1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 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 that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:3-7 ESV
One doesn’t have to be a theologian to notice the vast difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. All along the way in his gospel, Luke has provided a clear and compelling contrast between the itinerant Rabbi from the Nazareth and the highly educated, socially sophisticated Pharisees and scribes who ruled the roost in Jerusalem. These men viewed Jesus as an uneducated bumpkin from Galilee who had suddenly appeared on the scene performing miracles and preaching messages that declared the coming of the kingdom of God. In a very short period of time, Jesus had managed to amass a huge fan base that followed Him everywhere. And His growing popularity made the religious leaders of Israel both nervous and jealous. He was robbing them of glory by tarnishing their stellar reputation among the people. On more than one occasion, Jesus had pointed out the hypocrisy of their ways. He had labeled them as liars and called them children of the devil.
But the greatest difference between Jesus and these men can be seen in their attitude toward the poor and needy. It would be safe to say that the Pharisees and scribes had a less-than-flattering view of the less fortunate. Their concept of righteousness or what it means to be right with God was based on merit and measured by a set of external criteria. To their way of thinking, the common people were spiritually stunted and morally depraved, preventing the nation of Israel from experiencing the full blessings of Yahweh.
Yet, Jesus had shown up on the scene preaching a message of blessing that was aimed at the very people the Pharisees despised. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had shocked His audience by pronouncing a series of blessings on the “least of these.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted…” – Matthew 5:3-10 ESV
And it was Jesus’ emphasis on the down and out that rubbed the Pharisees the wrong way. They couldn’t understand His attraction to and affinity for those whom they considered the dregs of society. The Pharisees viewed these people as lead weights that were keeping the nation from experiencing the glory of God. That’s why they continually confronted Jesus about His association with “tax collectors and sinners.” And Luke brings up yet another instance when the Pharisees took exception with Jesus hanging out with the loveable losers of Israel.
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! – Luke 15:1-2 ESV
The religious leaders had deemed this class of people as unwelcome within polite society. Not only that, the Pharisees and scribes considered these unfortunate people to be spiritually unclean, their sinful lifestyles providing evidence of their moral impurity. So, they were treated as outcasts by the more pious-minded and religiously superior segment of society.
When Jesus because aware of the Pharisees’ complaint against Him, He responded with a story in the form of a parable, and it began with a rhetorical question:
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it.” – Luke 15:4 NLT
Everyone in the crowd would have known the right answer to this question because there was only be one. Notice that Jesus did not refute the Pharisees’ derogatory description of the people as “sinners.” In fact, He essentially affirms that these people were “lost” and in need of rescue. To borrow from a phrase He had used earlier in His ministry, Jesus saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.”
Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:35-36 NLT
In Jesus’ story, the one wandering sheep was well worth seeking. Rather than wait for the Pharisees and scribes to answer His question, Jesus reveals that the shepherd in the story did the right thing: He searched for the lost sheep until he found it. He showed compassion. He recognized that the sheep who had wandered was in danger and in need of rescue. It would be incapable of saving itself.
Because Jesus was the Living Word, He was intimately familiar with the written Word of God. He quoted from it often. And, in this case, He clearly had in mind the words that Isaiah the prophet had penned centuries earlier.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT
In this passage, Isaiah describes the infinite mercy of God as revealed in the amazing gift of His Son as the atonement for the sins of mankind.
…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT
And though humanity had knowingly and willingly wandered away, God sent His Son to seek out and save sinners.
Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. – Isaiah 53:6 NLT
The apostle Paul describes this incredible search-and-rescue operation in staggering terms:
God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT
And in Jesus’ story, the shepherd returns with his rescued sheep, declaring his extreme joy at having saved even one that had wandered. And he invites his friends and neighbors to join in the celebration.
“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.” – Luke 15:6 NLT
Whether the Pharisees and scribes realized it or not, they are portrayed in Jesus’ story, but not in flattering terms. They are represented by the 99 other sheep whom the shepherd left behind when he went in search of the one who was lost. In the story, the shepherd leaves the 99 in the “open country” or wilderness. The word Jesus used is very specific and reveals that He is attempting to make a serious and sobering point about His enemies, the Pharisees. The Greek word is erēmos, and it can best be translated as desert or wilderness. It describes a lonely and uninhabited place.
Jesus was indicting the very men who had questioned His poor choice of friends. And He compares them to the 99 who got left behind. But why did Jesus use this analogy to expose the true nature of the religious leaders? He provides some helpful insight in verse 7.
“…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” – Luke 15:7 ESV
Jesus uses irony to make His point. The 99 serves as a symbol for all those who consider themselves to be righteous and in no need of repentance. They are the self-righteous and piously prideful spiritual leaders of Israel. The New Living Translation records verse 7 this way:
“…there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” – Luke 15:7 NLT
This brings to mind another familiar parable that Jesus told and it is located just a few verses after this one in Luke 15. It is typically referred to as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But one of the main characters in the parable who typically gets overlooked is the older brother who “stayed behind” while the younger brother sowed his oats and squandered his inheritance. When the younger brother came back, financially broke and emotionally broken, the father threw a lavish party to celebrate his return. But the older brother became angry and complained to his father.
“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” – Luke 15:29 ESV
Because of the context, we know that Jesus is using the older brother to further expose the hypocrisy and pride of the Pharisees. They are the 99 who stayed behind and never strayed. They are the rule-keeping older brother who stayed behind and never disobeyed a single command his father gave him. In both cases, the 99 and the older brother are those who refuse to acknowledge their own sin and their need for a Savior. They believe themselves to be righteous and in no need of a Savior. But as Jesus so aptly put it, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Luke 5:31 NLT).
Jesus knew the Pharisees would never acknowledge their “lostness.” They had no need to be found because they had never wandered away. They were the faithful, obedient older brother who had stuck by God’s side through thick and thin. They were the compliant sheep who remained in the “pasture” of their own piety, oblivious to the fact that they were actually in the “desert” of their own sin.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.