If you want to get to sleep you can count sheep, but most of us don’t lose sleep over a wandering sheep! In Jesus day though, a story about lost sheep resonated with those listening and certainly they clearly understood the metaphor.
The metaphor of a lost sheep
In Mathew 12:11 Jesus uses it to make the point that saving human life is more important than keeping to rules:
Matthew 12:11 “And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.”
Later on in Matthew 18 he repeats the analogy with the story of another rescue – if we didn’t know better, we might have thought the Jesus was a shepherd (well he was of course) – the good shepherd!)
Matthew 18:12 “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”
We go astray – just like sheep
The point of all this is, that as fallen human sinful beings we are just like sheep in our behaviour: we constantly stray and do stupid things!
Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
1 Peter 2:25 “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”
We do the same sinful things over and over again even when we get the same negative results – insane!
Example: crazy tortoise!
This reminds me, of when I was young and had a pet tortoise. It had nice enclosure with a chicken wire fence, plenty of grass, and even a little wooden house to live in. Every day though, the tortoise did three things: it ate, it slept and every other waking moment, it spent climbing the fence trying to escape!
Surprisingly, tortoises are very good climbers but unfortunately they have no common-sense. In fact they have no sense at all, so that when he arrived at the top of the wire he just kept going and inevitably fell off onto his back. Ingeniously, he would then use his back paws up against the fence to push himself upright and get out of this scrape. Amazingly, he never learnt the lesson (give up) but would begin the whole process again. He didn’t live long and I do wonder whether he died of concussion!
So what’s the point of this story? What can we learn? How does my crazy tortoise relate to us? Maybe if their hadn’t been sheep in biblical times the Bible would have used the tortoise as an example!
“All we like tortoises have gone astray (very slowly!) “
Jesus therefore is the ultimate pastor or shepherd and his mission is to rescue dumb sheep (or tortoise) out of the mess we get ourselves into! Our designation is lost – resistance is futile!
Luke 19:10 “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Parable of the lost sheep of – Luke 15
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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.
Who are the lost sheep?
As we see in the above passage, Jesus further expands and clarifies the parable of lost sheep as told in Matthew 18, intimating clearly, that he views the listening tax-gathers and sinners as the lost sheep! I don’t expect they were getting this message from their local church or synagogue – if they attended at all!
This parable is basically saying, that Jesus isn’t interested in faithful church-goers. No, he’s after the black-sheep of the family: the guy who sells crack cocaine; the prostitute; the pervert. That’s what he’s prepared to risk life and limb for. This shepherd is scouring the outback in search of just one sheep because even sinners, broken and lost – have value!
Zaccheus gets found!
This parable is played out in real-life later on in Luke 19, when a real ‘live’ wandering sheep by the name of Zaccheus, is ‘found’ hiding in the branches of a tree!
Luke 19: Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Therefore, just as Zaccheus cannot believe his luck on being asked to put on a party by the centre of attraction Jesus, likewise in the parable, the shepherd is so delirious with the success of his mission that he invites his neighbours around for a party. Over a sheep! A little crazy maybe? Could God be a little more into partying than we though was decent?
Luke 15:7 “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost! I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”
What about repentance though – I hear the religious intone? If repentance means saying sorry for your sins – how does a sheep do that? I mean, all it does it bleat? Now of course, Zaccheus does show the fruits of repentance in the over-the-top restitution he makes – but a sheep?
What is repentance?
I think the explanation might be, to understand that the sinful human condition separates us from God – in other words we are lost! The moment that sin entered the world, Adam and Eve became wandering sheep and their first instinct is to hide amongst the trees and ‘cover up’ with fig leaves.
Indeed, religion is really an exercise in covering up nakedness and making us comfortable with our alienation and separation from God.
Colossians 1:21 And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled.
Separated from God?
This separation though is a virtual one. What do I mean? Well, its all in the mind; all in our thinking. God isn’t avoiding us; we are avoiding him!
Romans 1:25 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
Ephesians 4:17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,
Ephesians 2:3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
As you can see from these scriptures, sinful thinking leads to sinful behaviour. Could repentance therefore not so much be about what we do – but a change of mind. Is it, that when we encounter the pure love of God as we are laid on the rescuing good shepherd’s shoulders -that we change our minds ( repent) and a whole load of sinful thinking that has alienated us from the life of God falls away?
In the next article we will look at the parable of the lost coin.
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