”All the tax collectors and sinners were coming close to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and the legal experts were grumbling. 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!'" Luke 15:1-2
This statement sets the stage for the parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15. As I mentioned concerning the previous parables with the guests at a wedding feast, the importance of honor and shame is vital to understanding what is at stake in these famous stories. The central figure in Luke 15 according to most Westerners is going to be the prodigal son who comes home after a time away in rebellion and wasted living. This is certainly understandable since every human being can identify with this young man if we were to be completely honest. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that the central figure is not the lost son, the lost sheep, nor the lost coin in any of these parables. The central figure in these parables is the person who is actively doing the recovering. Each of these parables, we should remember, is being given in response to the challenge presented at the opening of this passage: "This fellow welcomes sinners!" They said. "He even eats with them!" Luke 15:2. In other words, Jesus is using the parables to answer the challenge of those who are saying ”What do you think you are doing?!” In explanation, Jesus gives a parable about a shepherd who loses a sheep. The late Ken Bailey wrote a book entitled "The Good Shepherd" which offers a study on the 23rd Psalm, the Good Shepherd, and its use and reuse throughout the Bible, including our present passage. In that book, Dr. Bailey, having grown up in the Middle East near the lands where Jesus walked, demonstrates that what is a stake in this parable, as well as the parables that follow it, is the honor of the shepherd. If the shepherd's reputation as a "good shepherd" is to be kept intact, the lost sheep must be found. This is as much about the shepherd as it is about the sheep. It is worth pointing out that this angle of vision sheds light on what Paul means when He says that in the Gospel, "the righteousness of God is revealed" Romans 1:17. God had promised to do something, particularly, to rescue His creation project through Abraham and his family. The good shepherd had also promised to do something, namely, to keep the sheep from being lost. God had a problem because Abraham's family had become part of the problem instead of the solution. The shepherd had a problem because one of the sheep had been lost. How would God fulfill His promise when the ordained agent for accomplishing His purpose had become a wayward vessel? How would the shepherd preserve his reputation? The answer: He will seek and save the lost. This is how both the sheep and the honor and reputation of the shepherd are rescued and kept intact. God would be seen as being righteous in light of His covenant because the rescue operation would be back on track and the Shepherd would still be seen as being "good" because the lost sheep had been found. This is an interpretation by Jesus and by Luke of the cross that would come at the culmination of Jesus' ministry. The sheep had gone astray but it is the shepherd who is put at risk and it is the shepherd who would pay the price to make things right again. It is the son who dishonored the father and who lost the wealth, but it is the father who bore the shame and absorbed the loss. This was accomplished both for the purpose of rescuing the sheep and for the sake of keeping the honorable name of "good" shepherd above reproach. In the previous two chapters of Luke we saw Jesus' compassion on the lost sheep when he healed on the Sabbath and reminded the Lawyers and Pharisees who objected that they too would pull their son or even their ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath day, so why shouldn't He rescue a life on the Sabbath day? This was and is because He is the good Shepherd. Of course, He must rescue a sheep even on the Sabbath! Now the question remains for the rest of the sheep, the "ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance"; will they stand in condemnation of the Shepherd's behavior or will they go in and join the party? We may recall that those who didn't come to the feast prepared by the host in Luke 14 were not those whom the host disqualified because of moral failures or lack of ability to contribute to the party. Those who missed the party were those who thought of themselves as being above the behavior of the host. Let us be warned: Those who are not found at the wedding feast are those who have chosen to side with the accuser. The parables of the prodigal son, the lost coin, and the good shepherd are all meant to say that the accuser has no case. What Jesus is doing, to answer the Pharisee's question, is exactly what God Himself always said He would do. God is being faithful to His covenant in and through Jesus by being the Good Shepherd.