Racial Pandemic

Reflections as God’s Kingdom People in Luke 15:1–7
On Wednesday, September 3, 2020, President Nicholas Perrin delivered the following sermon at the kick-off Mosaic Gathering for the academic year.
In the National Gallery in London hangs an expressionist work of art by the painter Egon Schiele; it was painted in 1918 and entitled The Family. The painting is a kind-of self portrait of 28-year-old Egon along with his wife, and also a child who in actuality had not yet been born. Egon’s wife was pregnant, and his soulful portrait of his family was a picture of what could have been. Unfortunately, in those days the Spanish Flu was ravishing the world; it was a two-year pandemic that would end up taking the lives of 500 million people (to give you an idea, five hundred times the number of lives COVID-19 is expected to take in 2020). Tragically, Egon Schiele’s wife contracted the flu while six months pregnant. Still more tragically, she died—and then her husband died of the same flu three days later. This grand vision captured in Schiele’s The Family was never to be. All that hangs in the National Gallery is an unfinished portrait, cut short by the effects of a heartbreaking pandemic.
As I consider where our culture is and where our church is at the present moment, I see not one but two pandemics alive and active. First of course is the lethal pandemic brought by the COVID virus. There is another pandemic, however—a spiraling pandemic of racial strife, anger, and enmity. Today it is not my desire to explore the reasons behind that enmity, much less prescribe a solution for society. On the contrary, when it comes to solving the issue of racial injustice, I am not so sure that our society, no matter who gets elected into office, has the tools to solve the problem. And while progress may be had through this policy decision or that policy decision, such piecemeal approaches of human origin will, I fear, inevitably prove to be a superficial nibbling away at the edges.
But there’s good news. For as I think this sweet little passage in Luke 15 makes clear, racial reconciliation can be achieved through the church, but only as the church comes under the authority of the Kingdom of God and our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the vaccine to the pandemic of race is found only with Jesus. Towards explaining why, I want to focus in on three exegetical questions. As we do, I think we might get a clearer glimpse of Jesus’ vision for resolving the seemingly endless racial pandemic that has been besetting humanity since time out of mind. The three questions are these: (1) Who is the man shepherding the sheep in this parable? (2) How does he retrieve the lost sheep? (3) Why does he retrieve the lost sheep?

Who Is the Man Shepherding the Sheep?

Who is the shepherd-man of Luke 15:1–7? In my judgment, there are no less than four answers to this question. The first and most basic answer to the “who” question is this:

1. The shepherd is God.

Look at vv. 3–4 with me: “So he told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?’” Though in the parable the searching shepherd is described as a mere man, this does nothing to obscure the fact that the chief shepherd in search of sinners from Adam’s fall until now has been none other than God. That this shepherd represents God is confirmed by the close analogy between, on the one side, the shepherd’s joyous party in vv. 5–6 (“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’”) and God’s joyous party in heaven described in v. 7. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, as well as in the neighboring Parable of the Lost Coin, the joy of the man who lost his sheep (and the joy of the woman who lost her coin) is God’s joy. Therefore, the shepherd-man is God. At the same time . . .

2. The shepherd is the messiah.

This may be less obvious but only slightly less obvious. After all, when any first-century Jew thought of lost sheep, their mind might go to any number of places in scripture, but in no case could Luke’s readers overlook an allusion to that wonderful passage in Ezekiel 34–36 that describes God’s exiled sheep returning from exile. In this connection, it is not insignificant that in Matthew’s version of the same parable he says that the sheep have “wandered,” that Luke tells us the sheep is “lost,” and that both verbs show up together in reference to the sheep in Ezekiel 34. Such a background also explains why pseudepigraphical texts like 4 Ezra 2 and Psalms of Solomon 17 also describe the messiah as shepherd. As any Jew of Jesus’ day knew, the one destined to bring the sheep back together in the land, he was one and the same as the messiah. At the same time . . .

3. The shepherd is the image of God.

Now why do I say that? Here I need to get more technical in my argument. First, we notice that the parables of Luke 15 (the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son) are also thematized around the notions of being lost and being found. As such, all three parables are mutually interpreting. Second, we notice the first two parables, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin, is consistent with Luke’s habit of creating gender complementarity across two passages that share structural similarities. So, for example, if Gabriel appears before the male Zechariah in Luke 1 to announce John the Baptizer’s birth, he also appears before a woman (Mary) in Luke 2 to announce Jesus’ birth. If before healing the paralytic of Luke 5 before skeptical religious leaders Jesus calls the paralytic “man” (anthrōpe) (5:20), in summoning the hunched woman in front of the same skeptics in Luke 13, he addresses her as “woman” (gunai) (13:13). Instances of this gender complementarity can be multiplied. And the point of all this, I think, is that Jesus, the son of Adam, is bringing us back to the Adamic reality, more exactly bringing us back to our status as redeemed image bearers: “male and female he made them” (Gen. 1:27). If this is true, then it’s no accident that the one who lost the sheep is a man and the one who lost the coin is a woman. Between the two parables, male and female combine to form the Adamic image of God, and that image is manifest specifically as Jesus—or anyone for that matter—who engages in these tasks of searching. Where do we go from here? Simply to say this: that in all three parables we see the Adamic image of God right below the surface, and Jesus himself is that image. But then last but not least . . .

4. The shepherd is us.

I say this for two reasons: First, if the shepherd of the first parable is the image bearer and we ourselves are being conformed into the image of the Son of God, then the activities and attitudes predicated of “the man” of this parable are also to be true of us. Second, very practically, Luke doesn’t report this parable simply because that’s the way Jesus thought about stuff without any expectation of our following suit. On the contrary, Jesus tells this parable not just to defend his policy of eating with sinners and tax collectors but in the hope that his followers would likewise eat with sinners and tax collectors well after he left the scene. When we read this parable, we are reading our own story. We are part lost sheep, and part shepherd. Next we need to consider the actions of this shepherd.

What Does the Shepherd Do?

If we can come up with four different answers to the first of our questions (who is the shepherd?), the same can be said for the “what?” question. The shepherd does four things:

1. The shepherd goes after his lost sheep.

That’s exactly what v. 4 says: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost.” The key verb (go after) is poreuetai, indicating not simply motion but sustained motion, involving long distances, say, on a journey. In short, the shepherd journeys after the lost sheep. Strikingly, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the prodigal son who journeys (poreuetheis) in search of work, while the Father stays home. Just as the better part of wisdom in parenting is knowing when to intervene in your child’s issues and when to “stay home,” so too the better part of wisdom in dealing with lost sheep is knowing when to travel after that sheep and when, like the Prodigal’s Father, to stay home and simply pray. We are not told how long the shepherd journeys in search of his sheep—whether it was an afternoon, a day, three days, or a week. But the wording suggests that the shepherd did not expect this to be a short and sweet journey. Indeed, Luke tells us this flock is in the middle of the desert, a waterless place of testing with almost no resources. The journey would therefore not only be an extended journey but also a difficult one. Nevertheless, he presumably leaves the 99 other sheep in capable hands and prioritizes the sheep who is not there.

2. The shepherd finds his lost sheep.

How long does the shepherd go after his sheep? The last words of v. 4 tell us: “until he finds it.” This is a hard teaching. It’s one thing to say, “Look for that lost sheep until you feel like quitting or grow tired”; it’s another thing to say, “Look for that lost sheep until you find them!” In God’s economy, the true shepherd does not simply look for the missing sheep for a while, run a program, lose patience with the whole thing, and then finally give up. The true shepherd keeps on going after the missing sheep until he or she actually finds them. Oh, it’s an easy thing to seek the errant child of God for a short season, but where are the persevering seekers among us? Where are the shepherds among us who have tirelessly dedicated themselves to journeying with the Good Shepherd in a divine pursuit of the lost sheep who has been missing from your fold? Our mission as believers is not simply a search mission: it is a search and rescue mission. Nothing less will do—no matter how long it takes.

3. The shepherd shoulders the weight of the lost sheep.

Verse 5 says this very plainly: “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” I’m no shepherd but I know that sheep are not light, with adult sheep weighing anywhere between a hundred and two hundred pounds—depending on the type of sheep, I suppose. We know from images preserved from antiquity that shepherds were known to carry sheep on their shoulders. But of course, when you carry a sheep on your shoulders, you do so one sheep at a time. It’s a heavy business; it’s a personal business. Thus, the one who dares to journey after his lost sheep in the desert must also be ready carry the same sheep back home. This is no easy task: the true shepherd has skin in the game. This past Monday, when I was discussing this passage with the evangelist Michael Ramsden of RZIM, he told me that in debates with Muslims, Muslims will often point to Luke 15 as a place in scripture where there is no atonement, proving that this whole business of a blood atonement was an overlay on the original teachings of Jesus. Of course, such an argument could not be any more groundless. Though we might struggle to find atonement in the woman seeking her lost coin, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, atonement is very clear in the slaughtering of the fattened calf upon the son’s return. What about here? Do we find atonement in the Parable of the Lost Sheep? I believe that we do and we find it right here in v. 5. Though the point is seldom made in the commentaries, for my money when the shepherd in this parable lays it on his shoulders this likely alludes to the two onyx stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes and secured into the high priest’s ephod, an ephod which in turn—as Exodus 28:12 tells us —was worn “on the shoulders.” In wearing these twelve engraved names, the high priest symbolically and representationally carried the twelve tribes of Israel on his shoulders, as he officiated over sacrifices “before the Lord” (Exod. 28:12). Accordingly, when God in Jesus Christ carries each of us back to the fold on his shoulders, he undertakes a priestly and atoning role. But there is also a sense in which we too, as shepherds after Jesus, do exactly the same thing. When people are called into a life of ministry, they are not called into comfy jobs. They are called to bear the names of their flock on their shoulders, and when occasion arises to put some skin in the game by doing the hard work of carrying the lost sheep home. The shepherd in this parable does one more thing.

4. The shepherd celebrates.

Verses 5–6 say this: “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” After all the journeying, after all the straining of the eyes as the shepherd surveyed the horizon for the lost sheep, after finally finding the sheep and hauling it back home like an oversized sack of potatoes, the shepherd can now finally celebrate. He celebrates with joy. And it’s not a private celebration: he must invite his “friends and neighbors.” Now to me this guest list is fascinating, because back in Luke 14, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the next time they throw a lunch or dinner not to invite their friends or neighbors but instead to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. So, what’s the deal? Why in one instance does Jesus forbid us from inviting our friends and neighbors to dinner in the one instance, and then encourage such activity in this parable? Well, as TEDS New Testament Professor Joshua Jipp can tell you better than I can, it’s because hospitality for the marginalized is at the very heart of Jesus’ mission (see his Saved by Faith and Hospitality). But one day that mission will be completed, and when it is, you will no longer be inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, because in the new age there won’t be anybody in this category. Instead we will only be celebrating with our friends and neighbors, because the ravages of sin and alienation will be erased, and friends and neighbors will be all we have. And now, with this last point, Jesus gets to the heart as to why he has meals with sinners and tax collectors. He’s having meals with these guys because he’s celebrating, but he’s celebrating in an anticipatory way. He’s celebrating on the charitable assumption that by God’s grace the lost sheep of sinners and tax collectors will indeed be re-included in the fold. He’s celebrating confidently that even as he undertakes the work of carrying the sheep home, through his life, ministry, death and resurrection, he has every reason to believe that those responding to his words will indeed come home after all. Well, we’ve covered the “who?” of this parable. We’ve also covered the “what?” Now let’s talk about the “why?”

Why Does the Shepherd Do What He Does?

Let me give you two reasons.

First, the shepherd does what he does . . .

1. Because life matters.

Life matters. The life of each and every last sheep matters to God and it should matter to us. When a sheep is isolated from their flock and their shepherd, that life is in danger, especially in the desert.

But here’s the reality: not all sheep get this point. As for that sheep in the desert, they’re scared and they’re trying to survive. But what about the 99 sheep? What are they thinking about? Well, many of those sheep are thinking about is what they’re going to have for lunch and then what they’re going to have for dinner, and whether to take an early afternoon nap or a late afternoon nap. And, by the way, how is our shepherd going to make life more comfortable for us anyway, because isn’t that the shepherd’s job?
When God’s shepherds start to take their cues from the consensus group think of their sheep rather than from the Good Shepherd, that’s a problem. That’s a problem because such shepherds will never missionally venture out after that missing sheep, but rather stayed with shoes glued to the pasture of the 99. Too often it has been the case that our shepherds have failed to lead. They have allowed themselves be shepherded by the flock rather than shepherding the flock—and made bad decisions as a result.

Do you know what we need at this time of racial pandemic? We need leaders. We need missional shepherds—shepherds who listen to Jesus and who live out this parable in their own lives. As a white man, I’d like to call on my brothers and sisters of color and say that there are many of us white sheep deep—and in some cases very deep—in the desert right now, and the real problem is that we don’t know it. Compared to the rest of the flock, we are headstrong and generally well fed, and we think we know where we’re going, but we don’t. And all the while we have allowed ourselves to be isolated from the rest of the beautifully diverse flock of God, because we are more comfortable not hearing the challenging stories and experiences, personal and historical, of sheep not like us—and all this to our own grave spiritual risk, because we have cut ourselves off from the flock. Speaking as a lost sheep, I’m saying that sheep like me need leaders within the church who will patiently go after us, find us, put us on their shoulder (kicking and screaming), and eventually celebrate. Sheep like me need this not because our physical life is at risk, but because much more dangerously our very life with God is at risk.

Now if I can make a special appeal to my white fellow shepherds in the church: I have just carefully laid out how the ideal shepherd goes after his lost sheep, finds his lost sheep, puts the lost sheep on his shoulders, and then journeys home to celebrate. Though all of us sheep are in this New Exodus together (see TEDS New Testament Professor David Pao’s Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus for much more on this), it is also true that some parts of this desert are much drier and more desolate than others. And to this very day it has been the case that, historically, some sheep of a certain color wool have been able to enjoy lusher pastures than other sheep of a different color wool. This creates a set of temptations for the latter sheep that so many of the former sheep know nothing about and have no sympathy for. As believers ours is a desert experience, but it is a racially differentiated desert experience. And that has caused some tensions.

But if you are a white shepherd and you can honestly say that you know all God’s sheep and you have let yourself be known by all God’s sheep, if you have really made the rounds with the 99 sheep, whether they be in the desert or “deserty” desert, if you have prayerfully gone after all God’s sheep in the desert, borne their burden by carrying them on your shoulders, and entered into early celebration with them, then perhaps—perhaps—you have earned the right to say, “All sheep lives matter.” But, on the other hand, if like me you have generally hung back with the 99 sheep who look like you, then the only appropriate thing—the only biblical thing—to say is, “Those sheep suffering in the more ‘deserty’ part of the desert—that sheep’s life matters to me most right now.”

Truth is, it’s impossible to find shepherds who meet these baseline criteria, unless you are looking among men and women who have been radically shaped and shepherded by Jesus himself. Those who idolize political solutions to this problem have failed to believe in the power of the Good Shepherd exerting himself through the lives of his sub-shepherds. There is a solution and that solution is the Risen Jesus.

There’s a second reason the shepherd does what he does:

2. Because the full set matters.

It’s no accident that in telling this parable that Jesus talks about a hundred sheep with one sheep gone missing. But what is this about? Well, Ezekiel 34–36 tells the story of how God in the Davidic messiah would restore the tribes of Israel, including the Gentiles, so that none would be missing. So, then, if Ezekiel 34–36 is in the background to this parable, then the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not just a story about recovering individual sheep but a story about what God in Jesus Christ is doing to restore the tribes of the world—sheep of all color. (Likewise drawing on Ezekiel 34–36, Jesus makes essentially the same point in John 10:16 when he says, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”) And you can’t have a full restoration with one of the tribes missing. You need the full set; you need all one hundred, or the messiah has failed as a shepherd.

One day when I was a young boy, I set out to construct a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle, an image of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation. I worked and worked at it for months but, you know, I never finished it. Do you know why? Not because I wasn’t close; I got very close. I never finished it because as I was putting in the very last pieces into the puzzle with increasing joy, I came right to the end with one more empty spot to go, and—and I couldn’t find that final jigsaw piece. I looked and looked everywhere, high and low, but for all I know that one missing piece ended up in my mother’s vacuum. What good is a 1499-piece puzzle? Answer: no good at all. It was the epic puzzle failure.

In the same way, you see, the problem with even the most radical of political solutions to the racial pandemic is that they’re not radical enough, not transcendent enough, not robust enough in the scope of their vision. The shepherd’s vision is not that just one category of sheep make it through alive at the end of the day (that’s a great start but it’s only the start). The shepherd’s vision is for the flock to both flourish and to come together. And until that time, we are like that unfinished puzzle of a great coronation.
Egon Schiele began a painting of his family but tragically never finished it—due to a pandemic. I know someone else who started a family painting but to this point it has yet to be finished. That “someone else” is also a shepherd. Unless we see a critical mass of shepherds rise up from within the church, shepherds who are ready to exert their image of God by going after, finding, carrying and celebrating errant sheep, which we all are, then God’s family portrait will also remain tragically unfinished. But what do we do today? Today, whether or not you are ordained or plan to be ordained, if you identify yourself as God’s shepherd, I’m calling on you. Let’s work together on gathering all the sheep. Let’s work on finishing that family portrait.