© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Jesus sure did spend a lot of time with sinners. Of all the details in the gospel accounts, Jesus’ preference for spending time with social outcasts and notorious ne’er-do-wells is among the most well-known and reliable. Jesus loved hanging out with troublemakers, and all four gospel writers make a big deal about it. I wonder why Jesus liked spending time with sinners so much. Maybe it’s because they were more fun to be with than the religious leaders of his day. (I can believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus knew that they were the ones who needed saving the most. (I don’t believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus wanted to teach religious folks like you and me something about who God is and how God saves us.
If you think about it, Jesus’s decision to spend all that time with tax collectors and sinners doesn’t make a lot of sense. God is holy. God is faithful. God is righteous. The people at Jesus’ table were the exact opposite of that. Why would the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Holy One choose to hang out with people whose lives made it harder for God’s people to recognize God in their midst? God is always for God’s people, but these tax collectors worked for the enemy of God, the Roman Empire. By collecting taxes on behalf of the empire, they helped keep God’s people in its imperial shackles. We tend to dismiss the Pharisees and scribes because we know that members of their religious group were opposed Jesus, but it’s hard to fault them for grumbling about the company Jesus kept.
If you were trying to build a following of people whom God could use to manifest God’s triumphant power in the world, why would you surround yourself with imperial sympathizers and faithless degenerates? Why? Because those notorious sinners are exactly the ones through whom God’s reign becomes manifest on the earth. Jesus wasn’t eating night after night with people whom polite society had rejected simply because he had sympathy on them. He surrounded himself with outcasts because God’s power comes into this world when those who are lost are found and recovered. And Jesus told some parables about that to make his point.
“Which one of you,” Jesus began, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” There is some debate over whether Jesus’ depiction of the shepherd’s willingness to leave behind the ninety-nine is realistic. We even discussed it in staff meeting this week. Would Jesus’ audience have been surprised to hear that a shepherd would risk losing some or all of the ninety-nine just to search for the one that was lost? By presenting an unrealistic shepherd, is Jesus trying to tell us something shocking about the radical compassion of God? Surely he is, but I’m not convinced that’s the way he wanted to make his point.
Historians have found secondary sources that describe under what conditions a shepherd would be justified—and thus be held blameless—for leaving an entire flock behind to search for a single lost sheep. As long as the temporary caretaker wasn’t blind or drunk or foolish, the action Jesus describes was considered reasonable and justified. Luke, however, doesn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the shepherd’s decision to leave them behind except to say that he left them in the wilderness. That’s a less-than-comforting description, which may indicate a truly reckless act, but the fact that there were established rules for leaving the sheep behind makes me think that the point of this parable is more nuanced than that and that Luke decided to skip over those details because they weren’t as important.
I am more interested in the way that Jesus presents his parable—with a question that pulls his audience into the heart of his illustration. “Which one of you,” he asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Which one of you? Even though the way that Jesus posed his question assumes that anyone who heard it would answer in the affirmative, in this case, the short answer was none of them…because none of the religious leaders he was addressing would have ever imagined themselves as a shepherd.
Shepherds weren’t good people. They were smelly, shady, and poorly behaved. There’s a reason they worked out in the fields, away from everyone else. An ancient proverb says that all shepherds are thieves because they always let their sheep graze on grass that didn’t belong to them. We know that David, before he became Israel’s king, was a shepherd, and we know that the psalmist and some of the prophets dared to liken our God to a keeper of sheep, but those were exceptions that proved the rule. No Pharisee or scribe would have ever deigned to think of himself as a lowly shepherd, and for Jesus to suggest it was the shocking part. That’s the part of the story that no one saw coming—that these good, faithful, religious types would be forced to imagine themselves crawling up and down a hillside, calling out in a most undignified manner for a single lost sheep.
I dare say the same is true for us. I only know one or two parishioners who have any sheep to lose, but, in our case, I don’t think this parable is about sheep. How many of us, having a hundred children in the Head Start program and having one fall behind, would not leave the ninety-nine to learn by themselves in order to get the one that was lost back on track? How many of us, supervising a hundred people on probation and losing one of them, would not stop calling to check on the ninety-nine and go after the one that was lost until we found them? How many of us, having a hundred children in foster care and losing contact with one of them, would not ignore the ninety-nine until we found the one that was lost?
We belong to a God who searches diligently for each one of us and who rejoices when we have been found, but, even more amazing than that, we belong to a God whose salvation is manifest in this world only when the entire hundred are back together again. This parable isn’t about God seeking out and welcoming a stranger who didn’t belong among the other ninety-nine in the first place. This is about God showing the ninety-nine that they cannot be complete until the one who is missing—the one who has belonged in their midst the entire time but who has been lost to them—has been brought back into the fold.
How often do we regularly and routinely identify our place in society as one that is linked inextricably to the welfare, inclusion, and prosperity of everyone else around us, especially those who live on the margins of life? How often do we think of God’s saving work not as something that elevates the individual out of whatever spiritual, economic, or physical crisis they endure but as something that brings the one who has been estranged by hardship back into a community that cares for them? If this sounds like a different way of imagining what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished, it is.
Jesus came among us and lived and died and was raised from the dead to set us free from the power of sin and death. The work of evil in this world is something that would try to convince us that the community of God’s children can be complete even while some of us are still missing. The isolating power of sin would hide from us the fact that all our lives are fully linked with one another and with God. But thanks be to God that Jesus has defeated those powers that would seek to pull us apart.
If you are here in this church or watching online but feel that you don’t really belong in this place among God’s people—if you feel like a lost sheep hiding in plain sight—then know that Jesus has come to seek you out and find you and bring you back home. And know that we cannot experience God’s saving love without you. And, if you’re here and already know that you belong in this place, then don’t forget that your place among God’s people cannot be complete until everyone is here beside us. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it? “Which one of you?” Jesus asks.