My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, “We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord, their habitation of righteousness, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.” Je 50.6-7
In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, Israel, was taken into captivity by Babylon. Their Babylonian captors believed that because the Jews were sinners suffering God’s righteous judgement, they had a right to abuse them. God did not, however, approve of Babylon’s arrogance and cruelty. He judged them for it, handing their empire over to the Persians.
By the time of Christ, six hundred years later, the Babylonian and Persian empires were gone. The Jews, though under Roman rule, were back in the land of promise and free, for the most part, to govern their lives according to their law and to worship in their own temple.
But, once again, Israel’s shepherds—like the kings and false prophets of old, and the Babylonians who had taken them captive—didn’t love God or his people. They loved their own status and power.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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.” Lk 15.1-7
If Israel’s leaders had seen themselves as sinners always in need of God’s grace, they’d have used their authority humbly, gathering and guiding straying sinners back into the fold. Instead, they used the people’s sin as an excuse to abuse them. Denying them the grace of God, they drove them away (Mt. 23.13). God did not approve of their arrogance; He judged them for it.
Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. He proved it by seeking and saving the lost (Lk 19.10). He laid down his life for them—for us. (Jn. 10.11). And now the shepherd’s heart of our Savior is calling us to do the same. His Spirit in us gives us compassion for fellow sinners and will not let us rest until every one of his wandering sheep is returned safely to the unity of the fold.