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April 2, 2015, 1:14 PM

Those Sinning Sheep

Luke 15:1-7 CEB

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

Those Sinning Sheep

As I have said on previous Sundays, I have been blown away by Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill is a world-renowned Jewish biblical scholar who has dedicated herself to helping Christians better understand their Jewish roots, Jesus’ Jewish culture. She points out things I’ve never noticed before in all the years I have been reading and studying these beautiful stories. She asks questions that seem so obvious once she asks them. Even in this short parable of an owner and a lost sheep, she exposes things we often overlook.

For as long as I can remember, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” has been, in my mind, a story about sinning and repenting, sinners being returned to the flock. The focus in on that lost sheep, and we even read the Prodigal Son Parable, back into the lost sheep story. The lost sheep becomes a runaway sheep…bad sheep. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that for Jesus’ first listeners—in the gospel of Luke—they haven’t heard the Prodigal Son story yet. It follows the lost sheep story and the lost coin story. The lost sheep story also appears in Matthew’s gospel, but the Prodigal Son and Lost Coin are absent. And in Matthew, the word to refer to the missing sheep would be better translated as ‘deceived,’ rather than lost. Different word, in the Greek, than Luke’s gospel.

So, let’s take a closer look at this little, very familiar parable. When we explored the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable a few weeks ago, we noted that titles on parables often restrict our viewing, make us focus on one particular aspect at the expense of others.  We saw in the “Workers” story that the main character was actually the owner and it was his behavior that revealed much of Jesus’ message. The same is true of the “Parable of the Lost Sheep.” The sheep are part of the story, certainly, but it is the shepherd we need to watch, his behavior is the focus.

It is important to note Jesus’ audience for this story, in the Luke version before us. He is hanging out with tax collectors—sinners. Tax collectors were the wealthy who gained their riches on the backs of their fellow citizens. They had neglected loving God and loving neighbor in favor of loving self. The other part of the audience are the religious leaders of the people. Pharisees, scribes, legal experts who are highly regarded and valued by the people—leaders, shepherds of the people. For Jesus this is a pretty privileged group. And the religious leaders are outraged with Jesus’ behavior, he has welcomed these sinners, these tax collectors, and has eaten with them. So Jesus tells them a story about a shepherd—a really wealthy one.

Suppose you had one hundred sheep and lost one, wouldn’t you abandon the ninety-nine on the mountainside and pursue that one? This shepherd has A LOT of sheep! This is a significant flock for first century Israel. And yet, despite the huge number of animals, this shepherd notices when just one goes missing! This shepherd has been paying close attention, counting even. The shepherd then leaves in reckless pursuit of this one, risking everything. You see, it is the shepherd’s job to keep the sheep together and safe. It is the shepherd’s responsibility to care for the sheep. When the lost one is finally found, the shepherd’s rejoicing is extreme and beautiful.

Here Jesus sits surrounded by these tax collectors and religious leaders—tax collectors who are sinners in the eyes of the leaders and lost sheep to Jesus—and Jesus offers a story about a shepherd, or what a shepherd is supposed to be. Jesus is asking, “Why do you only concern yourself with those already safely in the fold, with those in no need of repentance?” We, in the church, usually jump over that line…ninety-nine ‘in no need of repentance.’ Jesus is point out to the religious leaders—“Here is your work! Here are the ones you lost! These are the ones who have drifted from your care. These have been deceived by the world’s call.”

God is the Great Shepherd who recklessly pursues the lost, even leaving the throne of heaven to be with us in Jesus Christ. Are we not called to model our own lives after this example? Where do we spend the majority of our resources, of ourselves? Is it on internal ministries within the fold, within the faith community? Or is it outside our walls in the ‘wilds.’ Do we stay with the flock or do we recklessly journey up and down the countryside pursuing those with no fold to call home? What about those who have drifted from our care?

Today, at the edge of Holy Week, Jesus offers us a challenge. This parable isn’t about those sinning sheep. As Amy-Jill Levine says in her book, those sheep have not been ‘bleating blasphemies’ or ‘eating non-kosher grass.’ This parable stands before us and ask: “What kind of shepherd will we be? Will we go forth to recklessly pursue the lost or will we busy ourselves within the fold.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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