It begins with a description of Jesus’ audience –the sheep.
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Before going any further, let’s read that familiar passage where Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-12)
He referred to the tax collectors and sinners as being sick –implying that they recognized their need for salvation and that He was the One to provide it.
Those who had accused Him of keeping bad company were the Pharisees. Jesus referred to them as the righteous who did not need healing. They considered themselves to be righteous (self-righteous, that is) and as far as they were concerned, they certainly had no need of being saved from sin and its promised penalty of death.
Now back to the story of the shepherd and his lost sheep. . .
Then Jesus told them this parable: “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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:3-6)
The basics: the shepherd has a hundred sheep; one wanders off; he leaves the ninety-nine to find the one; he finds the lost one and he wants everyone to rejoice with him.
A common error in interpreting this parable is assuming that the hundred sheep represent Christians and the lost one was either a backslider or brand new to the faith.
We will all agree that the shepherd is a description of Jesus and the sheep are people. But the first indication that something is amiss with the common interpretation is found in the phrase “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep.” Jesus promised to never leave nor forsake us. So that isn’t consistent with His character or with His promise. The second discrepancy is that rejoicing is not associated with returning from sins. No, it’s tied to salvation, the receiving of new life, and becoming one with God.
And did you notice? He didn’t take the lost sheep back to the ninety-nine and tell it “be a good sheep now and don’t wander away again.” Instead, He took it home to safety and rejoiced.
“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.” (Luke 15:7)
Do you see the same theme here as the one in Matthew 9:9-12? The ninety-nine don’t find a need to repent; they think that their relationship with God is fine the way it is. These pharisees keep the letter of the law by tithing so carefully –right down to counting out leaves of mint (nine for me, one for God; nine for me, one for God . . .) That’s the mindset of a legalist.
Jesus came to save those who are perishing –and they know who they are. I was one of them and so were you. We were lost but God reached down from heaven for us through His Son so that we can spend eternity with Him.
What a God! What a Savior!