Monday, May 6, 2013

Luke 15:1-7

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He told them this parable, saying,  “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 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 need no repentance.

Tax collectors and "sinners" had always been around while Jesus was ministering. I imagine they had kept to the shadows and edges of the crowd to avoid the scorn of the religious, but they were there nonetheless. Perhaps Jesus' messages of God drawing in the "less desirable" guests to his banquet gave them courage to gather closer to hear his words, wondering if salvation was possible for even them.

Tax collectors were usually Jewish men who bought from the Romans the right to set up a tax booth, collecting various tolls, customs, and taxes. The system was rife with corruption, and tax collectors were generally despised by the community at large. They were unpatriotic, dishonest, and unclean as a result of their profession. In a society where ritual purity took precedence over human relationship, no self respecting Pharisee or scribe would receive a sinner into his presence, much less eat with them and have the defilement rub off.

But Jesus is concerned with restoration, not religion. He tells three parables to illustrate this truth. "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep." "Stop right there," the Pharisees think. "You want me to imagine myself as an unclean shepherd? I would not even want to defile my mind in such a way." The Pharisees would certainly place themselves among the 99 righteous who "need no repentance".

You see, shepherds performed a very necessary job. They protected the sheep that provided clothing, sacrificial lambs, and occasionally food to the community. But their job put them outside in the elements, exposing them to bodily fluids as they cared for the animals. They were constantly unclean in the eyes of the law. Sure, their greatest king had been a shepherd. Sure, God was described as being the shepherd of Israel in several passages of scripture, but no self respecting religious Jew in Jesus' day would have chosen that profession.

One person would not have owned one hundred sheep. A shepherd in charge of that many sheep would be pasturing the sheep for an entire community. He and one or two other shepherds would take the flocks out to graze and protect them from anything that came. You couldn't just say, "Well, I protected 99. That's a pretty good ratio." Your job was to bring back every last sheep - preferably alive and well, but if not you had better rip it from the jaws of whatever predator snatched it. The one lost sheep may belong to a family that had only one or two sheep. So the other shepherds might bring the 99 back, but the seeking shepherd was not coming back without #100. In this parable the shepherd finds the wandering sheep alive. He hoists the animal onto his shoulders, bearing the weight on the walk back to the village. By this time everyone has heard about the one lost sheep from the shepherds who returned with the 99. When they discover that the shepherd has saved the life of the sheep, rejoicing breaks out.

Ezekiel 34:23–24 records, "Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken." Jesus is setting himself up as the promised Messiah, come to seek and save the lost "sheep" of Israel (Luke 19:10). He receives the repentant back into the "flock". Bearing the burden of their transgressions on his own shoulders, he carries the full weight of the cost for their repentance and restoration.

The Pharisees may grumble, but all heaven of heaven rejoices. When a person is lost and is received back into the flock of faith, we should rejoice as well! Like the shepherd, we should indiscriminately seek the lost carry them to the Great Shepherd. Anyone cognizant of their own sin is ready for restoration.

        Surely he took up our pain
            and bore our suffering,
        yet we considered him punished by God,
            stricken by him, and afflicted.
        But he was pierced for our transgressions,
            he was crushed for our iniquities;
        the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
            and by his wounds we are healed.
        We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
            each of us has turned to our own way;
        and the Lord has laid on him
            the iniquity of us all.
        Isaiah 53:4-6

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