Once again we have a decent break in the chapter division for ch.15; I believe this is one unit of Scripture that is meant to be taken as a whole as Jesus shows us through vivid parable the grace of God, the pursuit of God, the gentleness of God, and the love of God. This is one of the most loved and (perhaps) oft preached chapters of the Bible. In fact, most unchurched people know about the prodigal son (v.11-24). I will do my best, in the treatment of this text, to maintain the structural integrity of this teaching of Jesus in ch.15.
But we must realize that this context is tied to the foregoing context. Notice Luke 14.35: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. That is how ch.14 ends; notice how ch. 15 begins: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. Did you see the connection? Jesus finishes his discourse on discipleship with an admonition to hear his words and the tax collectors and sinners heed that admonishment. The lowest of society are doing what says while the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day, are grumbling (v.2). What a shocking contrast! Tax collectors were hated by the society – they were seen as helpers of the evil empire, the Romans. As Leon Morris puts it, “They were ostracized by many and regarded as outcasts by the religious.” Sinners were not much better; they lived immoral lives and were publically recognized for their lives which were contrary to the Law.
It is these kinds of people, the despised and disobedient, that Jesus received and ate with (v.2). To eat with someone was not merely to associate yourself with them, but also pointed to welcome and recognition of that person as worthy of fellowship. And so there is contempt in the words of the Pharisees and scribes as they comment on the situation before them: This man, Jesus, who is supposed to be some kind of religious leader, eats with this kind of riff raff! But remember, these people had gathered for a purpose: to hear Him. That is, to hear the voice of the one who speaks and the storms are calmed, demons flee, even dead bodies come back to life (see ch.8). There is life in these words, freedom and peace. No wonder it is these kind of people, tax collectors and sinners, those in social bondage, troubled by their past, dead in their transgressions and sins, who flock to hear Him.
Urged by the contempt of the religious leaders and perhaps burdened to vindicate his audience (for Jesus’ vidication will be found in an empty tomb), he speaks a parable to “them.” Them could be specifically the Pharisees and scribes (very likely) or it could be to the audience in general. Nevertheless, the parable is addressed to “them”: What man of you…. It is a rhetorical question; any one of them would do what Jesus proposes. The picture is painted of a flock of one hundred sheep. One goes missing. The good shepherd will not leave it to die in the wilderness; instead he will go and search until he has found that one lost sheep. Why? The ninety-nine are safe and sound; that one lost sheep is in danger in the open. This was customary.
And finding the sheep, the shepherd does not begrudingly grab the stubborn sheep and grumble all the way back to the flock. He does not beat the stupid animal for going astray. He does not even raise his voice to the animal. If he raises his voice, it is to rejoice over finding this one lost sheep. He gladly hoists this blessed beast onto his shoulder, smiling from ear to ear, as he lovingly takes it back to the flock. He rejoices with his neighbors for it is a happy occasion (v.6).
And here is the application in v.7: heaven rejoices over the repentant sinner even more than over the righteous who need not repent. To be sure, there is rejoicing for the faithful; but there is more joy over the returning sinner. And who was Jesus with? Those who needed a clearer picture of God. The Jews had muddied the water when it came to God. They believed God rejoiced over a returning sinner; but they did not picture God actively seeking out the sinner. And that is the revolutionary picture painted by our Savior. God is a seeking God, he is in pursuit of the straying sinner, doing everything in his power to track down and restore that straying sheep. A Jewish saying was, “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.” Do you see the burden these religious teachers had bound on the lost? But Jesus comes and presents a very different idea about God. He is God who lovingly searches every high and low, every peak and valley, seeking out his one lost sheep. What grand and marvelous news this must have been to the ears of those who came to hear him! They found themselves in the parable and identified with the sheep. God had come to seek and save them and sitting before was the incarnate reality of this truth.