In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells the first in a series of three parables related to things that are lost and the joy that is found in their return:
So he told them this parable: ‘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? And 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 that was lost.” 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’ (ESV).
The graphic above has a split view. One side has 100 sheep in it; the other side has one less sheep, 99. Which one is missing a sheep? The right? Or the left?
The answer? The right.
The point is, it is difficult to determine if one sheep is missing out of one hundred. The owner of the sheep would have to constantly be counting. And the sheep in the picture above are stationary… they aren’t moving. I imagine a hundred sheep don’t stay still long enough for their shepherd to count them.
And no is the answer to Jesus’ question in the parable: “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?”
What shepherd in their right mind would risk the lives of 99 sheep to go after one that has strayed off? The 99 seemingly obedient sheep would be in grave danger without protection from the shepherd in the “open country.”
Furthermore, no sheep would appreciate a shoulder-ride on a human. It wouldn’t be enjoyable for the sheep or the human! I imagine one would get quite a headache after that tumultuous shoulder ride!
And then the party… who would come to a party just because one sheep got found? Either the guests would just want to come and watch their friend’s mysterious and crazy exuberance over an animal rescue or they are grateful for a free meal! Or maybe there are other reasons. Regardless, the party seems to put the icing on the cake of a strange story of a shepherd who lost a sheep and who put a lot of other sheep in danger in order to find the one lost sheep.
Jewish theologian, Amy-Jill Levine, shares her take on this parable:
The parable presents a main figure—the owner, not the sheep—who realizes he has lost something of value to him. He notices the single missing sheep among the ninety-nine in the wilderness. For him, the missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete. He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself and then with his friends and neighbors. If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of a hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when we find what we have lost? More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it—or him or her—again? (Levine, 2014, pp. 44-45).
Levine shares that the main point of this parable is the loss of something of value to the owner, and the exaggerated search and rejoicing that follows.
Prior to the parable, Luke writes:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable (15:1-3 ESV).
It seems to me that the exaggerated rejoicing (the party) is the main reason Jesus is telling this parable.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the 99 that aren’t lost, but that he is deeply concerned that something of great value has been lost and, when found, is cause for great rejoicing and celebrating. The setting of the parable is that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees grumbled that he was fraternizing with “those” kind of people. “Those” kind of people were the ones who were lost, and Jesus was on both an exaggerated search to find and rescue them as well as an exaggerated rejoicing and celebrating when found.