What Jesus Really Said
One Lost Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? 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? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. i
Over the last month we examined four of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God. The overwhelming lesson in each of those parables was that God’s Kingdom is predominately left-handed. It works by indirect, hidden power rather than direct, head-on, get-MY-way-right-now human, worldly control. Like a planted seed, it grows of its own mysterious power; no weeds can stop it. Its power is not earthly, so no earthly power can possibly harm it.
God’s kingdom is not bound by national borders and there is no national or political or earthly religious entity that can harm it or stop – which ought to be a comfort to American believers so apt to confuse right-handed American politics and social policy with the left-handed workings of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God IS powerful; we just don’t fully understand the upside-down, indirect power God uses.
Like the workers in the parable of the Weeds, we presume that direct, “go cut down the weeds” action is needed. We puzzle at the Farmer who is willing to let harmful plants grow together with the wheat. It’s hard to rest in a plan that seems so indirect when seemingly good, direct solutions (cutting down the weeds right now) are available. Suffer the weeds to grow? Forgive evil? That’s a totally left-handed, upside down, other-worldly attitude.
The next category of parables Jesus tells can be called “Parables of Grace.” As their name suggests, they emphasize a specific characteristic of this upside-down kingdom. They are not merely about the forbearance of weeds, but an actual search for worthless weeds that are treated as valuable treasure.
The Kingdom Parables occur in the Gospels prior to the feeding of the 5,000 (before Matt. 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9). The Parables of Grace begin after that great miracle and continue up to Christ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21, Mark 11, and Luke 19). When Jesus enters Jerusalem for his final week before crucifixion, he issues his Parables of Judgment upon Israel and its merit + grace religion.ii
The very first grace parable Matthew records is the one before us this morning, the Parable of the Lost Sheep. As with any scripture text, the context of the passage governs its interpretation. Matthew puts the Lost Sheep parable it in this spot in his gospel account for a particular reason. So we need to look at what immediately precedes the Lost Sheep parable in 18:1-9 to help us understand what Jesus is teaching.
Jesus and the disciples are in Capernaum on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Lord with his disciples was now on his way back to Galilee from Cæsarea Philippi, where, about ten days before, he had promised the keys of the kingdom to Peter, and where Peter, James and John had ascended Transfiguration Mount with Jesus. Those incidents started an argument over greatness.iii
The disciples argued over which one of them was more important in the Kingdom of God (18:1). Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 9:46-48 tell us that Jesus had just finished predicting his death for the second time. Jesus has just spoken of the greatest left-handed display of God’s power in the universe; the disciples are arguing about which one of them holds the most right-handed power in what they expect to be the new, right-handed political kingdom of Israel.
“That, of course – given the generally low level of human performances on high subjects – produced more heat than light and degenerated into mere one-upmanship.”iv “You may be Peter the rock, but I’m the treasurer and he who controls the money controls everything” said Judas. “Oh yeah,” said James and John, “well Jesus didn’t take YOU up the mountain to see what WE saw.”
The disciples are jockeying to be president of the 1st-century Israel chapter of the Moral Majority. They’re preoccupied with right-handed power; Jesus is more and more preoccupied with teaching that Messiah’s work will be accomplished not by “winning,” but by “losing.”
The context is more stark in Mark 9:38-41 and Luke 9:49-50.v “49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ 50 But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you’” (Lk. 9:49-50).
The disciples are bent out of shape over this man’s lack of credentials: he’s not traveling with Jesus, the disciples don’t know him, he hasn’t asked their permission. This man is clearly inferior; he’s not good enough to travel with the disciples; he’s a loser. The disciples still haven’t grasped the fact that Jesus is telling them that he is headed to Jerusalem to be the biggest loser of them all.
So Jesus tells them, “if anyone scandalizes one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for him to have a great millstone tied around his neck and be sunk to the bottom of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). The scandalizing (causing to sin, to turn away, to offend, or be offended) arises from those who despise the little ones’ station or position in life – their smallness, their lastness, or their lostness. vi
Pig Poop vs. Marble
The very things we belittle – weakness, poverty, unimportance, lack of respectability – those things are Jesus’ chosen medium, like a sculptor who chooses pig dung over marble (Eph. 2:10). Jesus pronounces prophetic judgment those who scandalize the weak. Woe to the world because of these scandals [these “turnings away”]. Jesus’ insistence upon left-handedness, UNSUCCESSFULNESS, will always be shocking to right-minded people who scandalize the weak, the unimportant, the indirect, the upside-down.
Then to kick up his point a few notches Jesus tells them it’s better to cut off a scandalizing hand or foot, better to gouge out a scandalizing eye – to live groping, limping and stumbling through life as one of the world’s losers – than to end up a right-handed success cut off from the Kingdom of God with all the other doomed winners.vii
God’s Kingdom IS going to grow on its own terms and be successful in its own way. God values pig poop, but our sin nature values marble. So growth and success in God’s Kingdom is upside down from growth and success in Man’s kingdom.
The Church doesn’t always understand that. More often than not, Christians have sought worldly victory instead of worldly losing. So, “…the sad fact is that the church, both now and at far too many times in its history, has found it easier to act as if it were selling the sugar of moral and spiritual achievement rather than the salt of Jesus’ passion and death.” At the end of the day, Jesus will present his people to his Father in the power of his resurrection, not in the power of our totally inadequate achievements.” viii
THE LITTLEST LOOSER
Dinner with Sinners
Jesus saves losers. Let me put it more clearly: Jesus saves ONLY losers. He raises the dead, and only the dead. He rejoices over the last, the least, and the little. That is the church’s true message – not which candidate is due an endorsement, not behavior modification, not positive thinking, not self-improvement, and self-empowerment through positive affirmations.
This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus has warned his disciples to not despise one of his little ones (the man driving out demons in Jesus’ name). In that context, he tells this parable. The context is similar in Luke where Jesus tells the Lost Sheep parable because the Scribe and Pharisees were appalled that Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners – the losers.
Here in Matthew 18, Jesus says it’s the little ones whom the angels serve (18:10) – not the great and important of the right-handed kingdom. Jesus came to save the lost, not the found. If you read Luke and Matthew side-by-side you see that the disciples, the Scribes, and the Pharisees all have the very same problem: right-handed thinking.
So Jesus tells a left-handed story. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go search for one lost sheep. This is not a successful sheep-ranching operation by any stretch. There are 99 sheep left to wander off on their own. What kind of shepherd would make such a potentially-disastrous, upside-down business decision like that?
At the very least, it suggests a shepherd in the lost sheep finding business who can find 100 lost sheep just as easily as he can find one. His work is not to make a profit, but to find the lost. The Good Shepherd is all about lostness, not “foundness;” about littleness over bigness; about small over large; about losing over winning. This is not “American Dream Jesus.” This is “Loser Jesus,” the worst marketer in the history of Madison Avenue.
Even when Jesus mentions in 18:14 “the ninety-nine that never went astray,”ix (Lk. 15:7, “ninety-nine righteous persons”) we understand that more as a literary device than a biblical truth. Why? Because Romans 3:12, “12All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”x The ninety-nine righteous sheep are no more a reality than the healthy who need no physician Jesus mentioned in Matthew 9:12.
John’s Gospel has a great focus on the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd. Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention it as well. The imagery in this parable derives from the OT where God the shepherd is a frequent theme (Ps 23; 95:7; Jer. 23:1–4; Ezek. 34:11–16; 2 Chron. 18:16; Isa. 13:14; etc.), and the wording of this parable reflects this OT shepherd language, particularly that of Ezekiel 34:11–16.xi
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezek. 34:11-12).xii
In Matthew 9:36 (Mk. 6:34), we read, “36 When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”xiii
Sheep without a shepherd are lost. Jesus first point is that he, as the Good Shepherd (one and the same with God the Shepherd of Israel promised in the OT), is all about lostness.
Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy(Down in Jesus’ Heart)
His final point is about joy. 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.xiv Luke’s account (Lk. 15:5-7) has an even larger emphasis on God’s joy:
5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. xv
Luke follows the parable of the Lost Sheep with the parable of the Lost Coin (Lk. 15:8-10), in which a woman stops doing everything else to search for one lost coin among ten. When she finds the coin she (like the shepherd) invites her friends to join in her rejoicing that the lost was found. Jesus closes the Coin parable by saying, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” xvi
To repent means to change one’s mind, to recognize one’s sin and agree with God that sin is horrible. But sheep and coins can’t change their minds. The recovery is entirely in the power of the one searching, not in the thing lost. “Neither the lost coin nor the lost sheep does a blessed thing except hang around in its lostness. …it is precisely our sins, and not our goodnesses [sic.], that most commend us to the grace of God.”xvii
So Jesus isn’t preaching that sinners first must turn away from sinning before God will forgive them. He is not teaching that the lost must find themselves before God is willing to go find them. Lost sheep are essentially dead sheep (of no value to the shepherd, but of great value to predators). Lost coins are un-spendable – again, no value.
This grace parable is just that: a story of God’s one-way love of the dead, the useless, the completely unlovely, and completely UNABLE. Imagine how insulting grace parables were to the teachers of Israel, who taught that sinners must clean themselves up (with a little help from God) before God would find any value in them! Do you see the upside-down-ness of grace?
Lostness, deadness, even repentance itself have no redemptive value. God alone searches for the lost. He searches personally, one at a time. And he breathes life into that which is dead. The grace parables are one-way love stories. They contain not one hint of merit, not one picture of rewarding the rewardable, or commending the commendable, or correcting the correctable, or improving the improvable.xviii
That makes repentance in these grace parables nothing more than a God-given recognition that we are dead in sin, not something we recognize and correct within ourselves. “It is the recognition that our whole life is finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other.”xix
And God’s grace is not a grudging assent sparingly offered out of some sense of mere duty. It’s not “Well, nobody else is going to do this so I guess I’ll have to do something. O bother!” No! God rejoices to save. He celebrates finding us. He holds a party over every valueless person he seeks and saves. It’s not “one-way niceness;” it’s one-way LOVE.
The only way you and I can begin to measure that kind of joyful love is to understand one giant upside-down thing: The Good Shepherd (the God of Israel) became the sacrificial lamb.
Jesus is described as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). This means God created the world as a stage upon which the drama of salvation would be acted out. xx The world was made not for you and not for me; it was made to display the Good Shepherd who becomes a lamb!
When Jesus came, he described his mission by saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Indeed, when the drama is over and the curtain has come down on the final act, the angelic audience and those who have been saved will praise the author and chief actor.xxi
Just as God sings over us when he finds us, we shall join our brothers and sisters of every tribe and tongue and nation, we will join with the angels, and sing with eternal joy:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” …
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” xxii
iThe Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:10–14.
ii Capon, 156.
iii John William McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Four-Fold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Company, 1914), 430.
iv Id., 180.
v A.T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (Logos Edition), VIII: 91.
vi Capon, 181.
vii Id., 182.
viii Id., 183.
ixThe Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:13.
xThe Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Ro 3:12.
xi R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 688.
xiiThe Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ezek. 34:11–12.
xiiiThe Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Mt 9:36.
xivThe Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 18:13.
xvThe Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Lk 15:5–7.
xviThe Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Lk 15:10.
xvii Capon, 186.
xviii Id., 187.
xix Id., 188.
xx James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 387.
xxii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 5:12–13.