Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:10-13 ESV)
Do you ever encounter grumbles over the way you express your walk with Christ? Jesus came to save the lost in a cultural context of strict rules with stern ruler makers. He met with grumbling over and over again. In this parable he spoke to the Pharisees and scribes with a backdoor message about how to treat fellow human beings.
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 ESV)
Share your initial thoughts about this parable.
First Jesus engaged them as shepherds, peaking their interest with a common dilemma. In Scouting the Divine, Margaret Feinberg shares a dialogue she had with a shepherdess in Oregon.
“Lynne, what happens to sheep without a shepherd?” I asked. “What would happen if you went away — even for a few weeks — and left your sheep without anyone to care for them?” From across the kitchen, Tom raised his eyes above the edge of the newspaper he’d been perusing. “They’d be dead,” he said with conviction. “Lynne has a friend who had one of her Shetlands escape,” . . . I imagined the fate of that sheep. I pictured the wooly creature feasting on grass that was once off-limits, a scene that had repeated itself in many forms since the original forbidden fruit was eaten in the garden. Each bite of the grass tasted better than the previous one. Maybe the sheep wandered toward deeper, more tempting sections of the forest. Unbeknownst to the animal, two beady eyes were watching its every move. The predator ran its tongue along razor-sharp teeth. Almost reading my mind, Lynne awoke me from the spell of my daydream. “It’s not just predators like coyotes,” she said. “Parasites and poisonous plants can also kill a healthy sheep. But probably the greatest threat is too much good food. Sheep often kill themselves by upsetting the delicate balance of their rumen by eating too much grain or rich new green grass. Once the balance of their rumen is upset, they will die within a few days if left untreated.”
While too much food threatened Lynne’s flocks, I knew from research and travel that the shepherds of the Middle East faced a different challenge. Israel is far different from Oregon. A wandering sheep won’t accidentally find itself in knee-deep alfalfa or supple grass. In fact, watching most sheep in Israel, one would think they were rock-eating animals. Their heads may be down, but from a distance there’s little hint of vegetative life. The local shepherds know which hillsides will sprout new slivers of grass overnight, and they lead their flocks there to graze. The sheep are literally dependent on their shepherd for their next mouthful. Interestingly, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he instructs them to ask God for daily bread, not yearly or lifelong bread — a reminder that, like a shepherd, God leads us every step of the way.
What are some of the ways you identify with a sheep? . . . a shepherd?
There are so many important illustrations of truth that include sheep. From Genesis to Revelation, sheep and shepherds are used to teach us simple truth. (referenced from a narrative list from Feinberg)
- Cain’s rejected gift from the field and Able’s acceptable gift from the flock
- Lot and Abram must split up to provide ample grazing for their flocks
- God used a ram to complete the sacrifice in Abraham’s act of faithfulness, prompting Abraham to name that place “The Lord Will Provide”.
- After killing an Egyptian Moses is raised up as the shepherd over God’s people.
- The icon of the Passover is the lamb’s blood over the doorpost of the chosen people of Israel, symbolizing the Lamb of God who would come and die for the sins of the world.
- The Messiah was anticipated as the One who would Shepherd Israel.
- Jesus used this parable and many other references to sheep and shepherds, as did Paul and Peter.
- Imprisoned on the island of Patmos and writing Revelation, John continually mentions his visions of the Lamb.
This parable was given in response to the criticism of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus had received sinners and even ate with them. These “sinners” were Jews who were not obeying the Law or the traditions of the elders and were therefore “outcasts” in Israel. Jesus had already made it clear that He came to save sinners and not self-righteous people like the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus saw what these “sinners” really were: lost sheep who needed a shepherd.
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32 ESV)
21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:21-24 ESV)
In the ancient time, a shepherd was responsible for each of the sheep; and if one was lost or killed, he had to make up for it himself. Sheep are lost because of their own stupidity; they wander away and fail to see the danger they are in. Jesus came to “seek and to save them that are lost”. Note the emphasis on rejoicing: the shepherd rejoices, the neighbors rejoice, and heaven rejoices.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. 4So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 ESV)
Do you have these times of rejoicing in your life? Are you going into the wilderness to carry someone out on your shoulders? Do you hear the grumbling? Are you all sheep, or do you have some shepherd in you?