He leaves the ninety-nine

Dear Church Family,

A few weeks ago, we were singing the song “Reckless Love” in our contemporary services when two different people – one on Saturday night and then another on Sunday morning – approached me with a question about this line:

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine.

“What’s that line about leaving the ninety-nine all about?” each person asked me.

It occurred to me that oftentimes we sing songs in worship without knowing the meaning behind certain lyrics.

That line, in case you’re wondering, is taken from my all-time favorite parable of Jesus, the parable of the Searching Shepherd, which is found in both Matthew and Luke. However, I prefer the way Luke tells it:

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 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.
Luke 15:1-7 (NRSV emphasis mine)

This parable means so much to me that on my desk at the church office is a small wooden statue of an Israelite shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The shepherd appears relieved to have found his missing sheep.

I want us to recognize a few things about this parable. The first thing is the irony. The religious leaders in verses 1-2 accuse Jesus of welcoming and eating with sinners. But then Jesus launches into a story not about welcoming something, but about searching for something. It’s as if Jesus is saying to the religious leaders, “You think it’s offensive that I welcome sinners? I’ve got news for you–I don’t just welcome them…I actively seek them out!” 

Second, when Jesus asks the question in verse 4, “Which one of you shepherds would do this?” he knew the response would be, “None of us would do that!”No shepherd in his right mind would leave behind ninety-nine sheep in search of one missing sheep. Economically it doesn’t make sense. But that’s the beautiful thing about this parable. Jesus didn’t tell us this story to teach us about economics, nor did he tell us this story to teach us about ourselves. Instead he told us this story to teach us about God. 

God is “reckless” enough to leave behind everything to chase after us. Indeed, that’s what God did when God came to us in the person of Jesus-God left the comforts of heaven to search for us as a shepherd searches for his lost sheep. He chased after us all the way to the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

The third and final thing I want us to see in this parable is the word “until.”Notice Jesus doesn’t say the shepherd searched “until he got tired” or “until it got dark” or “until he decided to go home.” Jesus is clear the shepherd will continue to search for the missing sheep “until he finds it.”

That indeed is reckless love-a love that will never give up, a love that will never stop chasing, a love that doesn’t make sense, but that God displays anyway.

So take comfort today knowing that you are loved by God in a way you will never fully grasp. 


p.s., I hope you will join us in worship this weekend as we continue in our series, Sunday to Sunday, in which we are looking at the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. Our focus this weekend will be on Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders about paying taxes to Rome (Luke 20:20-26). So join us on Saturday night or Sunday morning and be ready to see this passage in a new way. Also make sure to bring a bag or two of candy to help us with the upcoming Easter Egg Hunt (and sign up to volunteer!). 

p.p.s., If you’re interested in learning more about membership at Community of Faith, I hope you will join Lori Austin (Lay Leader) and me for our next new membership class on Monday, April 8th at 6:30 p.m. in the sanctuary. We will answer all your questions about church membership. Anyone who is not yet a member of Community of Faith is welcome to attend.