Jesus tells a story in Luke 15 that is well worth hearing again, especially in our times.
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Yeshua. The Pharisees and the Torah scholars began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So He told this parable to them, saying, ‘Which man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, will not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? When he has found it, he puts it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me, for I’ve found my sheep that was lost!” I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one repenting sinner than over the 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance’” (Luke 15:1-7 Tree of Life Version).
This passage is the first part of the “lost” stories in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.
The scene that sets up the story is a dinner, where Jesus is socializing with “those people.” The religious are a bit miffed, determining that the group was made up of unrepentant sinners. The fact that Jesus would welcome them with a meal and, more importantly, His time, brought the issue to the forefront.
The issue? It’s not the food. It’s the willingness of Jesus to step away from the profound thinkers and teachers of the day and spend His time with people despised by Jews and Gentiles alike: the dreaded tax collector.
I imagine some were thinking, “Why would He do this? How can there be any value in these men that the Rabbi would give His time?”
Still others may have been curious. A rabbi with tax collectors—that’s not something you see very often, if at all.
Jesus sums up the different opinions and teaches by telling a parable—something rabbis were expected to do and were quite good at as well. And He starts with a shepherd and sheep.
Just to keep things in context, being a shepherd was a very small step above being a tax collector. It was not a profession a mother wanted for her son.
Jesus asks the group, which was made up of scholarly folk with lots of opinions and the “ha’ aretz,” Hebrew for commoners, or what I affectionately call “the salt of the earth,” a question. It is rhetorical, of course.
“‘Which man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, will not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it?’” (Luke 15:4 TLV).
If we stop there, it’s an easy answer: None.
These people cared nothing for sheep, and if they still had 99, they would still be in great shape. Acceptable losses, right?
Except the story is not about sheep at all. It’s about these “commoners” who are discounted by society, and by the religious as well.
It’s funny how Jesus teaches that the shepherd leaves the flock in the wilderness. It’s a strange concept; who is watching the rest? He finds the lost one and hoists it on his shoulders and tells his town all about it, as if he won the shepherding equivalent of the Super Bowl.
The reaction is just a bit over the top, but here is the lesson for the religious and irreligious alike: No one is expendable. Not one sheep. Not one person.
This is a moral value found in the writings of Ezekiel and Zechariah concerning the Good Shepherd, which prophesy about the Messiah and God’s love for His people.
But in the Luke passage, Jesus teaches that all the sheep are of utmost value. And even more, His sheep are worthy of celebrating, especially when a stray is found and brought back into the herd.
Did Jesus’ listeners get it? We don’t know. Just as any Bible teacher teaches and hopes the message is heard, the truth will be in the actions people take to either accept or reject the teaching.
For us today, the lesson is as clear as a blue summer sky. Each and every life has value beyond measure, and if we are willing to step away from those we are comfortable with, and are willing to take the risk to seek out and connect with those “others” (I’ll leave that for you to figure out), well, that just might be worth celebrating, here as it is in heaven.
Jon Weiner is a community engagement pastor at Southeast Christian Church’s Blankenbaker Campus.