We have all experienced the pain of losing something and the joy of finding it again. In Luke 15:1-7, Jesus draws on this common human experience when he tells a parable about a shepherd searching and finding his lost sheep. We may never have been shepherds, yet we can all identify with the crisis of loss, the shift in priorities it brings, the impassioned activity it provokes, and the celebration that comes when we recover something we cherish. So at one level it is easy for us to understand the basic message of this parable. Jesus is using the common experience of loss and recovery to challenge our attitudes and actions to people who are far from God and excluded from society.A First Look at the Parable: The Vertical Dimension
Perhaps the most common application of this parable today is in evangelism and gospel proclamation. We can legitimately read it as a call to seek out people who have not had the opportunity to hear the good news about Christ. They have not yet heard the gospel message about the eternal life we can have as we put our trust in Jesus as our saviour. We could call this the vertical perspective of the parable; and it has immense and continuing relevance in our world today.
If the world were a village of 100 people, 23 would not even have a Christian friend. There would be no church in their community and no active gospel witness. In missional terms we call these un-evangelised people and unreached peoples groups. They could also be called outsiders who are excluded by barriers of race, religion, geography and politics from having the opportunity to hear the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.
Over for the last 4 decades, many mission’s agencies and churches around the globe have put a priority on reaching these outsiders or unreached people groups. One of the most effective means of reaching them with the gospel message has been to plant new churches in their communities. For that reason over the last four years CityLife World Impact has joined with our global missions partners to help plant almost 250 churches in some of the least-reached, most persecuted and impoverished parts of the world. The average size of these churches is about 90-100 people, and almost all the members are new believers. So that represents over 24,000 lost sheep who have been found.
Bringing the gospel to lost sheep around the world is something we can all partner in through prayer, support, encouragement and short-term team participation; and when people come to Christ and churches are planted it is something we can all celebrate together.A Second Look the Parable: The Horizontal Dimension
From another perspective, the parable of the lost sheep can be read as a call to reach out to the marginalised, the disadvantaged and the social outcasts in our world. We could call this the horizontal dimension of the parable. To understand this dimension of the parable we need a deeper appreciation of the culture of Jesus time, and how the shepherd and lost sheep in the story would have been perceived.1) The Shepherd: A King who Would Bring Deliverance
For a person in ancient Israel, a sheep owner symbolized authority, power and kingship (see for example, Psalm 23 and Zech 13:7). One of the most powerful prophetic pictures of shepherd kings in the Old Testament is given in Ezekiel 34. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God rebukes the shepherds of Israel (their kings and rulers) for not strengthening the weak, or healing the sick, or binding up the injured. He then uses language that would have echoed in the mind of every Jew that heard Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep,“11….I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them …16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak... I will feed them in justice…23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16, 23
This prophecy speak as much of the horizontal dimension of life as it does the vertical. It is a prophecy about God coming to deliver his suffering people from sickness, oppression, disease and loss. It is a dramatic picture of a shepherd king bringing healing, comfort, shelter and sustenance. At a socio-political level, it would have spoken of a deliverer that God would send to set the people of Israel free from the oppression of the Roman Empire.2) The Lost Sheep: Outsiders and Social Outcasts
Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep because religious leaders of his time were criticizing him for eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors were despised by ordinary Jews for their corruption, their ill-gotten wealth and their collusion with the Roman invaders of their land. “Sinners” would have been understood as those people who did not follow the accepted cultural practices of ordinary Jews including circumcision, not eating pork and observing the Sabbath day; it would also have included those who broke moral laws such as thieves, robbers and prostitutes.
It is clear that the parable compares tax collectors and sinners to lost sheep who Jesus has come to seek and save. However, the parable does not end when the shepherd finds the lost sheep. The shepherd carries the sheep home on his shoulder and brings it to a place of safety, restoration, provision and celebration. Thus the parable of the lost sheep is not just about getting sinners saved for heaven. As in Ezekiel 34, it is about caring for the hurting, healing the sick, empowering the poor and transforming the lives of people excluded from society—that is social outsiders.The Horizontal Dimension of the Parable Today
How can we apply the horizontal dimension of the parable in our own time? If today’s world were a village of 100 people,
• 1 villager who would be an international refugee or an internally displaced person who has had to abandon their home because of civil war or natural calamity;
• 14 who would be illiterate; and
• 10 people would live on less than $1.80 US per day, and suffer malnutrition.
These are the outsiders and the social outcasts of our globalised world. Without citizenship or rights to live somewhere in safety, without literacy and education, and caught in poverty traps from which they cannot escape, they are effectively excluded from the opportunities that our world offers. They have no capacity to change their circumstances and become participants in our global economy. We live in the wealthiest and healthiest era this world has ever seen. Yet a significant portion of people in our global village remain outsiders who are marginalised and excluded from the basic human rights that the majority enjoy.
Just as the parable of the lost sheep challenged its first hearers to view the outsiders in their world from a different perspective, so Jesus’ message should do that for us today. It shows us the priority God puts on the lost, hurting, broken and excluded. It also invites the hearer to participate in God’s mission of rescuing the lost, both for heaven and on earth. It is a call to be a part of God’s mission of bringing heaven to earth rather than stay in the wilderness with the ninety-nine who thought they had everything they needed. As Jesus effectively says at the beginning of the parable, “Which one of you would not do what this good shepherd did for his lost sheep?”A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP RESPONSE
Global issues such as unreached people, refugees, illiteracy and absolute poverty can seem overwhelming for an individual, but that is where the power of global mission’s partnership comes into play. As the global church works together in partnership, we are able to make a difference in some of these situations. You can read about our global mission’s partners and how they are sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and bringing transformation to some of the outsiders in our world at https://www.citylife.church/missionaries/
. These are all ministries that you can partner with in prayer, and with support and encouragement. Together we can have an impact in our World and follow Jesus in seeking and saving the outsiders of our own generation.Your Next Steps
1. A practical outcome for this study could be to adopt a CityLife Missions partner for focused prayer, encouragement and financial support (see www.citylife.church/missionaries/
or email us at email@example.com)
2. You could consider sending some members of your group on a CityLife World Impact short-term team or even all going together (see www.citylife.church/missions-trips/
or contact our World Impact Teams coordinator at the church office).
3. You could invite a World Impact volunteer to come and share about global missions at your Life Group.
4. You could have different members of your group look for information and resources on refugees, illiteracy, poverty and other types of global disadvantage and share what you have discovered at a subsequent meeting. Some good website to go to include: www.compassion.com.au; www.cbm.org
; and joshuaproject.net
1. Read Luke 15:1-7 together. How does the parable speak into your life?
2. Who do you think the shepherd and lost sheep might represent in our contemporary world today?
3. Who do you think the ninety-nine sheep might represent?
4. Read through Ezekiel 34. How does this passage help us better understand the parable of the lost sheep?
5. We all have different passions. Which dimension of the parable of the lost sheep appeals to you the most—the vertical or the horizontal? Explain why this dimension resonates with you the most.
6. What is there in this study that has changed your understanding of God’s heart for outsiders?
7. What are some of the ways we can become better informed about global issues that exclude and disadvantage people?
8. What do you think the church locally and globally can do to follow Jesus, his heart and passion, for the lost and the socially excluded?
9. What can your Life Group do to engage with God’s mission to outsiders in our community and globally?