|Detail from a window at Sainte-Chappelle, Paris.|
This coming Sunday we will be presented with two short parables about God seeking the lost, no matter the cost. The first parable about the lost sheep in verses 3-7 has a parallel elsewhere-- in Matthew 18:11-14:“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Matthew 18 begins with a discussion of greatness—the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest among them, and Jesus instead speaks of little children. Luke’s gospel speaks of sinners instead of children, which can color the reader’s reaction. Children are innocent and also not responsible for their own actions, while sinners are guilty and are responsible for their own actions.
On the surface of this parable, God/the Messiah is the shepherd. This is a symbol that was very common in scripture (Numbers 27:17; 2 Samuel 5:2; Psalms 23, 28, and 80; Isaiah 40:11) and the Pharisees undoubtedly understood its meaning. Yet this parable about the shepherd starts off with placing the Pharisees in the role of the shepherd: “Which of you…” Jesus asks, would not go out and rejoice over the sheep being found?
The Pharisees and scribes are certain of their godliness—like the 99 sheep, they are sure that they have never strayed. They believe that sinners are outcasts through their own fault, and it stands to reason that it is the sinners who have to change in order to rejoin the “flock.” Yet here it is the righteous who are abandoned by the shepherd for the sake of the one sheep who is lost. Jesus is asking the righteous sheep to imagine themselves in the place of the shepherd in order to open up their understanding, to consider not just who they are but how they are to act toward the lost: with judgment, or with mercy?
This is not how the Pharisees believe society should be ordered—sinners are lost through their own fault, and therefore count for nothing. But in the story God (as the shepherd) takes the initiative to find the sheep/sinner. The entire way of life for the Pharisees and scribes is being challenged here. They believe that the righteous should not be counted for less than the lost-- but that is exactly what Jesus is saying with this parable. They also believe that sinners should have to work for their redemption through adopting right actions—but the shepherd doesn’t require anything of the lost sheep. God carries the sinner back into community after seeking out the sinner. Just as we saw in the Jeremiah reading last Sunday, it is God who is faithful and constantly approaching the lost and initiating reconciliation. What does this mean for us today? Aren’t we also too often interested in justice for those who we perceive as having done wrong, but often praying for mercy when we ourselves are at fault?
This parable brings to life the concept of grace—the free gift of forgiveness from God which we can never earn. Amazing Grace, even, (as the hymn goes) that saved a wretch like me! Jesus dining with sinners and outcasts offends the Pharisees and scribes because it violates their sense of justice. Mercy has no role to play in their system. In the Pharisaic system, God is a passive, distant figure who is appeased by humans following rules that they themselves have developed over centuries.
But Jesus insists otherwise--God seeks us out constantly, loving us enough to come to us in our own flesh in order to save those who cannot find their way. In Jesus’s explanation, God is the one who loves and cares for the lost, constantly searching them out, and making them the priority in the kingdom of heaven. Our only response to the unbelievable gift of grace by God is an outpouring of thankfulness and gratitude in love, which is the greatest gift we can offer to God.