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 wilderness, and go after the one which 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 which was lost.’. Just so… there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Luke 15:3-6 (RSV)
Jesus here is responding to his perennial religious critics, the Pharisees. They have grumbled about the way Jesus, this unorthodox rabbi, openly hangs out with “tax collectors and sinners”, the bottom of the religious and social barrel. So Jesus, in his pointed way, tells this story about a lost sheep and a rather crazy shepherd, using it to respond to their critique.
“What man of you…?” Jesus asks. And his audience would have answered, “No man!”. Indeed, the startling idea of leaving a large flock of valuable sheep “in the wilderness” would have been unthinkable. Too risky and foolish by half. And for what? A silly individual sheep who has wandered off; certainly not worth the effort of setting off into the treacherous Judean wilderness simply to rescue one miserable sheep.
And what about the end of this story? Throwing a party for the return of one pitiful little sheep, and inviting your neighbors to join the celebration? What a concept.
Yet these kinds of crazy, impractical actions are precisely, says Jesus, the ways that the love of God operates. St Paul (1 Corinthians 1) speaks about “the foolishness of the Cross”, and indeed it is “foolish”, for the entire plan of the salvation of the world is incredible and shocking. What lengths will our brokenhearted God go to in order to bring humanity back into fellowship with Himself? How far will a Father go to rescue His beloved children who have wandered off? How much will He risk, forsaking the calculus of logic in favor of the abandon of love?
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Isaiah 53:6-7
The Shepherd takes the place of His beloved lost and wandering sheep. He leaves safety and comfort behind, seeks them out and goes to where they are. He willingly places himself at the mercy of the forces of hatred, malice, destruction and death. He becomes their ransom, their substitute, allowing them to come home.
And He longs above all else to celebrate our homecoming with us. What a wonderful Savior, an impractical Lover who will stop at nothing to rescue His beloved.