Luke 15.1-7 is the first of 3 stories having to do with lostness and foundness. Wow, he has been talking in the past couple of chapters about the invitation to the kingdom, and how simply everyone and anyone is invited to come to him. None will be turned away. Only people who turn themselves away by refusing to come aren’t present. He has also been talking about discipleship, and, as with any decision, there’s always a cost—any action has an equal and opposite reaction. He’s been talking about people, and what they have to do, and what the cost is for them. Now he turns to God himself, and we find out what he’s doing, and what the cost is for him.
The story starts out with Jesus being surrounded by, ooh, those horrid sinners—the “objectionables” in society’s eyes, the low-life whom respectable people, and especially religious people, would avoid. The setting is ripe for Jesus to make a point. Notice how they were drawn to Jesus. He had not foisted himself on them, but they were attracted by something in him—what he was teaching. He doesn’t alienate himself from any group. He is equally comfortable with scholars, women, “sinners,” businessmen, the working class, and the sick. The ones he does alienate himself from are the religious hypocrites. Ew. Predictably, they are there, in full critical regalia, murmuring and muttering their objections. They are voicing their disapproval, and therefore they are judging him with an air of superiority. I’m guessing that they think his association with these people is a moral wrong and not just poor taste in company. Their complaint? “Jesus is ALWAYS hanging around with VERMIN!” They obviously say this because it seems to be a problem that Jesus does this, or it’s intended to insult him—put him down—either in their own minds or in front of other people to influence their thoughts. In ways I can understand their concern. First, being around “sinners” can have a negative influence on us and make us more prone to do bad things. Second, hanging around with certain kinds of “bad” people can make it harder for us to encourage others to live lives of purity. They accuse us of being hypocritical. And lastly, the Pharisees are trying to living the law—”please God”—so they can “God’s kind of people”. Jesus launches into a story. He’s a tactical genius.
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” OK, the shepherd has a vested interest. Whether it’s personal or financial, he’s going to take the loss seriously. How seriously depends on your point of reference. If I have $100 and lose $1, that doesn’t mean much. But I have 100 diamonds and lose 1, that’s huge. For a farmer, and in their culture, losing one of 100 sheep is a hurtful loss. It’s not intolerable, but since most people were poor, and 100 is not the herd of a wealthy man, one sheep is too much to lose.
So he leaves the 99 to go find the 1. Wait a minute, wait a minute. Isn’t that an even greater risk of loss? HA! This is a reversal, where the “bird” in the bush is worth 99 in the hand. His point is that this is not a business decision, but one of values. The ultimate value of the wandering sheep outweighs any cost, risk, or competition. We do the same thing in our culture when we spend millions of dollars to rescue a baby who has fallen down a well hole or who is trapped in a building leveled by an earthquake. Cost and “business sense” no longer matter; there is a LIFE that needs rescue. “And he goes after the lost sheep until he finds it.” One senses the perseverance: We will not quit until it is found! It supersedes all notions of business value and places the sheep on the level of personal value. Whether it’s a dollar or a diamond doesn’t matter. It’s a LIFE, and we’ll move heaven and hell, and persist until it is found.
“And when he finds it”—feel the compassion; sense the VALUE. He could have put it on a leash, or just let his sheepdog herd it back. Nope. He CARRIES it in his arms.
“He goes home”—feel the safety and comfort there?—calls his friends and neighbors together—another banquet like last chapter. The idea of gathering friends and neighbors emphasizes the celebration aspect of the find. He was more than just happy, and even more than ecstatic. This find was worthy of a party with friends. The happiness is shared by more than just one individual. It’s a community of shared joy and celebration by people with common values and a sense of community, fellowship, and lack of jealousy and competition that allows them to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”
God’s cup of tea is lostness. What’s lost is nothing to what is found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. There is no pride in this success, but the recovery of a priceless, precious personal treasure.
Now when he’s got you right where he wants you, Jesus gives the meaning: “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.” Snap. Instead of the disdain and disgust, avoiding all contact and association shown by the Pharisees, with God there is celebration, joy, acceptance, and fellowship. God doesn’t just welcome sinners. He welcomes sinners who repent. Having good experiences and good teaching is pretty worthless if you don’t change your ways, turn around, and walk with your life in the direction you should. Even if the Pharisees are righteous, at what level can they object at the retrieval of something valuable?
What does God do? He doesn’t just issue and invitation, and then sit with wine in hand waiting. He GOES, at personal risk and “inconvenience.” He seeks, he finds, he carries, he celebrates. At what cost? Phil. 2.5-9.
I’ll end with two stories: October 1, 2006. A little girl left the church sanctuary just before children’s church time. Then a few minutes later I saw her come back in the sanctuary, walk about half way down the aisle, and they she turned around, with tears in her eyes, and left the room again. I left my pew to catch up with her in the foyer. When I stopped her I asked her if she was lost, she started crying and said yes. I told her I would help her, and she reached out her hand and took mine, even though she didn’t know me and I didn’t know her. The trust level was amazing. She doesn’t know me but she takes my hand when I offered to help her and followed me where I took her. Why? She knew she was lost.
Last story: September 27, 2006. My daughter and son-in-law were at home, just going about their business. My daughter became aware that she hadn’t seen or heard from her daughter in a little while, so she started to call her name, just to check on her. No answer. She picked up her pace a little bit, calling to her as she searched the house. No answer. The panic starts to rise. She quickly went through the whole house again. No answer. She took a quick glance outside, even though doors were closed and locked. Nothing. Panic grew. She called for her husband’s help, and the two of them made a more thorough search of the house, calling, looking in cupboards, in closets, under beds. Nothing. Her heart came right up into her throat. Quickly they were both outside, scouring the nearby neighborhood, and recruiting neighbors in the search. Neighbors came in and searched the house, while other neighbors checked around the neighborhood and in the woods. Nothing. More neighbors entered the search, more neighbors thoroughly searching the house. The search expanded to more streets. My son-in-law got in his police car and called in a patrol car for assistance while he drove the neighborhood with his lights on, looking and calling. Nothing. Becca was beside herself, knowing how impish her daughter is, and knowing that she could be anywhere. The patrolman came and started a slow and careful search of their entire house while neighbors searched the area. My daughter was trying hard to hold in her panic, her fears, her tears. Finally the child was found in a closet where the door doesn’t work. They had to kick it to get it open, and there inside was the little girl. No one has a clue how she got in there, and it hardly matters. My daughter scooped her up in her arms and rejoiced that her little one was OK and was found. Then she called us, SOBBING.
Let’s not strip these stories from Scripture of all their emotion. God SEARCHES for us. God is DESPERATE for us.