We’re continuing our journey with Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. This week we’re taking a big hop from Luke 12 to Luke 15.
As Jesus and his disciples travelled, Jesus has been teaching [picture on slide]. He and his disciples have been healing and casting out demons. They’ve been drawing large crowds.
In Luke 12 we read that ‘so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another.’ Towards the end of Luke 14, Luke tells us, ‘Now great crowds accompanied him.’ Our passage for today starts shortly after that. So we can imagine that this story happens in the context of a crowd [second picture on slide]. Luke tells us, at the beginning of chapter 15, ‘Now the TAX COLLECTORS and SINNERS were all drawing near to hear him’ [third picture on slide]. In the next verse we read, ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled’ [fourth picture on slide - completes the cast for this story].
Why would they have grumbled?
You or I would probably not be particularly upset if we found that someone worked for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. But the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t like tax collectors at all.
Rome had seized control of Judea in about 61 BC and sometime after that, they started to impose taxes.
When I was preparing this talk, I came across a comment that the Roman system of taxation followed the principle of ‘get as much as you can as easily as you can.’ I don’t know how tax collectors in Jesus’ day operated, but the Bible is perfectly familiar with bribery so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a mixture of extortion and bribery going on when taxes were collected, and that didn’t make it any more fun.
This situation would not have pleased the Pharisees and the scribes. I’m sure they didn’t like paying taxes at the best of times, but they would not have liked paying taxes to the Romans one little bit. And if the process of paying taxes was anything like I imagine, then they wouldn’t have liked that either. So, they would not have looked at all favourably on the Jews who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans.
Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed such people. I’m not surprised the Pharisees and scribes grumbled!
I take it as a given that Jesus was right to welcome such people but the Pharisees and scribes thought he was wrong. Let’s just take note of this. If some people were not happy with what Jesus did then some of people will not be happy with us if we act like Jesus. Let’s not be too surprised when that happens!
In verse 3, Luke tells us, ‘SO he told them this parable.’ Jesus was aware of the criticism – and responded to it! Let’s take note of this too. If we follow Jesus’ example, then if we realise that people are criticising us, we should make an effort to answer the criticism.
Jesus answers the criticism by telling three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the lost son. We’re only going to look at the first parable today.
In this parable Jesus tells a story about a man with 100 sheep. People had been keeping sheep in the Middle East from the time of Abel so the crowd that Jesus was talking to would have understood Jesus’ parable very easily. The commentators say it would have been quite normal for a shepherd in those days to have a flock of 100 sheep.
In Jesus’ story, the shepherd somehow realises that one sheep is missing. I don’t know how he realises it. Maybe he counted his sheep every day.
But I have another idea. Maybe the shepherd knew each sheep individually. I imagine that because of another story Jesus told about a shepherd. It’s in John 10. Jesus starts like this:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and HE CALLS HIS OWN SHEEP BY NAME AND LEADS THEM OUT. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
In this parable, the shepherd had given his sheep names. The good shepherd in this parable knows his sheep individually – to the extent that he gives them names. I dipped into a book titled ‘Small Scale Sheep Keeping’ that was published about five years ago. It said that sheep can recognize a shepherd’s voice, and they can even learn to recognize their own names!
Anyway, let’s return to Luke. Maybe the shepherd had counted his sheep and noticed that one was missing. Maybe he knew them well enough to notice that one of his sheep was missing. It’s not that important for the story. Let’s call this missing sheep Shaun.
The shepherd is worried. Shaun the sheep would be in danger and scared. There was no time to be lost. The shepherd doesn’t spend the time getting the other sheep back in the pen. He leaves them in the open country and goes after the lost sheep. We don’t have to think that the shepherd acted irresponsibly. He may have asked someone else to keep an eye on them.
Jesus says what happens next. I'm reading from verse 5:
"And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
There’s lots of rejoicing! I’m sure we can all relate to this. I can! I had a similar experience last year.
Sophie [our daughter] bought a kitten last year. A few days after she bought him, she went out. At some point, Priscilla [my wife] and I wondered where he was. We searched everywhere but we couldn’t find him. We were starting to get really worried. Eventually we found him. He’d got through a little tear in the fabric at the back of a sofa and was deep inside it. We were very relieved and said a big thank you to God!
What’s the point? It’s unimaginable that we would not search for the kitten. Of course we would go looking for it! Jesus described an experience we can all relate to. We know what it’s like to lose something, and we know what a sense of relief we have when we find it.
So, Jesus has answered the criticism. If it was the right thing for the shepherd to go after the lost sheep then it was the right thing for Jesus to go searching for the tax collectors and sinners. They were like lost sheep. If the shepherd and his neighbours would be full of joy because a lost sheep has found, then imagine how much more joy is there when a sinner repents! That’s a much bigger deal!
Let’s think how this parable applies to us today. In this story, there’s Jesus. There are tax collectors and sinners who Jesus welcomes. There are Pharisees and scribes. And we mustn’t forget, there is the crowd.
There are people today who are very similar to these groups.
There are ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ There are people all around us who don’t know Jesus. They are far from the shepherd and they aren’t part of his flock.
There is Jesus, or at least, people who act like Jesus. They energetically go after people. They don’t judge; they help. They’re warm, welcoming and accepting.
There’s the crowd. They watch what’s happening without getting too involved.
And there are Pharisees and scribes, or at least, people who act like them. They get upset at people who act like Jesus, who want to welcome undesirables into church.
As I was preparing for this talk, I read part of a commentary by someone called Arnold Clinton. I thought his comments were spot on and I can’t really improve on them. So I’m going to read what he wrote. This is under the title, ‘Concern for What is Lost’:
'Many have pointed out that both parables underscore the endless trouble that humans will take to recover lost property — they search until they find it — and their deep satisfaction when they succeed. As Jesus’ response to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, the parables imply that the tax collectors and sinners, despite appearances, also belong to God. God not only wants them back; God will take endless trouble to find them and bring them back ... Jesus uses the argument from the lesser to the greater. If a shepherd will go to this much effort to recover a sheep and if a woman will go to this much effort to recover a coin, how much more effort will God exert to recover a lost person!
Ninety-nine percent or 90 percent are great percentages, but it is not good enough for God We cannot say, “Since God has us, God has enough. What more could God want?” If a family of ten were to sit down to Sunday dinner and discovered that little Sarah is not present, the head of the family does not gruffly respond, “She knows what time we eat, and if she’s not here, that’s her problem.” Nor does that one say, “Nine of us are here. That is 90 percent and good enough.” Nor does that one grumble when the rest of the family starts looking for little Sarah, “Why bother looking for her? Let’s eat.” Then three months later, someone asks, “Do you remember little Sarah who used to be a member of our family; I wonder whatever became of her?" In the context, Jesus would be saying to the Pharisees, “I seek the lost for God; so should you.”'
The point we need to take away is that people are hugely precious to God. They are more precious to God than the shepherd’s lost sheep. We must not take the attitude that these people are not good people; we don’t want them around. I read another commentator, Darrell Block. He wrote, ‘Believers should be engaging the lost in meaningful relationships. Often in the church, however, I see the opposite.’ That was his impression and I’m afraid that I’d agree with him. I’ve come across people in churches who behave like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day. They are cold towards people who don’t seem to them the right kind of people. We must not be passive either, like the crowd. Jesus’ parable shows us what we should be like. We should be like he was in welcoming the tax collector and sinner; like the shepherd, actively, urgently and compassionately seeking the lost sheep.
Talk given at Rosebery Park Baptist Church, Bournemouth, UK, 7th February 2021