If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Jesus used the shepherd motif of the Old Testament with a significantly different emphasis, namely grace. His concern is on the lost sheep, and not just the ones safely within the fold.
Teaching on grace, at first glance, seems to undermine personal responsibility. In Ezekiel’s day a proverb was repeated, “The fathers eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). This simply meant that the children’s problems were really the fault of their parents. To which Ezekiel as God’s prophet replied, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, not will the father share the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). The point clearly made, that your life is your responsibility and you cannot blame your problems on others, not even your parents. This is, of course, all true.
Personal responsibility is a central theme of both the Old and the New Testaments. The problem was that the Jewish mindset tended toward a legalistic interpretation of this, ignoring the fact that, as Isaiah had written, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). We have each been stray sheep toward the Good Shepherd, and we each need grace. The point of Jesus in using the ratio of ninety-nine to one was to emphasize the compassion of God for all the lost, but in reality 100% of God’s sheep have been lost at one time or another. This means it is especially wrong for the congregation of lost-but-found sheep to forget about the condition of those still lost.
Grace in theory we like, it is the practice of it that is difficult. The heart of God looking for lost sheep meant that Jesus went places where the religious leaders of the day would not go, to speak and interact with men and women that they would not let touch them. They accused Him of being a companion of sinners and, which was worse for the strictness of their sect, He even ate with them. It was scandalous behavior, from their perspective, but from God’s perspective it was redemptive love. We do not find many lost sheep sitting in the midst of churches waiting for seeking shepherds to find them – oh, there are a few there, but only a few. They are normally scattered on the hillsides of the world, caught up in lifestyles far from the standard of God. The longer we are in Christ the less like them we are, and the harder it seems it is to connect with them.
Luke records another parable about lostness, the Prodigal Son, and it give additional insight into the nature of the human condition. A sheep a shepherd can just go and get and carry home, but a person must cooperate with his being found and returned. We often find people ready to come to faith when they are like the prodigal, at the end of their hope. They do not know what they need but they know they need something and in that moment they are open to God in a way that they had never been before. But these thoughts and feelings are often hidden within people’s hearts and they are not willing to admit their need to others.
Therefore, the skills of the ones who will become willing witnesses to the seeking Savior, are those that have to do with sensitivity to people’s conditions, their lives, and their worries. To care and not judge is the skill this generation needs, and the church that will be compassionate and useful to Christ, is the church fellowship that puts aside attitudes of superiority and let the raw love of God shape their sympathies for the world. The world needs genuine believers sharing the authentic love of the real Jesus.
My wife and I started a church in Austin, Texas several years ago, along with the help of others. We invited thousands of people to our first service and many responded, among them were several who had no church home. Many of these later did profess faith in Christ for the very first time. Others, however, we found had been saved for years but had dropped out of church for various reasons. Some of them had drifted far from God and were dealing with the painful results of rebellious choices they had made – drugs, children born outside of marriage, loss of jobs, divorce. Christ drew them to our church, and the thing that He used, I believe, was an attitude of love for these previously lost sheep. God cared about them, and we sought to communicate His love for them through our attitude and our actions.
One young mother came with a newborn baby, and several other children, and no father. Her newborn had undergone heart surgery just days after his birth, all as an act of charity by the hospital and doctor. This single mom had no husband, no job, and a newborn child that needed to be cared for constantly. The church did not condemn her, no one said to her a single time about how she had hurt herself by her bad decisions, rather the people were just compassionate and caring. Someone helped care for the kids, another person helped her find a job, someone else brought food over to her house, others encouraged her. It was the body of Christ doing the work of God, reaching out to her in compassion and helping her come back to the Father.
She wrote me a few years after that explaining to me how that was a turning point in her life and in the life of her children. She got her spiritual legs back under her and took her family and put it under the Lordship of Christ. This is the type of followers Christ is looking for, lost sheep that are hurt and damaged by the world, prodigals that have wasted opportunity’s best moments, and of such, and of only such, is the kingdom of heaven comprised. We are all, in some way or another, among their number.
Thank God for His amazing grace!