Whenever preachers I’ve heard expound upon this parable, they seem to often exclusively uniquely and solely place their emphasis on Jesus’ seeking out the one unbeliever, rather than the keeping, preserving, protecting and sustaining the 99 believers. Is this fair? If all are made in the image of God with individuality, uniqueness and equal worth/value, then why abandon all of the 99 believers? They rely just as much on God and His consistent care, guidance, love and support as the unbeliever, even though the unbeliever is not aware of conscious of the guiding and sustaining hand of God in their lives and the world.
Firstly, we must remember that there was at the time a firm Jewish Rabbinical tradition of using hyperbole and over-exaggeration in preaching and teaching. This parable may fall within that tradition, just as Jesus’ statement about tearing your eye out if it causes you to sin (in Matthew 5:29), for example, did. Additionally, we must remember that all analogies are imperfect and are just that, analogies. They are broad, rough guides, similes, metaphors and illustrations, not complex, intricate and precise theological models. You get out what you put in with them and they are given to emphasis and clearly demonstrate a few very significant points, not to be a carbon copy or high-resolution photograph of the actual, transcend theological reality.
I believe that we have failed to fully uncover the true meaning of this parable. We have forgotten that all parables contain some discrepancies. Here one of the discrepancies is that God is omnipresent (simultaneously and always present everywhere within space as well as also being completely outside of space too at the same time). This means that, in reality, it makes no sense to say that God goes out in search of and seeking out the lost sheep as God does not move, He is not present in place A and then once He moves to place B has gone from place A. Secondly, God is eternal, atemporal and timeless (completely outside of space and time) and so it makes no sense to say that He spends time seeking out the lost sheep and thus expends time deserting the 99 sheep.
We also need to remember that Christian believers are all eternally secure from the moment when they first truly believed and so there is definitely no risk to any of the 99 when the Good Shepherd goes out in search of one lost sheep. Now within the context and framework of a parable and illustration written in limited finite human language and within the spacial and temporal grid of human experience, Jesus had two options for this parable in order for them to be understood by the people listening:
(A) Teach the status quo, conventional tale of the shepherd ignoring/forgetting about the one lost sheep and instead solely focusing on the 99 and that no more escaped in future. When compared with the 99 sheep, the one lost sheep is almost completely worthless and devoid of value. However, this would clearly be a tyranny of the majority and would imply that the one lost sheep had no or little value and wasn’t worth seeking out/saving. Additionally, relating this tale would teach nobody anything as everyone would have already been expecting that course of action to be taken.
(B) Or He could instead tell the tale He actually did tell which broke with every tradition, rationale and logic, all for the sake of unconditional love.
The fact that Jesus freely and specifically chose option (B) shows us that He is not a greedy God who hoardes but is instead selfless God who seeks out and saves.
However, we must also remember that, due to God’s transcendence, timelessness, atemporality and omnipresence, His choice of option (B) does not mean that He is Nor is he a negligent careless God disloyal divided in his love.
This parable reminds me in many ways of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which also appears in Luke 15, as it happens) where the Father is worried sick about his son but loves him enough to allow him to freedom to make his own decisions. When the son runs out of money and is completely desparate, he reluctantly returns to the father as his last resort after finally admitting the sorry and broken state he was in. The father is delighted in his son’s return, despite the fact that the son had done nothing for him and did not in any way deserve such a gracious and loving welcome. He did not earn it or deserve it, yet received it. There is no logic, rationale, rhyme or reason to it, but there it is! Amazing grace indeed! The only difference is that in the Prodigal Son illustration, it is the son himself who chooses to return to the father and start his journey back to him, even though this was because he had no other valid options and despite this being his last resort. However, with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, it is the Father who voluntarily chooses of His own free will to seek out and search for the lost sheep. Although, despite this apparent difference/paradox/disparity between these two parables, both are clear that the work of redemption has all been entirely carried out in full by Christ. In one Christ seeks us out and in the other we have to choose to return back to Him, either way He’s done all the work and we just have to choose to cash the cheque and accept the reward. It could perhaps be argued that the main intended target audience of the lost sheep was unbelievers who hadn’t ever been in relationship with the Godhead, where the Prodigal Son is more about returning to God or homecoming as Augustine might have put it. This is shown in the following Biblical verses:
‘I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’
‘But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen’
‘Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies’
‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’
‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’
‘who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’
(1 Corinthians 1:8-9)
‘Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it’
(1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’
‘who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’
(1 Peter 1:5)
The main gist of this parable, then, is not that God seeks out the one but rather that he equally and fairly seeks out each and every individual, no matter where, how, why or when they have erred or strayed from the path of righteousness, submission and grace. This is God’s endless, relentless, restless, resilient and persistent pursuit of each and every one of us. He is the God who is:
‘[N]ot willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’
(2 Peter 3:9, KJV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is not just for unbelievers. It is also for us believers who constantly err and stray from the path and need God’s nudge and guidance to return home to our maker and Father. As John 12:32 says,
‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me’
God simultaneously and always stands at the door of every person’s heart, those of both unbelievers and also of believers. As it states in Revelation 3:20:
‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’
Finally, I just thought I’d leave you with a modern worship song which one of my older brothers recently wrote on the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
By Ben Somervell