There is a story that Jesus tells in Luke 15 about a flock of sheep. There are 100 sheep in this flock, and one of them is missing. Jesus asks those who are listening what they would do if this was their flock of sheep. Would they leave the ninety-nine to go look for the lost sheep? He doesn't really give them a chance to respond and goes on to share the best possible scenario: "When he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors and says, 'Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep.'"
It's not difficult to identify Jesus as the shepherd. He calls Himself the Good Shepherd in John 10. "I am the good shepherd," He says. "I know my sheep and my sheep know me...I lay down my life for the sheep." The greater mystery in this story lies with this question: Who are the lost sheep? Jesus identifies them as sinners that need to repent. But that can be difficult to define.
Or maybe I should say, that can be difficult to define accurately. I think we're all pretty good at pointing out "sinners who need to repent" among us. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were good at this too and did it often. In fact, it was their observation that Jesus was welcoming and eating with sinners that prompted Jesus to tell several stories about "lost" things. Sheep, coins, and sons. But what was it about these things that made them lost?
Simply put, they were not where they were supposed to be. It wasn't so much about behavior as it was about location. The sheep was alone--away from the shepherd and the rest of the flock. The coin was missing. It wasn't where coins were usually kept. Its value was in jeopardy. And the sons? One was away from home, away from his father and his whole family. And the other? He was there in body, but not really in spirit. He was living in his father's household, doing what was expected of him, but he wasn't enjoying it.
We generally label those we call "sinners" by their behavior. But I don't see Jesus defining them in that way. It's not about what they are doing or not doing; it's about where they are. Is the sheep close to the shepherd or out of his sight? Is the coin in a treasured place or is it missing? Is the younger son near his father or far away? And is the older son near his father in a physical sense but distant in other ways?
Now Jesus isn't really teaching about lost sheep or coins or sons. He's just using them as illustrations to teach about something greater. And He wasn't teaching the tax-collectors and "sinners", He was teaching those that saw themselves as "the righteous". If He would have spoken more bluntly, I think He would have said something like, "These people that you call sinners are coming to me and listening. I'm excited about them! I'm welcoming them with open arms because that's why I'm here! They get it. They understand what I'm saying about God's mercy and love. But you? Not so much. I want to be excited about you too, but I can't yet. Not until you see the light. Not until you understand My love. Not until you change your thinking. Not until you get to where you need to be. Not until you let Me rescue you. Not until you enjoy being My child."
In Deuteronomy 33, the LORD says, "My beloved ones rest secure in Me. They rest between My shoulders." They are lost sheep that have been found. They are lost sons who have come home. They are precious to Him, and they know it. They are near Him and secure in His love. They have nothing to prove. No where else they would rather be. And no fingers to point because they have their eyes on their loving, merciful, and faithful God.
They are His, and they are loved, and that's enough.