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The parable is often called the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But that really puts the emphasis on the wrong side of this marvelous lesson. It would be much better to title this, the Parable of the Worthy Shepherd.
“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.”
A. Two Groups
There's two, distinct groups in the congregation this morning. One group is called “the tax collectors and sinners.” The other group is called “the Pharisees and scribes.”
The 'tax collectors and sinners' “draw near to hear him.” They don't say anything. They just listen to Jesus. The 'Pharisees and scribes' also “draw near” to Jesus, but not to listen. They ‘draw near’ to complain and to test Him. “They grumbled, saying, 'this man receives sinners and eats with them.'
B. The Shepherd
“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?”
The way Jesus puts it, this is just common sense and common practice. “Which one of you…” if you were entrusted with 100 sheep and accountable for each and every one of them to the One who entrusted each and every one of them to your care, “which one of you,” wouldn't go after the one until he finds it?
Jesus sounds an awful lot like the prophet Ezekiel. Or, was it the prophet Ezekiel who sounded an awful lot like Jesus? “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Ah, shepherds of Israel… the weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought…” (Ez.34:4-5).
I'm told that in real life, sheep can get so focused on eating that they put their head down and simply move from tuft of grass to tuft of grass without ever looking up until at some point they discover that they're all alone. They didn't deliberately leave the flock. It just happened. The job of the Shepherd is to poke and prod them with his rod and staff if necessary to make sure that they don’t just drift off.
C. The Shepherds of Israel
And the one group in the congregation, the ‘shepherds of Israel,’ they “grumble.” 'Is he serious? Is he really willing to jeopardize the 99 by leaving them in the wilderness for the sake of that one fool who got lost?
I mean really, what's that say about the 99? What's the 'moral majority' supposed to think? Doesn't He know anything about ‘statistics,’ and the 'law of averages' and 'cost efficiency'? Doesn't He know that there's a certain, unavoidable ‘write off' that simply must be budgeted for?
D. The Tax Collectors and Sinners
And what about that other group, the “tax collectors and sinners”? Are they really just ‘innocent’ sheep? In all fairness, isn't there great potential for 'grumbling' from these as well?
This is not ‘sheep’ that we’re really talking about here. People don’t get lost and go missing because of instincts or outside forces beyond their control. It’s usually intentional.
They get fed up with this or that. ‘They're all just a bunch of hypocrites.’ ‘They talk a good talk but never actually take a leap of faith.’ And they have a suitcase full of examples to prove their case.
Maybe it’s not a rebellion against God at all. It’s just that they got bored with the whole business and found something new that interests them more. It's not that they have anything against God or the Church. They just don't have much use for it.
Or maybe it's that God was getting too close. It was all okay as long as the message remained ‘vague,’ or about the ‘problem with the world these days,’ or ‘uplifting’.’ But when it all started to confront me and expose my sin before God and my lack of love for my neighbor, it got ‘uncomfortable’ and at times downright ‘painful.’ And when they said that the only remedy was for me to ‘repent,’ that was more than I wanted from my religion, too risky, and I bolted.”
As crazy as it sounds, there are lots of sheep that go ‘missing’ right in the pews. They sing the hymns and pray the prayers and receive the gifts of God for the people of God, but for them, it’s all just camouflage that they hide from God behind.
And so, when the Shepherd comes to this one, lost sheep, it too may well “grumble.” “Hey, why are you hounding me? I'm not lost. I worship God in my own way, out here in nature. You should be spending your time with those 99 who think that they’re so righteous and leave me alone.”
Point is, the 'lost' are not innocent just because they're ‘lost.’ The “lost sheep” are not the “good guys” in this story. In fact, they’re likely to “grumble” at His coming just as much as the 99 “grumble” at His leaving.
E. He Rejoices When He Finds It
But the thing is, the really important thing to see here is, none of this stops the Shepherd from leaving the 99 and going to the one lost sheep, and looking for it until He finds it. “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” (Ez. 34:11)
And the question is, ‘why?’ What’s His motive? Let’s face it, it’s not because the sheep ‘cry unto the Lord.’ They ‘grumble unto the Lord.’ And it’s not because He knows that they will be so darn grateful that He came to them while ‘they were still a long way off.’ They will reject Him and say, “crucify Him, crucify Him.”
And yet in spite of all of this, “He goes after the one who is lost until He finds it. And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, REJOICING.” Listen. It's not the sheep that rejoices that it has been found. It’s the shepherd who rejoices at finding the one lost sheep.
Why? And the answer is, this is what shepherds are supposed to do. A shepherd is ENTRUSTED with the responsibility of taking care of those who were given to Him and bringing them safely to their destination. His reputation as Shepherd is on the line. Only a “GOOD SHEPHERD” is able to say to the One who has entrusted Him with the care of the flock, “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” (John 18:9).
F. The Burden of Restoring
For a shepherd, finding the lost sheep that has gone astray is a bit like bagging a Moose in Maine. Getting it out of the woods is the hard part. The only way to get a lost sheep back home is for the shepherd to carry it on his shoulders. A typical sheep can weigh up to 80 to 120 lbs., and depending on how far the sheep has wondered from the flock, it is a great burden for the shepherd to bear.
The Christian Church was in existence for over 300 years before it adopted the cross as its identifying symbol. As long as crucifixion was in practice, it was just too raw and painful. Before the cross, the Church’s principle symbol of the faith was the picture a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders.
The interesting thing is that in many cases, the depiction of the sheep is totally out of proportion to the shepherd. The sheep is often depicted as being way oversized, often larger than the shepherd himself.
It’s no mistake. The distortion is intentional. It’s meant to show the tremendous burden that the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ bears in restoring the lost to the fold. “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” He bears the burden of bringing us back home, and the burden is huge.
G. He Is Worthy
So when we hear Jesus say, “when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, REJOICING,” is this not the strangest and most preposterous thing you've ever heard?
“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.” The party, He says, is “for ME.” The Shepherd has vindicated His name. He is WORTHY. And for the sake of the Good Shepherd, the whole community rejoices.
“WORTHY are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…”
“WORTHY are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God…”
“WORTHY is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:9,12).
And His “worthiness” as Shepherd cannot be separated from His love for His sheep. The ‘good shepherd’ is not simply interested in maintaining his own honor and dignity as shepherd. He cares for His sheep even as He knows each and every one of them by name, the one as well as the 99. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” He does what He does, for the ‘sake of the sheep.’
This is the parable of the Worthy Shepherd.
And so, just who is this 'community,' this 'congregation' that joins in this 'feast of victory for our God,' and 'sings with all the people of God and joins in the hymn of all creation”?
Why who else but those who were lost and who have been found. Those whom He carried on His shoulder all the way home; those who were caught up by the grace of God, in this strange and preposterous rescue mission that the Lord has accomplished, “for his own names sake” AND for their sake.
True repentance is not the realization and confession that you have gone astray and are lost. That is our confession of sin. True repentance is the realization and confession that by the grace of God, we have been found; that the Lord Jesus Christ is WORTHY to be praised.
“There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”