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

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

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.

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
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

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.)