The Parable of the Lost Sheep
How much time do you spend primping your life so you'll fit in with the crowd? We all spend time trying to fit in with our social groups. It's natural for the human species. Nevertheless, Jesus explains when we do this we live in very dangerous territory. We focus on belonging rather than being loved by Christ. Being loved by God should be our highest aspiration. But how can we make ourselves good enough to be loved by God? We can't.
Who do you think Jesus loves most? You may be surprised at the answer.
But before we go further, I'd like to point out something particularly interesting about this parable. This parable contains a key. The Parable of the Lost Sheep contains the encryption key for deciphering Jesus' parables and let me assure you I am not implying that the gospels are Gnostic texts. They certainly are not. They don't contain hidden meanings that are only understandable by those that have the right knowledge, such as a key. This was and is the belief of many Gnostics. The difference between Christians and Gnostics is that Christians live by faith. Gnostic live by secret, hidden knowledge. And there's a big difference. Having a hidden knowledge is a very self-centered, ego-centric and exclusive way to view the world. Christianity is precisely the opposite. Faith is inclusive. Gnosticism is exclusive and solely about an inner circle of those 'in the know'. The action of Gnosticism is to know more. The action of the Christian faith is to love more. Many Christians today are Gnostics. If you have the 'right' knowledge, then you're saved. But as the Parable of the Lost Sheep points out that's not how our shepherd works.
I use the encryption key analogy just to explain what Jesus meant in the Parable of the Sower when he said:
Though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.
Those who do not have the key, hear but do not understand. The key isn't some long complex prayer and it isn't a simple set of ten rules to follow. It is more simple: the key is to listen to the word of God with sinner's ears and to respond with a repentant heart. Then the key fits right in the hole in our stoney heart caused by the sin of Adam—our sin—and allows Jesus to enter. This key is why Christians for ages have prayed, "Lord, have mercy." It's the key. The key is a prayer that invites Jesus into our hearts to help the sinner come home. True Christians live their lives in that state. It's also the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." It opens the door to Christ and his teaching.
Like all other parables, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is a living story. It's figurative and symbolic, but it ends up being a way of life. Christians end up living, speaking and expressing themselves in symbolic and figurative ways, because the kingdom of heaven is not yet a material reality—or at least not through clear evidence. Our kingdom is presently hidden from our eyes. But faith tells us it exists.
But first, let's examine the intended audience of the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
It should be fair to say that since this parable was a response to an accusation by the Pharisees and scribes, it is directed toward them—and if I may add, the hypocrite hiding in our hearts. They accused Jesus of welcoming sinners and eating with them. For any self-respecting Hebrew man of the time, it would have been scandalous. But Jesus responded to their accusation with a parable, a 'truth-story', as he so often did.
This parable opens with something really funny if you listen to it with sinner's ears. Jesus asks, "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?" Then he goes on straight-faced saying, "And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home." The answer to the initial question is most certainly not. Any self-respecting shepherd does not leave all ninety-nine to find one lost sheep. He calls it good and takes the hit on the lost one. But no, this shepherd is definitely different. He goes after the one special sheep. The irony is funny, but it is also funny to the sinner's ears because we are so thankful and so joyful that he's coming after us and we think it's just a bit crazy and just all too wonderful to believe. We would have never dreamt that he'd leave the others to get us lowly sinner misfits. What joy! And to think, we thought he loved those exclusive, self-absorbed and downright mean sheep more than us. How silly we were! And now we're going directly home atop our shepherd's shoulders with a great sigh of relief and a big, wide smile.
Notice that in the parable that he didn't even go back to check on the ninety-nine. It seems that he goes straight home, now I suppose that home might be back to the herd, but I'm not so sure. Clearly, it's not funny at all for those that listen the parable without sinner's ears or a repentant heart, because they know in their heart they are the ninety-nine. In fact, they are angry and jealous because for some reason they are out of favor. But in their heart they know why: they could care less for that shepherd anyway. We sinners come to know that he loves us through these wonderful parables. He's speaking directly to us. He loves us because the sinner has an honest, simple and sincere heart. We no longer have a liar's heart of stone.
But the ones that think they are righteous and have no need of repentance, they flock together. We see the same thing today in any number of venues. Jesus clearly explains at the end of the parable that the lost ones are those "sinners who repent."
I don't want us to get confused, the righteousness of God is good. We should seek to be righteous in all that we do. But we do it for the glory of God, not for our own selfish needs and for others to look at. The 'righteousness' Jesus is shunning is more like righteousness on display. Paul tells the Romans, "All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God." We all are inherently selfish and our tendency is to love inwardly rather than outwardly. There are those in Scripture, who have been called righteous: Noah, Job, Daniel. But these men were not sin-free. They were lifted up as examples because of their deep faith and because they loved righteousness. The best description of false-righteousness is when Jesus says, "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean."
I have heard it commented that the lost sheep are also the ninety-nine righteous and that Jesus comes after them too. He certainly would, but not until they truly become lost. He makes it clear that heaven rejoices for the repentant sinner but not the righteous who wallow in their pride, self-satisfaction, traditions, rules, structure and exclusiveness. They are too scared to go the margin of the flock. They want to belong to the flock more than to the shepherd. They want to be loved by the flock more than by the shepherd. Sounds like anyone we know? Yes, it sounds like my sinner's heart trying to trick me again. The parables speak to the sinner and the 'righteous', and both are inside of us. It's the sinner in us that must face outward and step forward. It's the sinner that will be marginalized by the crowd. Yet, from the margin the sinner can make a quick dart, a run for the forest, so our shepherd can save us.
Image: The Good Shepherd - James Tissot