What kind of Shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for one stray? Not a very sensible one. That is the basic meaning of today’s parables. God’s relationship with us is not sensible or reasonable. It is not based on calculation or deduction but simply love. That would be a powerful message in itself but Luke is too great an artist to leave it there, and in a few verses will show us much more about God’s love and how we can respond to it.
When he says “what man among you” he is speaking to a specific audience. The passage began with “tax collectors and sinners” seeking to hear Jesus but with the Pharisees and lawyers commented darkly but typically “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
(e.g. The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 7:34))
Jesus does not disagree with their assessment: tax collectors and pubic sinners actively seek him out and they are not among society’s finest. That is not an accident but an intentional part of his ministry.
He has previously said: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.32 I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” Lk 5:31–32
The image of the shepherd is very common in the Old Testament and if Luke wishes to use references from it, he must narrow the field at the very beginning. Most of his readers and listeners would have been gentiles but participation in Luke’s community required that a member have a working knowledge of the Scriptures. This to them was the Old Testament. By beginning with “which one of YOU” would care for an individual sheep, he is calling attention to the book of Ezekiel which finds the leaders of the People “false shepherds” worthy of punishment.
Let us read the key sections:
4 You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally. Eze 34:4).
The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal (but the sleek and the strong I will destroy), shepherding them rightly Eze 34:16).
23 I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd (Eze 34:23).
Jesus today does exactly what Ezekiel defines as the work of a good shepherd. He has gone after the lost sheep and more than that he has rejoiced when he found it.
Note the last quote from Ezekiel, God will appoint David to be his shepherd. David here means the successor of David the Messiah and as we have seen for the last few weeks the sign of the presence of the Messiah is a “heavenly banquet” As we have also seen before Jesus enrages the Pharisees and other “righteous” that this banquet will include sinners and foreigners and not them. (Luke: 13: 27-30)
The pattern of loss, recovery, rejoicing is found in the next parable of the missing coin. It is centered on a woman in a domestic setting to show that this love is for everyone, everywhere at every time.
So much about God’s actions, what about our response?
This pattern is also found in the final parable in this section usually called the “Prodigal Son”. (Luke 15:11-32) It is so beloved and familiar that we may not hear its subtleties, so I opted not to read it in its entirety but wish to call your attention to seeming incidentals.
When the older son sees that his brother has returned, he is angry and goes outside to sulk. The father goes out to meet him and the son lashes out at him:
But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf. (Luke 15:30)
Note he does not refer to his brother, even to say my useless or good for nothing brother but “your son”
The fathers reply however is “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’(Luke 15:32)
He refers to the other as your brother.
Remember as well, the greeting of the younger son to the Father:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son (Luke 15:19)
And the Father’s response was to organize a feast: “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Luke 15:24)
We can’t lose God’s love; we can never be worthy of it and can betray it both as an obvious sinner like the younger son or like the Pharisaical older one.
We are human not because we are a flesh-based calculator or that we can communicate complex ideas but because we have a relationship with God. We are always his sons and daughters which makes us always brothers and sisters.
Our relationship with God frees us from being ultimately defined by any socially imposed identity. When we relate to each other as brothers and sisters through Jesus we affirm that God given dignity. So, we must ask: Who will I dignify with this freedom today?