It is all about mission. If you are a believer in God, whatever you determine to be the mission of God becomes your mission. How does the God you place your hope in view people? Does he save the good ones by stomping into the dust the scoundrels? Or does he do everything he can to get the scoundrels to follow his ways? Is it a seek and destroy mission or is it a seek and save mission? And if God has slotted a group of people for destruction, what would our treatment of them be? At the very least it would be avoidance and at the worst we would see ourselves as working for God by annihilating them ourselves. You know, like Paul did with the early Christians.
Luke 15:1-7 is the first of three parables that make a similar point. God’s mission is saving not destroying. Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. There is a setting scene: the Pharisees and the scribes grumble about how all the tax collectors and sinners approaching Jesus. The word “all” is most likely meant to be hyperbole. You know like when Mark tells us that all the country of Judea was going out into the wilderness to see this wild man named John. It is also most likely an assessment of his ministry and not merely a reference to a certain time frame. At issue was the fact that Jesus received sinners and ate with them. For the Pharisees and the Scribes, these people were going to be sought and destroyed by God. They were to be avoided. The righteous should stay with the righteous and leave the scoundrels to their own devices. It is important to keep this setting scene in mind as we go through the following parables.
So, let’s say you have a hundred sheep. It misses the point to question whether or not it was likely that any of these Pharisees or Scribes would have been shepherds. They were familiar with the shepherd passages in Zechariah 34 and Psalm 23. And the reality of shepherds would not be too far out of their understanding. That’s why Jesus begins with, “What man among you if he had a hundred sheep.” Okay, if you are wealthy and you have one hundred sheep and one of them is lost, what would you do? The good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind to go search for the lost one. The emphasis is that in this moment the need of the one lost sheep is far more important than the need of the ninety-nine. Even though it is not in the story, it is likely to be understood that the not-lost sheep are not just left without protection. But the emphasis of the story is on the concern over the lost one.
When this shepherd finds the lost sheep, he drapes it over his shoulders and carries it back to the flock. A lost sheep will most likely be scared and confused and carrying it is going to be more effective than leading it. And there is a lesson here isn’t there. Regardless of bluster, the lost are scared and confused, and the good shepherd is willing and able to carry them back to the flock. After securing the lost to the flock, the man goes home and calls together his friends and neighbors and invites them to rejoice with him. The implication is probably that he was asking for more than a “I am sure glad you found your lost sheep.” It is an invitation to celebrate with; to join the party.
And then Jesus drives home the point. When a lost soul repents heaven breaks out in party mode. Some critics have questioned the whole repent thing, claiming that the reason the Pharisees and Scribes were scandalized by Jesus is that he didn’t call the sinners to repentance. When Jesus told the people to love their enemies, this is a call to repentance. Not to mention that 10:13 is a scathing rebuke because they have seen and heard Jesus and did not repent. And the implication of this verse is that the goal of seeking the lost is to bring them back to the flock. This, of necessity, calls for repentance; a sorrow for the path that has led away from God and changing direction to come back to God. And again, when that happens, heaven bursts forth with celebration. And isn’t that nice?
Most sources will take a moment to point out that Jesus’ point is not that the Pharisees are saved; that they are not lost and therefore don’t need the seeking attention of God. They may have believed that of themselves, but that is not the reality. We all need to be found. We all need to be draped across the shoulders of Jesus. We all need to be carried back to the flock. The mission of God is seek and save. This is extremely important because the parable invites us to rejoice with all of heaven when a lost soul is found and brought back. But we will miss the party if we, like the Pharisees and Scribes, think God should just wipe these unrighteous folk out for being lost. And we miss the truth of our own lostness and need. Peace.