Back when I was 15 and in Air Cadets, we were on a winter survival weekend just outside Thunder Bay, when my best friend, Pat and I decided to take the snowmobiles out for a spin on the lake after dinner on a cloudy really dark night. As we skimmed along the snow and ice of the lake, we enjoyed the brisk winter night until we decided to head back to camp and realized that we had gotten ourselves turned around and couldn’t find the camp anymore. We tried to follow our tracks back, but because there were so many tracks criss-crossing all over the lake, that didn’t help. As we drove around the lake, Pat suddenly spotted a light shining in the dark, waving back and forth. Our captain had gone out onto the ice and was waving a spot-light into the night sky to bring us back. When we drove up, the captain was freezing from standing in the bitter cold, but he didn’t curse us or even punish us, he was simply happy that we were back safely. As I let this story of Jesus and the Pharisees settle into my heart this week, this memory of my captain standing there in the cold and freezing for Pat and I, wouldn’t go away.
It was a picture of what I think Jesus is getting at here. Jesus is drawing a crowd as he travels around teaching the people about God, inviting them to trust God’s love and commitment to them, calling them to repent and believe. But it’s not the Pharisees and teachers of the law who recognize that Jesus is from God, instead it’s the sinners and tax collectors who gather around Jesus to hear what he has to say. Now for the Jews, hearing was more than simply listening, hearing means that you listen and them put what you’ve heard into action into your life.
Now the proper people, the ones who seem to have their lives all together, are muttering, “This man welcomes sinner and eats with them.” This is said with a bit of a sneer and a sense that they’re better than Jesus, what’s Jesus thinking, eating with people like that. Jesus just doesn’t seem to care about the laws God put into place to keep the nice people separate from the scummy people, Jesus doesn’t seem to understand or care about who proper people should hang around with or eat with. You need standards after-all. Jesus actually hangs out with sinners as if they were family or kin, as if they were acceptable.
So, Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees through a series of parables why he’s with the sinners. Jesus wants to help them see why he’s hanging out with the sinners, why it’s so important. Jesus asks them to imagine that they’re shepherds. The shepherd is a common image in Jewish thought and usually refers to leaders in Israel. One of the most well known passages of the shepherd as leader comes from the prophet Ezekiel who talks about uncaring shepherds in chapter 34 and tells the people that God himself will come and seek and rescue his sheep and care for them. The idea that God is a shepherd to his people is also found in the well-loved shepherd psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not be in want.”
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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.’” The shepherd loses a sheep and leaves the ninety-nine sheep in a safe place where they can keep eating and goes to look for the lost sheep. This is what a shepherd does. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander away, following the grass without often being aware of any danger, going off on its own without really thinking. There’s nothing more helpless than a lost sheep: they have no natural defenses against lions, eagles, wolves or other predators. The shepherd doesn’t easily give up, he goes after the lost sheep until he finds it.
Video of looking for lost sheep
We often picture the shepherd strolling through the fields, keeping an eye out for the lost sheep. It’s always a sunny day and not too hot in our minds. We never think that it might be dangerous for the shepherd, we only see a cute lamb wandering on rolling hills, the shepherd finds the sheep, easily lifting the sheep onto his shoulders and strolling back to the flock. But the reality is different, sheep have a way of finding themselves in odd and often dangerous places. The shepherd needs to work hard and even risk his life at times to save the sheep from their own foolishness. Even while getting a sheep out of a dangerous situation, they will often fight against the shepherd. Carrying a 100 pound sheep who is struggling and wiggling on your shoulders is hard work. Do you get why the shepherd calls his family and friends together to celebrate finding the lost sheep? It takes a lot of effort to find, save and bring home a lost sheep. It’s not like walking the trails at Chickakoo and coming across a small lamb, picking it up, putting it on our shoulders and heading home; this is about a full-grown sheep in rough country needing to be found and saved.
The meaning of the parable is no secret. Even in the Old Testament, prophets like Isaiah were calling those who’ve drifted away from God lost sheep. Isaiah 53:6, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Our going astray is usually not about deliberately going out and doing what we know is wrong and hurting God, someone else or ourselves. Most of the time we’re like sheep, nose to the ground following our appetites, whether it’s food, pleasure, power, or whatever, and then, as Tim Keller says, we take the good things God gives us and make them gods, they become more important to us than Jesus. Rosario Butterfield describes how Jesus saves us his sheep, Jesus comes untouched by the original sin that distorts, the actual sin that distracts, and the indwelling sin that manipulates. Jesus is no puppet on the strings of Satan, as we too often are. And when Jesus fulfilled the law by dying on the cross and rising by his own power to sit at God the Father’s right hand, he gave his people the power to overcome the sin that enslaves them. He gave us his blood to wash away our sins, he gave us his Word to instruct and heal us, and he sent the Holy Spirit to lead us in conviction and repentance of sin and to comfort us by the assurance that his saving love is rock solid.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that he’s the good shepherd from Zechariah who has come to find the lost sheep and bring them back home and every time a person comes back to God, it’s party time, “there’s rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The sinners that Jesus is accused of eating with are the lost that Jesus has come to find and bring home. The sinners have responded to Jesus’ call to “Come follow me, repent and believe for the kingdom of God is near.” By eating with these sinners, Jesus is giving us a small glimpse of what waits for us, a banquet feast where Jesus is our host and we’re washed clean of our sin, healed from our sin, and being reconciled to our heavenly father who is number one in our lives again.
Jesus is inviting the Pharisees and us to join him in seeking the lost and bringing them home to the father again. This isn’t easy clean work, it’s hard, messy and sometimes dangerous; talk to our brothers and sisters in places like Syria, Egypt and other countries who have given their lives when going after the lost. We may get discouraged because we don’t see any results and yet we also believe that when God works in their lives, calling them to himself, that they’re unable to resist his call on their hearts, so we don’t give up. We’re called to go and make disciples because we deeply love our neighbours and want them to be with us at Jesus’ banquet. This is all about bringing home the lost, those who have forgotten that they’re children of God, loved deeply by their father. When the Holy Spirit moves them to accept Jesus as their shepherd, as their saviour, what an amazing time to celebrate!