Jesus was never afraid to interact with religious pariahs. Luke relates a time when “tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him” (Luke 15:1). In first-century Israel, “tax collectors” were considered traitors to God and country, having sold out to Rome. “Sinners” was something of a collective noun for people considered guilty of public, notorious sin: prostitutes, drunkards, etc. Together, tax collectors and sinners were outcasts from the religious community and beyond hope of salvation. But there was something winsome that these very people saw in Jesus that attracted them to him.
On this particular day, the religious leaders “grumbled” that he, a popular Jewish rabbi, would dare to receive and eat with these outcasts. Jesus responded with three parables, illustrating the same basic point: that it was precisely sinners for whom he had been sent. Over the next three days, I want to consider each of these parables in turn, focusing, in each instant, on a different aspect of Jesus’ overarching lesson.
Jesus first told the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 1–7). In that parable, a particular sheep-owner had one hundred sheep. When one wandered off, he deliberately left the 99 to find the one. When he returned safely with the lost sheep, there was great rejoicing.
The imagery would perhaps have been more familiar to first-century Jews than to most 21st-century South Africans. Jesus’ hearers would have understood something of the desperate state of a lost sheep. Sheep are deeply dependent creatures. A lost sheep will quickly find itself in mortal danger. Because it cannot fend for itself, a lost sheep is helpless and will soon starve, if it does not first tumble over a cliff or fall prey to a predator. A sheep separated from its flock and its shepherd is in bad shape.
Given the context, we understand that the parables in this chapter have primarily to do with Jesus coming to save those who are lost in their sin. Like the tax collectors and sinners, all those whom Jesus saves were hopelessly lost apart from his gracious intervention.
But there is surely a further principle here for us. After all, the lost sheep was a sheep. It was a part of the owner’s flock before it was lost. Surely one devotional lesson from this parable has to do with the vulnerability of sheep separated from their flock.
God’s design for his people is that they remain together in a flock. Christians are not born again to live in isolation from other Christians. A sheep separated from its flock is vulnerable to starvation and attack from predators. Predators thrive on isolation and a Christian who remains isolated from his or her flock is ripe for the picking. We all need the flock. We all need shepherding if we will prosper as God’s sheep.
To be reconciled to God’s is to be reconciled to his people, and the church is the visible representation of Christ and his people on earth. Though not the primary meaning of the parable, this is surely a lesson that we can and must appreciate from it.
As you think about the parable of the lost sheep, be appreciative of the fact that Jesus was willing to do what he needed to do to rescue you. At the same time, be cognisant of the dangers of flockless Christianity and be thankfully committed to the flock of which God has made you a part.