Are You the One or Part of the Ninety-Nine?
A twist on a familiar parable you didn't see coming.
You’re probably familiar with the story Jesus tells in Luke 15 about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in the fold to go look for the one sheep that’s lost.
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders, 6comes home, and calls together his friends and neighbors to tell them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!’ 7In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.
What we may miss is the audience with whom Jesus is sharing the parable.
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to listen to Jesus. 2So the Pharisees and scribes began to grumble: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Religious outcasts and theological experts in the same crowd. Interesting.
Tell me, and be honest. When hearing the story, do you picture yourself as “the one” or as part of “the ninety-nine?”
For most of my life, I’ve read that parable from the posture of being in the fold. Of course, I’m one of the ninety-nine. I’m a Christian, right?
Isn’t the story about people like me going out to look for the lost? For them? It’s about me having compassion upon “others,” right?
That is not what the story is about.
Not even close.
In context, the ninety-nine represents the Pharisees and scribes. Not Christians who are members of a church. This is clear from Jesus’ commentary, where he calls the ninety-nine “righteous ones who do not need to repent.”
Who doesn’t need to repent? Only the self-righteous.
Of course, a posture of self-righteousness is the result of spiritual blindness and hard-heartedness.
This is what Jesus exposes with the parable.
The “fold” in the story are those who assume they’re in because of their goodness, obedience, and “we don’t wander like others-ness.”
But they are the ones who are truly lost — because they don’t know it.
They’re just like the elder brother in the third parable of the chapter. The prodigal son was not nearly as lost as the (outwardly) good and obedient brother who didn’t wander but stayed at home to serve on the family farm while his younger brother squandered his inheritance at the bar.
This means we have a choice.
I either will identify with the ninety-nine, who in their spiritual blindness do not see any need to confess lostness.
Or I will identify with “the one”—the wandering sheep who has gone so far astray that he can’t find his way home… unless someone seeks him, finds him, and carries him back.
“The one” needs a shepherd to risk his life, setting out to a far country, facing wild beasts, and enduring hunger and thirst on the journey.
In the gospel, we do not get just any shepherd, but the Good Shepherd, who doesn’t merely risk his life but gives it fully, without hesitation, bearing all our wandering upon his shoulders to bring us home.
Or as Isaiah puts it,
4Surely He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we considered Him stricken by God, struck down and afflicted.
5But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
6We all like sheep have gone astray, each one has turned to his own way; but the LORD has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.
This is the babe who was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger, and died on a cross.
For “ones” like us.
When we come alive to this grace, repentance becomes an act of worship, the angels rejoice, and we find ourselves longing for other “ones” like us to be sought, found, and brought home to celebrate Jesus with us.
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Excellent exposition McKay very upbuilding. Nothing cuts through the 'deceitful above all things' heart of my inveterately self-righteous self like the Lord's Parables. Are you familiar with Fr. Robert Capon and his work on the Parables? If not he would probably be right up your alley. Also here is my own little spin, Jacob and Esau's relationship viewed through the lens of the Prodigal and the Elder Brother- https://comfortwithtruth.substack.com/publish/post/77556533
Your writing always improves my day.
Sure. All of Capon's work on the parables got collected in one called Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment, must have for anyone interested in a look at the paradoxes of the parables. My Jacob and Esau is one of my favorites, I need to get around to recording it as a podcast, far more of my friends seem to be into listening than reading, but I despisey.recorded voice. Lol anyway merry Christmas brother