Several weekends ago, a little town in England ironically called Wool fell victim to a mass sheep theft ring. Shepherds returned to an industrial farm on Monday morning to find 160 sheep missing from the fold. Authorities claimed that the heist was one of the largest in cattle history, and the thieves would have had extensive knowledge of sheep and sheep transportation.
When I heard this story, I could not help but chuckle a little bit. Don’t get me wrong: I feel terrible for the lost sheep, which surely amounts to a great deal of money for farmers who have a living to make. Their loss should in no way be an opportunity for our entertainment.
But 160 sheep is a lot of sheep! Just all gone in thin air! Its a comically peculiar situation.
The amount of sheep has made headline news for sure, but what if only one sheep went missing? No one would notice; there would not be any reporters or interviews.
In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus told a parable about one lost sheep. Of course, in typical fashion, Jesus started the parable in the form of a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
This question seems simple at first, but it has actually garnered some debate. Would Jesus’ original audience, agrarian peasants familiar with life on the farm, affirm this question without hesitation? Sure, they would search for a sheep because each sheep is valuable.
Or would Jesus’ audience understand the question to be a form of satire? No one in his right mind would leave an entire flock for one sheep, especially if the flock was in someplace as dangerous as the “wilderness.”
Perhaps, the debate focuses on the wrong point. Perhaps the real point comes about only when we measure the amount of sheep found (one) with the exuberant amount of joy that the shepherd had in finding it: there was joy, rejoicing, and a party with neighbors…over one little sheep!
Now, regardless of how the peasants in Jesus’ day would have answered the question, they certainly would have balked at this second part to the parable. Yes, perhaps a shepherd would search for one sheep even if it meant letting the herd be vulnerable for a few minutes, but throwing a party? For a sheep? Nonsense!
So whether Jesus’ initial question is controversial or not is not so much as scandalous as rejoicing over a sheep. 160 sheep, maybe; but not one.
That’s where the heart of the parable is found. Jesus wanted to accentuate the joy that comes with finding even the most overlooked of sheep because when it comes to God’s agenda for salvation, no one person is overlooked. Each person is valuable to God, and each sinner saved calls for rejoicing, joy, and a party of reconciliation both on earth and “in heaven.”
Let us not forget why Jesus told this parable in the first place. The Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners (15:1-2). It was one thing to preach God’s message of salvation to sinners; it was another thing to welcome and eat with sinners.
Jesus was guilty by association, but he did not come to spend time with the righteous, he came to save the lost. His welcome of the lost was a divine invitation that embraced people right where they were, with no strings attached. Jesus exhibited God’s grace, which both sought out the most neglected soul and then forgave the debts of the most undeserving and vile of men and women. Now that’s something to celebrate!