks the lost
None of this is surprising to them. This was just standard everyday stuff. Where they began to differ is when Jesus equated this shepherd story with God as the shepherd (and himself fulfilling his Father’s mission) picturing the relationship between God and his people -- and God and not even his people - yet. Oh sure, they understood that God would welcome someone who found their way home, but that God would take special notice the loss, and especially that he would initiate a search, and seek out the lost and never stop or give up hope for discovery -- that was revolutionary thinking in these days. And if the sheep allows it, he will bring him home with great rejoicing by all -- or at least in heaven anyway -- we already heard how they felt about the lost being found. Jesus even names it in the third parable that we aren’t going to look at -- (See Luke 15:27-32) Jesus says even though the kept sheep (the 99) the children who remained with him at home the whole time -- they are deeply loved; those same children and sheep resented the celebration and joy that comes over the one who wandered but is now found.
Discovery brings great joy (not envious resentment)
And Jesus implies in all three parables that they too should be rejoicing that people are being saved instead of criticizing him because he is associating with and preaching to them. There is so much joy and celebration in the discovery, that it overwhelms any need for reproach or punishment of the lost -- (they’ve already learned their lesson by being lost) nor does the shepherd make any boast or complaint about all the trouble and self-sacrifice that the expedition of discovery has cost him, (and in fact will ultimately cost Jesus his life on the cross), but simply asks everyone to rejoice with him over the discovery just as everyone in heaven is rejoicing for the lost one that comes home.
Then Jesus gives an additional parable with the same meaning.
- “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:8-10 (NIV))
The lost coin we are talking about was worth about a day’s wage for the common laborer. It was especially valuable to this woman, perhaps because she was not well off and it may have been a matter of ability to eat or not eat for a day or more. Or, it may have been a part of 10 coins linked together by a silver chain which together formed a marriage headdress and would have the same kind of valuable meaning as a wedding ring does for us today. Either way, the lost coin would have critical meaning to that woman.
Because most homes had only one, or just a few small circular windows, and the floor was beaten earth covered with dried reeds and rushes, a dropped coin in the house would be like looking for a needle in a haystack in the dark - even if it was being searched for in midday - because very little light actually entered the home. Therefore, a lamp is lit, and a broom sweeps the floor in hopes that it might hit the coin and cause it to glint in the small rays of light from the window of lamp, or create a tinkling sound when the broom moved it. Capturing the sound, and in doing so, capturing the coin. And like the shepherd looking for the sheep, the woman does not stop until the coin is found, after which she calls everyone to celebrate with her.
This story too, as a literal event, would have no surprises or raise any objections from the original listeners. In fact, they had their own lost coin saying -- If a man keeps seeking for a lost coin, how much more should he seek the Law.
God (the woman) diligently seeks the lost
But they didn’t have any sayings about a God who went seeking. This was a completely new and radical idea for them, (except for a perhaps a handful of prophets). This idea was not radical only for them; one commentator says every other world religion writes about humanity’s yearning and quest for God -- but it is only in Jesus where we hear of God’s yearning and quest for those that he has created.
Discovery brings great joy (not env-ious resentment)
And rejoicing over the resulting discovery of the lost -- despite their background or their current state -- was equally unique in Jesus. These leaders were much more familiar with vindicating justice for them by (what in their mind was) the delightful destruction of others who were not like them. But once again, the parable calls upon the religious leaders to rejoice over lost ones that are found and saved.
Justifying association rather than isolation.
Jesus, therefore, explains why tax collectors and sinners gather around him and why he permits it to happen. Because he, like his Father in heaven, in his love and grace for us, initiates search patterns to find the lost, and rejoices over their discovery, and indicates that that is how we should feel, and act, as well.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray… Lord, we believe in your seeking love because we see it so clearly in Jesus, who came from heaven to freely move among us and live among to seek us out so that we could find our way back to you, or better, that Jesus could rescue us from our errant wanderings, and safely carry us back to you on his shoulders, restoring our spiritual health and binding up what is broken within us and making us stronger members of your family. All because in Jesus, while we were yet lost, you valued us and came and gave your life on the cross so that we could be found and enter your presence, not by our efforts, but by your grace -- but grant us to have the same attitude toward others; and we rejoice that you have surrounded us with your presence in nature, and your presence in your forgiveness, and your presence in love, and life, and your words that you give to us, and the people that you have given to us to be together in this part of your kingdom. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 89 (vv1,2,3) Joyful, Joyful
Closing Blessing Now as you go, know that God has sought you, come to you, invited you, and embraced you, and we are a found people and we need never wander beyond his loving care. Amen.