Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:1-7)
The parable of the shepherd that leaves behind 99 sheep in order to in search for one he has lost is so well known that many of us struggle to think there is anything new we might learn from it. But as one for whom this parable has long been among her favorite passages in scripture, I am convinced that many of us have barely even begun to scratch the surface of all that this passage reveals to us not only about God and his love for sinners, but also about ourselves and our participation in that love.
The most common reading of this parable holds that the shepherd is meant to represent God who, in his deep love for all of his sheep, would leave behind the entire flock simply to go in search of one that was lost. This is, of course, part of how it is to be read, particularly in light of the fact that Luke gives it to us in the same context in which he also gives us the parable of the widow and the lost coin and that of the prodigal son.
But there is also a deeper sense in which all three parables are meant to challenge those present to consider their own participation in this love of God for sinners. Notice how Jesus begins his response to the grumbling of the Scribes and Pharises by saying, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one…” Jesus is not mere trying to explain why he eats with such people through these parables; he is also challenging them to place themselves “in the shoes” of the protagonists of these parables in order to compare their own love (or lack thereof) with that of God. This challenge is all the more forceful because the shoes into which they are to place themselves in the first two parables are those of the lowest of society: a shepherd and a woman.
Honing in on the parable of the shepherd, it is significant (and curious) that the shepherd in question is said to have lost the sheep. Most often this goes completely unnoticed, probably because we all either assume or have been told that the sheep simply went astray (assuming Is 53:6 or the frequently cited stupidity of sheep), but as Ken Bailey notes, the text is undeniably clear that the responsibility for the loss of the sheep falls on no hands other than the shepherd’s. He lost the sheep.
Are we to imagine, then, that this is God? Does God lose his sheep?
The emphatic answer is, of course, no. But listen closely and one begins to hear the echoes of Ezekiel 34, in which God calls the Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, who abused their leadership and power to their own advantage, rather than tending the people who had been placed in their care. In response to their neglect, God would (and did!) send a Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for those who had been lost or threatened by wolves (Jn 10:11-15); but he had not lost the sheep.
The curious thing about this understanding of the parable is that it actually rests on the fact that the shepherd in question is not merely a hired hand (Jn 10:11), but rather has a stake in the sheep that has been lost. A man who had a hundred sheep would not likely have been tending them himself. As Bailey notes, the flock would have most likely been owned corporately by an extended family and community, and the man tending it would have been one of the less affluent members of that family. As such he not only would have had a stake in the sheep, but also a responsibility to others for those sheep that were not directly his own, but that had been placed under his care.
The implication is clear: if the those listening are called to place themselves in the shoes of the shepherd that has lost the sheep; and if the shepherd is not simply a hireling but one who has a direct stake in the care and safety of the sheep (because they belong to him and his family), then they too, as the purported people of God, are to see those whom Jesus gathers around him, not as “others” and certainly not as outsiders, but as God’s and, as a result, their own.
That is to say, their stake in finding the lost sheep should be no less than that of the shepherd, nor should their rejoicing be any less at their restoration.
Taking this into consideration, I want to close by noting that there are actually two “moments” of rejoicing mentioned in the parable. Most of us are familiar with the rejoicing of the community, but we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the first moment of rejoicing actually happens when the shepherd finds the sheep and places him on his shoulder for the journey back to restoration to the flock. This is significant because according to scholars, a lost sheep will lie down helplessly and refuse to budge, forcing the shepherd to carry it over a long distance. The shepherd, then, rejoices at finding the sheep even knowing that entire burden of restoring that sheep to the flock rests on his shoulders.
And in this, of course, we begin to see echoes of the cross where, in fact, the one who was the Good Shepherd bore on his shoulders every sin by which his flock had been lost and isolated from him, so that they might be restored to him. But if we do not also see our own stake in the care for the rest of the flock—especially those that are lost—and our own call to bear that burden with him, then we have missed the point of the parable entirely. This parable is not just about God’s love for sinners and the lost, but also about our call to care for, love, seek out and even bear the burden of helping those who are lost be restored the community for which they were made: they community that is founded and fed on the love and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Is there someone in your life that comes to mind when you read this? If so, pray for ways that God might be calling you to help restore him or her to that relationship in which alone is life abundant. And if not, pray that the Lord will open your eyes and your heart to the ways in which you might serve him by sharing his love with those around you.