Sometimes people present their ministry as one that will leave the ninety-nine for the one. I take it that they mean they are (and everyone should be) willing to leave the church in some way—risking the health, wellbeing, and community of believers for the hope of one the non-believer coming to faith, I wonder if they’re doing justice to Jesus and his concerns. I’ve heard this kind of idea in sermons; read it in blogs; discussed it in church council meetings. A quick internet search shows me you can get it printed on T-shirts too. Much of the sentiment and intention behind this is good, but when people want to use Jesus’ image of ‘leaving the ninety-nine for the one’ as a slogan for their ministry I get a little uneasy. Let me show you why.

When people want to use Jesus’ image of ‘leaving the ninety-nine for the one’ as a slogan for their ministry I get a little uneasy.

In the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus employs a picture of inordinate, even reckless love. This is how much Jesus wants every single person to be found. It’s the like the feeling of my car keys in my pocket: when I feel they’re gone, I need them right now. I may not be about to drive and yes I’ve got a spare set, but I need to interrupt the important conversation I’m having with my wife and start lifting up couch cushions to find them. (All this despite the fact that they were in the other pocket). We’re meant to learn from the picture Jesus presents, but what exactly are we meant to learn?

Note the Context

In Luke’s gospel, this parable is the first of three that Jesus tells in chapter 15. The context for all of them is paramount:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1–2 NIV).

In telling the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son, Jesus is defining and describing his own ministry—particularly his popularity with ‘sinners’—in response to the Pharisee’s negative assessment.

Through these parables, Jesus declares that the Pharisees shouldn’t grumble about the sinners coming to Jesus—they should rejoice in it! Indeed the two first stories end with the interpretation that this is what brings joy in heaven: repentance, not self righteousness (15:7,10). Jesus doesn’t want his followers to identify themselves as the shepherd, woman or father, but to see themselves as the lost and recognise in him the unceasing searcher and unconditional welcomer. Meanwhile, Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to recognise that they are being like the older brother and complete the story left after 15:32 by joining the celebration, sharing the father’s heart and thus find their own kind of repentance toward God.

The Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine, is therefore Jesus, not me. There’s certainly things we need to learn from this, but before we do, we need to see what this looks like in concrete terms, what it means and how else Jesus can describe his ministry.

The Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine, is Jesus, not me.

With that in mind, let’s look again at the context for the actual situation. In 15:1–2, Jesus doesn’t leave anyone in literal terms. Rather, it is people coming to him: he’s meeting with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees are listening in too. If Jesus is a shepherd at this point, then the flock around him (in this instance) is probably best understood not the church, but a disparate group of Isralites. The ‘sinner’ is a sheep ‘in the open country’ or a son ‘in a distant country’ or a coin which has rolled away, but Jesus didn’t have to actually go far to find them. He is not speaking about distance in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one.

No Abandonment

Now because there is no actual distance involved in the search, the risk placed on any of Jesus’ true sheep left in the field is actually nil. The point of the story is not about any risk put on them. And if it were, we couldn’t make any sense of Jesus’ use of the same parable in Matthew 18:10–14:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Jesus will do whatever it takes to bring in the lowly: be it a so-called ‘sinner’ (as in Luke’s context) or an apparently insignificant child (as in Matthew’s Gospel). Jesus won’t let them fall into trouble when he goes to get another one.

We should expect nothing less of Jesus. After all, he is not simply the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, but also the good shepherd who will not run from the wolf (John 10:11–13). He’s the gate who lets the sheep in and out to pasture (John 10:9). He’s come so that his sheep can have life and life to the full (John 10:10). He will do whatever it takes to be the shepherd his Father commands him to be, even give his own life and take it up again (John 10:14–18).

Now you might say, doesn’t Paul tell us that we should become a Jew for the Jews and a Greek for the Greeks and all things for all people (1 Cor 9:19-23)? Wouldn’t that be an example of risking some for the sake of others? In true Paul style, I’d reply: by no means! Paul is certainly showing how he will do everything in his power to win over the lost—short of compromising his obligations to Christ. He will use his freedoms in Christ to win those outside. We should do the same. But note that the wider context of 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about not risking the salvation of brothers and sisters in Jesus by exercising freedoms which Christ has truly won for us (hence the severe warnings of 8:9-13 and 9:24-25). Paul interprets his own words as relating to our relationship with our church in chapter 10:32-33: ‘Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way.’

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we shouldn’t have the same heart for the lost as our Lord has. We should. I hate that we’re not more successful in our efforts to bring people into the joy and peace of the Gospel. They need salvation and Jesus deserves all praise and honour But I also hate it when people in our congregations feel like they’re a hinderance to the mission rather than a part of the mission. I hate it when people leave the church because their under-shepherds ignore them and their needs. We can’t pretend like a faithful ministry is one which would burn down a church in the hope of building a new one in its place! We can’t justify it on the strength of weak exegesis. That’s not what we learn from Jesus.

Pastoral ministry is messy. When Jesus called Peter to feed his lambs in John 21, he didn’t envisage a high-brow job. He was calling Peter to a thankless daily labour. In the process of leading God’s people, shepherds will, no doubt, make mistakes. They will also have to contend with wolves in the flock that seek to scatter. There will be times when congregations need big changes to be made. A church may need radical upheaval of style, structure, timing and culture. Such changes will be hard. In all of this the aim will never, can never, be to leave the ninety-nine, but to love the ninety-nine. For when we love the ninety-nine, as truly and deeply as the shepherd who died to bring us into his flock, we’ll be able to find those who are, like we once were, spiritually distant and bring them in to join us as the sheep before the Great Shepherd.