Chapter 10 - The Lost Sheep

(Luke xv. 1 - 7.)

Not only are the mines of Scripture yet little worked, there is a wealth of precious things yet upon the surface which we have never made our own, for all the centuries we have had the fields in our possession. What are we more familiar with than the parables of this chapter? They are the constant theme of the evangelist; they are among the most prized treasures of faith everywhere. They are sung in hail and in street, lisped by childhood and studied by youth, and often link for the dying the most precious memories of the past with the joys into which they are entering. And yet, even among so-called evangelical Christians, how often do we find contradictory conceptions of these very parables! If we ask, Who are the "ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance"? Who are the two "sons" of the last parable? How is it that the father says to the elder son, "All that I have is thine" we shall find very different answers given by different persons of at least the average intelligence in spiritual things.

It is no purpose of mine to take up these differences, but rather to look at the parables themselves for what the Lord in His grace may grant us out of them for edification and blessing; only making the diversity of view the argument for closer examination of their meaning and design. One thing is sure: however often we may have come to these divine springs, we shall find still that there is fresh and living water. Blessed are they only that hunger and thirst: they shall ever be filled.

The occasion of the three parables was a common one and they are so manifestly linked together in subject, all the more clearly because of their individual differences, that scarcely a question can be raised on that score. In each case, what has been lost is found; in each, the joy -the basis, and the crowning joy - is, blessed be God, in the one who finds what he has lost. The threefold story of the love that seeks and finds suggests (what a further view confirms abundantly) that here it is the heart of the whole Godhead that is told out to us. Father, Son, and Spirit are all occupied with man. Around him revolves an interest that makes all things its witnesses, and servants for its blessed purposes.

The occasion is this, that there "were drawing near unto Him all the publicans and sinners for to hear Him." And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."

Our common version says, "Then drew near," but the words do not speak of what merely happened at a certain time, but of what was habitually taking place. We see that everywhere through the gospels, from the day at least in which He called Levi from the receipt of custom, and Levi made Him a feast in his own house, "publicans and sinners" flocked around the Lord. They had gone out largely to John’s baptism before that, when through the gate of repentance they were invited to come to find remission of their sins. Now, when grace sought them more openly, it was to be expected that they, beyond others, would welcome it. And they did. "Verily I say unto you," were Christ’s words to the Pharisees, "that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not, but the publicans and the harlots believed him; and ye, when ye saw it, did not even repent yourselves afterward, that ye might believe him." (Matt. xxi. 3!, 32.)

The Pharisees resented the grace that welcomed such; for this grace makes its own demand, and, with the inflexibility of law itself, will abate nothing. "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish," is harshness indeed to "just persons who have no need of repentance;" and this is how the parable itself describes those to whom, as murmurers against His ways, He is replying. Surely it is evident that if in the last parable alone this murmuring is distinctly found in the person of the elder son, the first no less pictures the two parties to whom alike they were uttered.

People look around to find a class who have no need of repentance, and some who cannot find them on earth apply our Lord’s words to the angels! A common hymn we sing speaks of the same class as - "The ninety and nine that safely lay, In the shelter of the fold," but of this the parable says nothing. The mistake is in making a reality out of what is but the image in a mirror which the Lord puts before His audience that they may recognize themselves. And from this He necessarily pictures them according to their own estimate of them selves - an estimate which He uses at the same time for the purpose of conviction on the one side, of encouragement on the other. Had he pictured them other than their own thought, the arrow would have missed its mark. How could they fail to apply aright these righteous men whom He exhibited to them in contrast with this wandering sheep, - "lost," or self-destroyed? How could they interpret wrongly this "elder son" serving his father in the field, indignantly pleading against the free reception of his unworthy brother his own ill-requited years of toil? Yet after all, in what seems to admit their fullest claim, they find themselves convicted and exposed, their argument refuted, and their heartlessness and distance from God laid bare.

Yet withal God Himself is at the same time so wondrously revealed, that when the scene closes with that direct appeal upon the father’s part - "Then came his father out and entreated him," - you listen involuntarily for the sudden sob which shall tell of another heart, noless a prodigal’s, broken down into confession and return.

The scribes taught much in parables. The Lord will have them listen to parables in turn. We feel, in the style in which He addresses Himself to them here, that the reason is not that which He gives upon another occasion to His disciples: "Therefore speak I unto them in parables, because they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." No doubt, here as elsewhere, the parable would, like the seed of which He was speaking in the former case, test the receptive character of the ground upon which it fell. Yet the pleading in them cannot be mistaken either. Did He not, as just now said, Himself picture the Father as entreating even the Pharisee? Could He do less, or hide from them in words hard to be interpreted, that very entreaty?

The gentlest, most persuasive, winning form of speech is undoubtedly the parable. There is the attractiveness of the story itself, as the lips here could tell it, taking possession of one before even its meaning might become plain, and then detaining the soul to listen to that meaning. There is the hold upon the memory which we all realize, by virtue of which it might, like incorruptible seed, lodge in the frozen ground until a more genial time should give it leave to expand and root itself. With how many has it not been so since, and how great a harvest may we not be sure will yet be seen to have sprung from this sowing! Sow it in some hearts afresh even now, blest Sower, Son of Man, for Thy love’s sake!

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it "And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. "I say unto you that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance."

They have assailed Him for His love, and the Lord first of all, therefore, answers for Himself. He will afterward, though in a more covert way, show how the Spirit, and then openly how the Father, is of one mind with Him. Are they not too? He asks. If it were only a sheep that was in question, there would be no doubt. Alas, that doubt could only come in where men were concerned! Would they indeed value a man lower than a sheep? But these were His: put them upon that low level, who should forbid His interest in them?

He does not compare Himself to the shepherd here. He might act as that, but He was much more than that - even the Owner of the sheep. We see that he makes the loftiest claim here. They are His, - even these poor publicans and sinners. He who made and fashioned them is He who is in pursuit of them. Will they question His right?

It is a first principle for faith that God is the seeker, that there is heart in Him, - goodness in Him. We are not bid to batter at closed doors. We have not to soften Him to pity, or turn Him toward us. We feel our hardness toward Him, and we think Him hard. We listen to our consciences that accuse us, and we think we hear His voice in them, who yet "upbraideth not." What a revelation of God is this, when Christ down here among men, becomes His true and only representative!

Conscience is not the voice of God to us. It is the voice of self-conviction, of the moral nature within us, pronouncing upon ourselves, and which makes us rightly anticipate a judgment to come. But even here, while it is the eye to see, there is no less required the light to see. In the twilight darkness in which so many are shrouded, what is unreal is oftentimes confounded with the real. If a poor Romanist omits his worship of the Virgin, conscience may smite him for it. If he gets his absolution from the priest, he feels relieved and happy. Of many, Scripture says, "Even their mind and conscience is defiled." (Tit. i. is.) It may have its fools’ paradise or its fabled purgatory. As the light comes in, reality succeeds to the unreal, and in the day that comes there will be nothing hid

But conscience can never take the place of revelation God only can tell me what He is, or what Christ did for me, or how my soul can be at peace with Him. For all this, I must listen to the Word alone. It alone can bring in the true eternal light in which conscience and heart alike can find their rest and satisfaction forever.

God reveals Himself then as Seeker. It is He whose the sheep are who is come after them. In this character He is for the lost, the wandered, though it be, as with these publicans, that worst wandering, heart and mind astray, and astray hopelessly, without power of self-recovery. A bottomless word, this "lost"! Not even the Pharisees would have uttered it of these publicans; for they believed in an inherent power in man by which - though by painful effort and perseverance, the crooked might be straightened yet. Were there not legal sacrifices and prescribed restitutions, ablutions, and purifications?

Divine love saw lost ones, - saw in its full extent the misery which it alone was adequate to relieve, and that misery, so hopeless otherwise, brought it down on their behalf. The Creator becomes the Saviour. He "goeth after that which is lost until He find it." With the divine power and wisdom in pursuit, there is no uncertainty here as to success. Help is laid upon One who is mighty with whom to fail would be indeed irretrievable disaster convulsing heaven and earth in universal ruin. But there is no fear: the cause of the helpless is become the cause of the Almighty, "to the praise of the glory of His grace" Pharisees, publicans, and sinners alike knew who were these lost ones, thus made the objects of God’s special interest. No one of them needed to inquire, as so many today are found inquiring, "Is this for me?" It was definite gospel addressing itself without any possibility of question to those whose hearts claimed so great salvation and whose consciences put them in this strangely privileged class. They had but to take the divine estimate of them to find themselves enrolled among the heirs of salvation. And here, marvellous to say, communion with God begins for the poor sinner who thus is at one with God as to his condition and his need.

Light has shone in upon the soul, and though it be but upon ruin, yet here also, as in the six days’ work, God sees the light that it is good. It is the proof of a work begun which shall end only in the rest of God when at last all is good. The soul is in His presence whose presence yet shall be fullness of joy to it. We are new-born, as born naturally, with a cry.

"Until He find it." He has made the responsibility of that His own. Blest news for the consciously helpless, - the work is His. The effect of this sweet assurance, where it takes hold, is that Christ is revealed in it. The lost are found: the everlasting arms are realized to be about them. Not more surely are they disclosed to themselves than He is disclosed to them. This is rest begun. He has given it.
"He goeth after that which is lost until He find it" Then these lost are found. Infinite power and love are on the track and cannot fail. It is plain, then, that the Lord is speaking, not of all men as in a lost condition (for all men are not found), but for the ear and heart of these who were flocking now around Him. His words are no mere generalities, powerless to minister to the need of souls, but divine seed finding its own place, and rooting itself in the furrows of the ploughed-up ground, where the work of the Spirit gives it entrance.

It is a blessed thing to be able to give a free and general offer of salvation, - to say, "Christ died for all: come to Him, and He will give you rest." Yet there are those who need even a closer individualization. There are those who lie wounded by the roadside, needing, not merely the call of the gospel, but the grasp of the strong tender hands, and the binding up of the gaping wounds There are those to whom, if they cannot appropriate Him, Christ would appropriate Himself, - those who dare not thrust out leprous hands to Him because of their pollution, and who can only be liberated and brought out of their isolation by that direct touch of His, in which a new, undreamed-of life for them begins. "He goeth after that which is lost." How much do those quiet words involve!

"But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed
Nor how dark waters the night which the Lord passed through,
Ere He found His sheep which was lost."

The cross was the only place in which He could overtake these wanderers. It is only as we realize what the cross is, that we find the arms of this mighty love thrown round us. Here indeed He has come where we are. Here is the place in which, without rebuke, we can claim Him, - our place, the place of our doom, - our substitute and sin-bearer He who takes it. The awful cloud which has shadowed His glory has destroyed forever the distance between us. The crucified One is ours; for the death and judgment He has borne are ours. These are our due, - our penalty; and we have them in the cross borne, and borne away from us. He has found the lost; and immediately we are freed and upborne by the might of this redemption and by the living power of the Redeemer: "He layeth it upon His shoulders rejoicing."

How blessed is this! What can be the force of such words, but to assure us of the complete triumph of divine love in the poor sinner’s salvation! There is to be no trusting him to himself again; no possible forfeiture of all the toil and pains of divine love in his behalf. The joy is His who brings back His own. The loss now would be indeed His loss. The failure clearly, as represented here, would be His. Failure, then, there cannot be. Put all the weakness, folly, waywardness of the recovered one in the strongest way, and prove them by the most conclusive of arguments, what does all this do but furnish the most satisfactory reason why the sheep should be where it is, upon the shoulders of the shepherd, and not upon its own feet?

This, then, is salvation in the Lord’s thought of it in this parable. It is salvation "to the uttermost" (Heb. vii. 25), - complete, eternal (chap. v. 9) salvation. This alone suits the case; alone gives peace to the conscience, alone gives rest to the heart. And it is here assured to every one who, looking to the Saviour, finds himself in this company of lost ones, after whom is His special quest. And how beautifully, in this freest of gospels, is repentance thus insisted on as inseparable from saving faith! "And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and his neighbours, saying unto them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ I say unto you that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."

Here the moral is plainly reached, and the application is easy. Who is the sinner that repenteth? Beyond all possible doubt, the sheep which was lost. Who are the just persons that need no repentance? As plainly, those who have never been thus consciously and hopelessly astray. It is to the consciousness of those before Him the Lord appeals; and upon this depends the force of that appeal. These publicans and sinners who as such flocked to hear the message of grace, were those in whom was repentance; and so the gospel, with all its real freedom selects (so to speak) its recipients. The ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance have, on this very account, no need of and no taste for grace. No less certainly than the needle follows the magnet do these convicted sinners follow and cleave to Christ.

There are many teachers, - there are many and conflicting teachings, - there were at that time, there have been ever; yet we are not left to this confusion and uncertainty. Nor are the simplest and most ignorant left to be the dupes of those subtler than themselves. No, there is a rule of God’s moral government which forbids such a result. For, let a man but face his own convictions, - let him only admit the sin which his conscience, if not hardened, witnesses against him, and realize the helplessness which soon discovers itself to those in earnest to be delivered, - there is but one voice that can be authoritative for him any more. The jangle of contending voices is hushed; scribes, doctors of the law, names, and parties, and schools of thought become utterly insignificant. Faith hears only Him who says, with calmness and assurance, "Come unto ME, and I will give you rest."

It is the Lord; and He who invites to rest, Himself rests in the rest He gives. It is that for which He has laboured. "Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel. . . the Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty: He will save; He will rejoice over thee with joy; He will rest in His love; He will joy over thee with singing." (Zeph. iii. 17.)