Two Gospels record this parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answers their question by teaching humility and the value of one life, in this case, the life of a child. “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Then He gives a stern warning. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Afterward, Jesus acknowledges that there are situations in life which cause people to stumble and fall, and to be misled. Indeed, there are fallacies promulgated that cause people to believe wrongly. This may be unavoidable, “but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” This warning is particularly directed to those who mislead and wrongly teach children. In today’s world, perhaps this warning could apply to parents, caregivers, and school teachers who teach children modern myths instead of the Word of God.
Jesus then taught, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones.” The New Living Translation put is this way: “…don’t look down on any of these little ones,” and the New Century Version translates it: “…don’t think these little children are worth nothing.” It is at this point that Jesus makes this declaration. “or the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” And then, in this context, He presents this parable.
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Here, possibly, the sheep is a child, a spiritually lost child, an abandoned child, a fatherless child, an abused child. When this child is rescued, spared, found and brought back into the fold, so to speak, there is rejoicing. God’s crystal-clear will is that not one “of these little ones should perish.”
The second occurrence of this parable is in Luke 15:1-7. It is quite a different scenario, a different cast of characters, a different but similar lesson and application. On this occasion, tax collectors and sinners crowded in to hear Him. The Pharisees and scribes murmured among themselves, feeling very high and mighty, and said, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word which means “separated.” In modern theology, they are called the Puritans of Judaism, because they withdrew from all evil associations in order to give total obedience to every detail of the law. To sit and eat with sinners and tax collectors was unthinkable. Jesus took advantage of this situation and their hypocrisy and snobbishness to teach everyone there who had ears to hear a valuable lesson.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which 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 neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'”
Sounds almost identical, but this time, with a more extensive application. Not just innocent, helpless children are worth rescuing, but all people have value. “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” The Pharisees may have thought they were squeaky clean, but Jesus knew how to deflate those pious, pompous people. They weren’t excluded, but they needed to become humble, like little children, and realize that, in God’s sight, every lost and found soul is valuable to God.