“Who Searches for the Lost?”
Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019
Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.
Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.
Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?
Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??
The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”
Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.
This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.
My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.
Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)
In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.
Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.
Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”
This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.
Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.
Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “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.”
Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” 
Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.
As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” 
The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.
There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” 
We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.
Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.
“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.