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In Matthew 18:12-14 and in Luke 15:1-7, we find Jesus telling the parable of a man who has a hundred sheep. When one of them goes astray, he leaves the other ninety-nine to go look for it. When he finds it, he rejoices over it more than the other ninety-nine who never strayed from him. Jesus then says that the good sheep are like righteous souls who have no need to repent and the one who wandered is like a rebel sinner. Then comes the disturbing punch line:
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7)
Now if you’re a sinner or a brand new Christian, you love this story. But if you’ve been a Christian for many years and you’ve been trying hard to stay obedient to God, you could find it very disturbing. After all, it sounds like Jesus is saying God gets bored with us Christians after a while—we’re only exciting to Him when we first get saved. Once we really commit ourselves to Him and many years go by, well, we’re just downright dull. Is this really what Jesus meant?
The four Gospel books represent four different perspectives of the same time period. Four different men are giving us their own ideas of key teachings and memorable moments. The difficulty is that they leave a lot out. Matthew, for example, was there when Jesus told this story and he knows what Jesus meant. Often in his account, Matthew just gives us punch lines of stories—concluding statements that jog important memories for him, yet leave us feeling confused. You can tell when Matthew is doing this because a statement of Jesus’ will be presented as an isolated, random comment. We get no context—no explanation of where He was and who He was talking to. All of the Gospel writers do this to some degree. This is why it’s so important to look for multiple accounts of the same story. Happily, when it comes to the lost sheep parable, Luke also covers it and his account provides us with critical context. When we read from Matthew, we end up confused. When we read from Luke, we understand.
Before giving us his rendition of this parable, Luke first sets the scene:
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
It is in direct response to their grumbling that Jesus tells this story nice and loud so that they can all hear. The Pharisees and scribes were self-righteous hypocrites who pompously thought they were perfect in God’s sight. They then viewed other people as spiritual scum. Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. Everyone hated them, which is why Luke makes a point to tell us that some of the people Jesus was hanging out with were of this particular occupation. But there were other people there, too—people who didn’t measure up to the Pharisees’ standards for some reason or other. The key to understanding this story is to realize that Jesus is using the Pharisees’ definitions of “sinner” and “righteousness” when He tells it. He is NOT using God’s definitions. This isn’t a story about Christians and non-Christians. It’s a story about those who think they are righteous (while they’re really not) and those who recognize that they are spiritually lost.
The well-behaved ninety-nine sheep that Jesus describes represent the Pharisees and scribes. He describes these sheep as being “righteous persons who need no repentance.” This is exactly how the Pharisees and scribes viewed themselves and everyone knew it. As for the rest of the people who were trying to listen to Jesus before the arrogant Pharisees and scribes came along—they were like the one lost sheep in the story. With the religious teachers of the day constantly condemning these people as spiritual failures, these people would have really identified with the lost sheep. They knew that they had strayed away from God’s righteousness and didn’t pretend otherwise. Tax collectors knew that they cheated people. Prostitutes knew that they were violating God’s Laws with their promiscuous sex lives. With the Pharisees and scribes now hovering over them, this crowd of sinners would feel spiritually inferior once again. It’s like finding out that you’re sitting next to some famous pastor that you really admire on an airplane. Just being near the man makes you think about your own walk and feel bad that you’re obviously not as dedicated as you think he is. Then you hear Jesus start a story about good and bad sheep. Well, obviously you’re the little twerp who ran off from the flock. You expect the story to have a bad ending, but instead Jesus flips it around. You—the imperfect moral compromiser—end up being the one that God is so excited about being with. He’s more excited about being with you than He is about being with all the superstars in the Church—the guys who always look like they’re doing everything just right. How can this be?
This is a very encouraging story once we understand whose definitions Jesus is using. This has nothing to do with saved and unsaved—instead, it’s a lesson about God’s search for sincerity. It’s a real slap in the face to the Pharisees and scribes who think they’re innocent of sin and above needing any mercy. Surely God thinks that they are some kind of wonderful. Yet through this story, Jesus tells them, “No, He doesn’t. In fact He’ll gladly ditch all of you to go find one grubby sheep who admits that he is lost. And when He finds one, He’ll throw a huge party. He’ll rejoice more over that one dirty sheep than He’ll ever rejoice over all of you. See these people I’m talking to right now—the ones you think you’re so much better than? Those are the sheep God is leaving you to go after.”
The Pharisees and scribes had very hardened hearts towards God. They were like unbelievers today who say, “I’m a good person. Of course I’ll go to Heaven when I die. I don’t need a Savior.” In the end, all who refuse to turn from this attitude will end up in Hell. God gets angry when we keep resisting Him. Towards the Pharisees and scribes of His day, Jesus was extremely hostile, rude and condescending. He was also this way towards common people who were only interested in getting miracles and free food. God has no use for self-righteous arrogance. He is constantly searching for souls who recognize that they are spiritually lost and in desperate need of His mercy and grace. When He finds one, all of Heaven rejoices. After we are saved, we can either continue to acknowledge our need for God or we can fall back into foolish arrogance. As long as we keep embracing our dependency on God, He will be rejoicing over us.