(Henceforth, I will be referring to the parable as "The Parable of the Two Sons" for, indeed, the parable isn't just about one son. It's about both sons and their relationship with their father.)
As I was preparing for the next adult class session, I focused my attention and study on Luke 15:3-7. This is actually the first parable of two which lead up to the Parable of the Two Sons. It's a familiar one to most Christians who grew up in the Church:
3 So Jesus told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
I consulted four different commentaries and was pulling quotes from each that we might discuss said quotes this Sunday. One particular quote grabbed me as I finished typing. It was from Joel Green's commentary on Luke found in The New International Commentary on the New Testament:
Because sheep are gregarious creatures, a sheep lost from its flock becomes quickly agitated and disoriented and must be carried back to the other sheep; for lengthy journeys this is most easily accomplished by placing the sheep on one’s shoulders.
For a moment, I paused. Yes, the imagery is touching when you imagine that Jesus was 1) talking about God's seeking out of those who have gotten lost from the fold and 2) Jesus was defending His ministry of "eating with tax collectors and sinners." The thought of God seeking out the lost, and Jesus manifesting this has offered great comfort to many, many people throughout the years. But this is not what caught my eye. This did: for lengthy journeys, this is most easily accomplished by placing the sheep on one's shoulders.
Have you traveled a great distance with a load on your shoulders?
When my children were younger, oftentimes I would hoist them on my shoulders to walk around the store or the zoo or some other venue. Before too long, my back began to ache. My shoulders felt the weight of the burden, and they began to protest. My leg muscles began to let me they were not used to such added weight. I know some people train for such things--for long hikes with backpacks and the like, but most folks I know aren't deliberately walking around with burdens on their shoulders. Most folks I know begin to feel such burdens after only a few minutes.
The Good Shepherd puts the sheep on His shoulders and carries it long distances to bring it back into the fold. If this is a full grown sheep...do you know how much that weighs?
Now, if we are talking about a juvenile--that could be 20 lbs or so. Not terribly heavy, but after a while, even that starts to hurt. Minimum for an adult ewe is 90 lbs. Minimum for an adult ram is 100 lbs. Try carrying that for any distance.
Can you imagine the exertion?
Can you imagine the muscles crying out in pain?
Can you imagine trying to keep your balance and walk with this living thing on your back moving and perhaps struggling to get away?
Can you imagine the perspiration and heavy breathing?
All that work for the sake of a sheep.
To bring it back into the fold.
Without a second thought.
And then throwing a party when he gets back.
Oh, and it gets better.
For how is it that Jesus brings us back into His flock?
What burden did He bear on His shoulders?
What caused His muscles to cry out in pain?
What caused Him to perspire profusely and breathe heavily?
All for the sake of those who had rejected Him
Who had deserted Him
Who had mocked Him
Who had betrayed Him
Who had denied Him
So that even they might be united with the flock?
God and sinners reconciled.
And a party is thrown!
Oh, I know that someone will point me toward verse 7. Believe me I am not ignorant of it. "7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance."
"The party will only be for those who repent!" you might say.
But I remind you of what John Nolland in his Word Biblical Commentary on Luke says:
This is a very important point...one that I didn't quite realize until John pointed it out. You see, Jesus' call for repentance comes as a response to what He has done. Repentance, for a Christian, comes as a result of contemplating the nature of what Jesus has already done for you. The cross leads to repentance. It was contrary to what the Pharisees taught then. It is contrary to what many, even within the Church, teach now.
The place of repentance here takes us right outside the framework of the parable, which focuses exclusively on the role of the shepherd. Studies often protest that this verse obscures the fact that Jesus scandalized the Pharisees precisely by his failure to demand repentance in the normal way...
For when you see the pains that the Good Shepherd endured for your sake
When you see He carried you to God through the cross
When you see His nail pierced hands and feet
When you see His sacrifice on your behalf
It changes you deeply.
There is no way you could ever live the same.
Once the Shepherd, at great cost to Himself, has brought you home.
And thrown a party because you were there.