The Ninety-Nine and One
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
There’s a lot of lostness in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, isn’t there? We can’t really be sure if Jesus told these parables back to back to back, as they are recorded here, but that’s the way Luke has chosen to tell it. He’s got to have a reason for it. There’s a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally a lost son. Why? Why all the lostness?
Maybe the answer to that question is found in what Luke tells us at the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying to one another behind Jesus’ back, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
There were times when the Pharisees, and other religious leader-types, openly confronted Jesus. But not here. A little research reveals something of a pattern in all this. Generally, if they felt Jesus and his followers directly disobeyed one of their traditions – such as we considered last week when they found the disciples eating without first washing their hands and food – they jumped on Jesus tooth and toenail. But when he went about simply doing things they didn’t like, rather than speak to him directly about it, they grumbled among themselves.
Actually, this is the third recorded time that Jesus exhibits this kind of behavior, and that we are told about the Pharisees’ reaction to it. That means this is not an isolated incident. It was regular behavior for Jesus. It stands to reason then, does it not, that the more Jesus accepts people like this – known sinners – the more they are going to be attracted to him? Jesus is giving them the kind of attention they’ve never had before, and they gobble it up.
It’s for certain the Pharisees don’t get close to these people, yet this Nazarene eats with them, accepts them, laughs and cries with them, has fellowship with them. Maybe, he even prays for them and with them. Why wouldn’t they be attracted to him? Someone of real worth has given them attention, and made them feel important. That’s never happened before.
Evidently, Jesus’ spending time with sinners aggravates the Pharisees and scribes no-end, but they are hard-pressed to find anything with which to back up their attitude about it. They just don’t like it that Jesus gives attention to those who give no attention to their way of life. So all they are left with is their petty little grumblings.
If we had been there, on which side would we have found ourselves? Before you jump too quickly to answer, consider something that Barbara Brown Taylor mentions. I think she has a good point. She imagines “Jesus down at the plasma bank… standing in line with the hungover men waiting to sell their blood, or maybe down at the city jail shooting the breeze with the bail bondsmen who cruise the place like vultures.” She sees him at the diner “with a crack dealer, a car thief, a prostitute with AIDS, buying them all cheese omelettes…” Which is all well and good. Jesus can do whatever he wants… until she comes with her sixth-grade confirmation class and sits down a couple of booths away.1 It is at that point that Jesus’ behavior starts to get personal. You see?
In other words, it’s okay for Jesus to spend time with people like that as long as we’re not around. As long as they stay in their part of town without venturing into ours. That would make us uncomfortable, would it not?
But nothing gets by Jesus, whether people confront him directly or speak against him behind their backs. And this gives him a perfect opportunity to make, what is for him, a very important point. He starts talking about lostness and how God is pleased, and the whole kingdom of heaven rejoices, when they who have been lost are found.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t want people to remain in their lostness. It’s not that he’s attracted by that kind of “lifestyle.” He wants those who have been lost to be found, to be redeemed, reclaimed.
His first parable has to do with a shepherd who is in charge of a flock of one hundred sheep. A pretty good size flock, wouldn’t you say? A Texas rancher might scoff at the numbers, but we’re not in Texas… and neither is Jesus… well, at least when he tells this parable. The shepherd, according to the way Jesus tells the story, leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the one that is lost.
There are a lot of ways to interpret this story. I can’t help but do it in light of our church’s situation. But first, I want to tell you about a Methodist minister in North Carolina who reads Harry Potter stories to her son, a first-grader. She noticed that when she started to read a new chapter, he would turn his head away from the book. She asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I don’t want to see the drawing on the first page of the chapter because I want to think about what things look like all by myself.”2
He wants to think about what things might look like all by himself.
It is the autumn season, and while the weather may not feel quite yet all that fallish (it is supposed to reach 90 plus degrees again today), football has started, the hunting season is just around the corner, and whether we look at it this way or not, a new chapter of life has begun. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to “think about what things look like all by myself.” Actually, I’d like to think about what things could look like.
Sometimes, I like to close my eyes and envision what it would be like for all these empty places in the pews to be filled. And so, in a figurative sense, on any given Sunday morning I close my eyes and turn away. What do I see? I see people of all ages, of different skin colors, various economic backgrounds, denominational affiliations. I see people dressed in suits and fine dresses, blue jeans and T-shirts. Every nook and cranny is filled with those who are eager to find Jesus in this place, to be Jesus’ friend in this place. I’m a little boy envisioning what might be, what could be, rather than an adult who is forced to admit to what is.
In my mind, you see, as the shepherd has gone to find the one lost sheep, he has encountered another ninety-nine that are lost and has brought them home as well. He has become like a magnet, a pied piper, drawing people to him as he brings them home.
I better throw in a disclaimer at this point. I know that numbers don’t indicate a church’s health. I really and truly know that… And I know that going after numbers for the sake of numbers is not the point, and even more, is a losing proposition. But I also know this… I know we – you and I – might be coming to the wrong place to find Jesus. You see, we might be coming here to spend time with the Good Shepherd, only to find that he is not here. He’s out there at the plasma bank or the city jail or the diner having fellowship with people who are lost.
In other words, if I’m going to be with Jesus, I better go where he is. And I see that as the fundamental task of our church. And I don’t think we’re getting the job done. Not really. When it comes to reaching out to others with the good news of grace that can be found in this place, we don’t score so high. If we were good at it – if we were really, really good at it – this place would be filled to overflowing.
Now don’t hear me scolding you. That’s not my intention. My intention is to find where Jesus is and join him in whatever it is he is doing. My purpose is to encourage you – all of us – to be seeking shepherds, not just inviting people to come to this place of worship and ministry, but bringing them with you.
If we can do that, when we come back to this place to gather together and worship, Jesus’ friends will come with us. And when we come back with just our one sheep, we will find the ninety-nine waiting with open arms to welcome that person home.
How grateful are you that you were lost and have been found? When the Shepherd picked you up and laid you across his shoulders and brought you home, remember how you felt? Remember the sound of angels in heaven rejoicing? How can we possibly deny that joy to others?
Let’s go find them, shall we? Because, if we do, we will be in the presence and good company of Jesus.
Father, you wait with open arms to receive us whenever we gather in this place. May we make it a habit not to come alone, but to come carrying our one sheep with us. sharing your presence and your kingdom w/those who need you most. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, Inc., 1993), p. 148.
2Jennifer E. Copeland, “Clean Sweep,” The Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 20
Copyright 2006 Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.