Our Master attempted to explain to the Pharisees why He chose to associate with “sinners and tax-collectors.” He told them the parable of the lost sheep. In the parable, He compared himself to a shepherd and the Jewish people to a flock of sheep.
What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. (Luke 15:4-5)
The ninety-nine sheep represent the righteous. The single lost sheep—a lost sheep of Israel—represents the secularized and godless among the Jewish people. The good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine righteous and goes to seek after the single lost sheep. When he finds the lost sheep, he carries it back to the flock, an image drawn from the prophet Isaiah:
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom. (Isaiah 40:11)
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” the Master once said (Matthew 15:24). On another occasion, He told His disciples not to preach among the Gentiles but “rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost,” He told the disciples (Matthew 18:11). He did not seek to minister to the spiritually healthy and righteous; He came to call sinners to repentance. Just as the shepherd rejoices over finding a single lost sheep, so too, He rejoiced over every penitent Jew: “when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” (Luke 15:5-6).
A close parallel to the story appears in a famous rabbinic teaching about Moses:
Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness when a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place … and the kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said, “I did not know you ran away because of thirst, you must be weary.” So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away. Thereupon God said: “Because you have mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, you will surely tend my flock, Israel.” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)
When read in the context of the Pharisee’s criticism, the meaning of Yeshua’s parable of the lost sheep is clear, but just in case we miss it, the Master Himself provides the interpretation in Luke 15:7. The shepherd is Yeshua. The lost sheep is a sinner. The ninety-nine other sheep are the righteous and pious who did not need to repent. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the lost sheep just as Yeshua neglected the Pharisees and scribes in order to associate with “the sinners and the tax collectors.” The rejoicing friends and neighbors are the angels rejoicing in heaven.