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Jun 03, 2018

Parable of the AWOL Ovine

Passage: Matthew 18:1-14

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Parables That Change the World

Keywords: children, importance, joy, sheep, shepherd, value, wandering, wayward


The parable of the AWOL ovine is told twice in the Gospels--in Matthew 18 to competitive disciples and in Luke 15 to disapproving religionists. But both reveal far more about God's heart than about people. If you've ever thought you didn't matter or had wandered too far from God, this parable is for you.


Parable of the AWOL Ovine

Matthew 18:10-14

June 3, 2018

Get acquainted question:  Tell someone about one of your more memorable experiences of losing something. 

INTRO:  I don’t recall exactly how old Joanna was.  I think she must have been about 4 or 5.  But I will never forget the scene nor the feeling that engulfed me that day. 

            We were living in Madrid, Spain at the time.  We had gone shopping at the largest hyper-mercado/supermarket in the city at the largest mall in this city of 4 million called La Vaguada. Most of the second floor of the mall was taken up by the supermarket chain called Pryca.  To give you an idea of size, there were literally about 50 check-out lanes and registers at this hyper-market. 

            So there we were, after our monthly shopping run, out in the mall area pushing our grocery carts full of food…and children.  Daniel, about 3, was probably in one cart and Andrew, mere months, might have been in the other in a bassinette. Joanna was tagging along, holding one of the carts as we threaded our way through the crowded and noisy mall concourse…or so we thought

            At some point we realized that she wasn’t with either of us.  A quick scan of the crowd confirmed that she wasn’t anywhere nearby either.  So we did what all calm, logical and intelligent adults do at times like that:  WE PANICED!!! We started shouting her name.  (At moments like that, normal courtesies evaporate!) One of us stayed with the carts and other kids while the other started running down the mall, calling “JOANNA!  JOANNA!”

            It seemed like an eternity but was probably less than a minute before we located her.  I don’t remember what she was doing… nor did I care.  We were too relieved to have found her when, for seconds, we had experience briefly every parent’s worst nightmare.  

            The level of panic and feeling about losing something is directly related to the level of value placed on whatever you’ve lost, right?  Losing a can of tomato sauce in the grocery store doesn’t compare to losing your kid at the mall.  It’s all about value. 

Today’s parable in our series on Transforming Parables of Jesus is a parable about value.  You may not think of it as such when you read it, but it is.  Since names of parables are not sacred, I’ve chosen to call this story, “The Parable of the AWOL Ovine.”  Most of you know what A.W.O.L. stand for, right?  (Away With Out Leave, a fancy military term for desertion.)  But how many of you, at least before this morning, knew the meaning of “ovine”?  (It rhymes with “bovine”.  I can see a new Dr. Seuss classic in the making—“There once was a bovine who made friends with an ovine….”  You can write the rest of it at your lunch table today!)

            So what is an “ovine”?  It’s the technical term for SHEEP!  The AWOL ovine is what many of us know as “the lost sheep” of Matthew 18 & Luke 15.  So let’s read the Mt. 18 passage.  We’ll actually start reading the portion just before this parable. It has some important context we need to keep in mind when it comes to the parable.  Matthew 18:1-- At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.[11] [a]

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

            Now the thought of losing a sheep probably doesn’t give you an adrenaline rush or send you into a panic, does it?  Does anyone here today own any sheep…other than the leg of lamb that might be in your freezer? J So we’re not emotionally vested in this story. There is no emotional tug for us. 

            But what would send you into a panic…or at least a search-and-rescue mode…if you lost it? 

  • We’ve all probably had something stolen, haven’t we?  
  • How many of us have had a car stolen?
  • Wedding rings?

Hopefully none of us have ever had to experience the horror of having someone we love kidnapped.  But many of us have probably still had to endure the experience of having someone we love lost to us through rebellion…or substance abuse …or an accident that forever changed the person we used to have …or even death of a loved one.  What wouldn’t you have done (short of sin) in order to recover them?  Everything!

            You see, in one way, this isn’t really so much a story about a lost lamb as much as it is a story of a devoted shepherd.  It’s primarily about the heart of the search-and-rescue team—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know very little about the sheep other than it got separated from the flock and wandered off.  It was doing what sheep do—fail to pay attention to their surroundings, fail to monitor their own behavior and only be concerned with what’s right in front of them.  Sounds like people, no?

            We actually discover quite a bit about the heart of God in this parable.  But before we look at that, let’s make sure we know the other “players” in this story. 

            This parable also occurs also in Luke 15.  Most people think that Jesus told this parable on at least two different occasions and that the two different versions in Luke 15 and Matthew 18 took place in two different places.  What was the backdrop and REASON for which Jesus told this parable in Mt. 18?

  • His disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. (We usually worry about who’s the greatest here and now!  At least they were ahead of us on that score!)
  • Jesus placed a child among them and proceeded to warn against the things that we do which turn children away from God. The sheep are certainly compared with people and the lost sheep Jesus clearly implies are people who have, by whatever forces of evil in this world, wandered off and into a “lostness” of soul…a spiritually “lost” condition.

NOTE:  This has a lot to say about the influence we all have on others…particularly those most vulnerable and closest to us.  There are SO many things that can turn a child’s heart away from that natural innocence and God-consciousness.  Some of you have been recipients of those things:

  • Abuse: spiritual…physical…sexual…emotional.
  • Hypocrisy in the home—disconnect between public religious life of parents and private home life of the family.
  • Lack of spiritual direction (Deut. 6:4-9; Proverbs)…or the wrong spiritual direction (Chr. cults; false religions, atheism/agnosticism, bitterness/anger/etc.)  

There is something in the heart and nature of God that wants children to be nurtured in such a way that they grow up knowing and loving Him.  God’s best is for children to grow up in homes of His followers.  He made that clear even in the O.T.  As early as Deut. 6, God made it clear to the Israelites that the home was to be the first and best place to pass along real faith and knowledge of God’s word. 

Then in the last book of the O.T., Malachi 2:15, God is talking about divorce and says, “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.” 

God knows that divorce (and I would add, “especially in the home of God-fearing parents”) damages the souls of children and increases the possibility that they will become “straying/lost sheep.”  But in the broader sense, every parent and to some degree every adult that influences a child’s spirit, will be responsible to God for what they have done or failed to do to help or hinder a child’s relationship with God.   

APP:  This is why our relationships with children/youth really matter.  Obviously parents are in the primary place of accountability spiritually for their own children.  But I really think it extends beyond that.  It includes siblings (and step-siblings) too.  (I credit much of the spiritual success of our children to the older siblings who had real influence on the younger ones in very positive ways. So older siblings, it matters what you model and how you relate to your younger siblings.  This involves extended family relationships too: grandparents/grandkids, aunts & uncles/nieces & nephews, cousins, etc. 

            This is also why churches need to place far greater emphasis upon their ministry to young people.  This is why Mosaic has given ½ of our building to YFC to touch kids, most of whom probably have no one in their family calling them to God’s truth and Christ on a daily basis.  WE must be that voice in as many kids’ lives as possible. And we must do more with our own Mosaic families.  Keep praying.  We’re working on it.

            Challenge:  If we aren’t pouring Christ into someone of a younger generation, we’ve got room to grow!  I will never apologize for calling the church to engage with children or young people more.  It isn’t enough for us to give our space here.  We all should be engaged regularly with children and youth God has placed around us:

  • As one of the relatives.
  • As a foster parent or respite care for challenged parents
  • As a mentor in a school.
  • As a helper at YFC
  • As a Sunday School teacher or helper.
  • As a youth leader in our youth group.
  • As a YFC or Young Life host or sponsor.
  • Hosting a Backyard Bible Club in the summer.
  • Working at a camp…or DVBS…or

Jesus’ focus upon children when asked about greatness is a clear indicator that IF you want to be great in God’s eyes, make children your priorityRaising children and caring for them can seem like such an inglorious or mundane thing.  But in the eyes of God, the time you and I spend blessing and building into children will be the measure of our greatness.  It won’t be about how influential we were with adults; it will be how invested we are with children.

            So that’s the “sheep” and “lost sheep” of Matt. 18.  But in the same basic parable in Luke 15, who are the sheep compared to or representing?  Let’s read it in Luke 15:1ff.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

            WHO are the sheep here?  Both religious and irreligious, Pharisees/teachers of the law and tax collectors/sinners.  The irony here is that the people who thought they didn’t need to repent (the Pharisees and religious teachers) were more “lost” and “strays” than were the “sinners” who knew they needed saving.  The Pharisees probably thought they were the 99 and the sinners Jesus was hanging out with were the “lost sheep” when the reverse was probably closer to the truth.

            So clearly, God considers sinners, no matter what our age or stage, to be that “one lost sheep” which He will focus on and go after. 

            Which brings us back to the earlier observation that this parable speaks to us mostly about God while having powerful implications for what we are called to be.  First about God.  Of course, JESUS himself is compared with the shepherd in this story just as people are the sheep.

So what kind of shepherd do we have?

1.) Both passages tell us that God puts a priority on 1 “lost” sheep over many more safe & sane ovine.

This is SO contrary to the way we as humans naturally thinkMost of us are willing to lose 1% of just about anything if we can hang onto the 99%. 

  • 1 % of friendships is hardly noticeable, right?
  • 1% loss in the stock market happens in just 1 trading day.
  • 1% casualties in battle is considered a success.
  • Most of us don’t have family reunions of 100 relatives. But if we did every-other year, say, a 1% loss in an extended family is considered an amazingly successful family, right? If Uncle Bob was the only one to not show up because he got into drugs this year, most of the family might be sad but they would still consider it amazing that 99% kept life together from reunion to reunion.   

APP:  God is not in the numbers game when it comes to human souls.  He’s in the “one-person-at-a-time” business. When we’re tempted to think, “It really doesn’t matter to God where I am today.  It really doesn’t matter if I drop out of the fold for a month…or a year,” we’re thinking like sheep, not like our Shepherd.  And when we think that our mess-ups in life somehow make God less interested in us, we are stuck in “ovine-thinking”, not DIVINE-thinking

            God is not like us when it comes to shame about our failures.  He is not like us when it comes to disinterest in our soul due to wanderings in our spirits.  And He doesn’t treat us “as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). 

            Instead what does he do? 

  • He has more happiness over us than over a whole church full of got-it-together saints.
  • His joy in heaven is exponentially greater over a returning and repentantlost-cause” of a person than over a whole room full of “safe & sane” saints.

That is very different from how most of us think just about every day. 

ILL:  About the closest we get to that kind of heart is like the father I got a call from last Tuesday morning.  He must have done his research about downtown churches because he found our number on the internet. His 14 year old daughter had left home several months ago and moved into the home of a friend of hers.  Surprise, surprise, after a while that set of parents couldn’t have her continuing to disrupt their family and dropped her and her stuff off at her dad’s house again.  But she refused to stay.  A student here at L.C., she came downtown to live on the streets…at 14! 

            Through tears this dad told me of how he drove the streets, found her and tried to convince her to come home. When she refused, he called the police, afraid of what would happen to her if she stayed down here.  The police came, listened to both stories… and let her walk away into the night. 

            This dad asked if we could somehow help.  He emailed her picture and I took it to the YFC leaders who said they recognized her and would keep an eye out for her. 

            For all I know, that dad had a dozen good kids.  But the true heart of a real father (which takes after the heart of the Heavenly Father) breaks for the 1 even when the rest are all doing fine. I’m sure he’s very happy and proud about his other kids.  But his days and nights are dominated with searching for the ONE… just one…who’s heart is not with him right now. 

APP: This has real implications for what we think is successful ministry.  God’s care and compassion is for every single one of us as his sheep.  And it is individuals you and I are called to go after, to keep pursuing, to love and make extra effort for.  In a world obsessed by mass gatherings, God wants us to see the need of the 1.  In a culture that counts heads, God wants us to look for just 1 heart open to be carried back to Him.  The kingdom of God is built one disciple at a time, not 99 conversions at a time. 

Q:  Who has God put you around who needs to know they are being looked for by God?  Who is a lost soul near you…perhaps someone who as a child had a heart that was open to God but now has a wounded heart that has wandered off into dangerous places? 

  • Would you let God bring just 1 person to mind right now who He is searching for?
  • Would you now ask God to gift you with the same compassion and concern He has for them so you will join Him in the search and rescue?

It’s time we got back to the value of a single soul in the way we relate to people and the way we prioritize relationships. 

2.)  God does the going, the searching, the finding and the carrying back to the flock.

Without beating the Calvinist drum too hard, let me ask you, who is doing all the work in this parable?  It’s certainly the shepherd, not the sheep, right?  Without stretching this parable too far, I think it is appropriate to conclude that salvation is primarily a work of God, not of the ‘lost sheep.’ 

            I’m told that sheep who wander away from the flock will often simply lie down.  It’s not because they need a rest.  It’s because they virtually shut down when they realize they are all alone and defenseless.  Sheep are not meant to be solitary animals.  They are social creatures.  But when life becomes overwhelming for them, they just sort of give up!

            God hasn’t made any pronouncement about that in Scripture.  But He has declared that “it is not good” for man…people…to be alone in this world.  The Triune nature of God necessitates some sort of social interaction in we His people made in His image. 

ILL:  One of the downtown building case managers in Spokane told me on several occasions that he felt 90%+ of the mental and emotional challenges of people living downtown could be improved, healed and taken care of by real, loving, Christ-like community experiences and relationships. This is the power of God’s great family. 

But so many people, having never known God’s functional family, cannot even bring themselves to reengage on their own.  Maybe they’ve been so beat down by people or life or bad decisions that they feel frozen in time, like a spinal chord injury patient who cannot make their legs or arms move no matter how hard they try.  They need someone who cares enough to find them, stop long enough to pick them up, and carry them back to a safe place where they can discover life again.

APP:  That’s why WE go into building after building down here with teams of people who bring a meal from home and from God’s Word to people who can hardly get out of their apartments let alone out of their hurts and hang-ups.  If we wait for most people to come and ask for help…or take advantage of healing resources …or hear the Gospel in this place, way too many people will never come back to God’s flock.  WE must go searching! 

ILL:  One of my favorite movies is The Guardian with Kevin Costner.  I don’t love all of the story line.  But I do love the spirit and heart of the Coast Guard rescue divers that this movie presents.  There is one particular line in the movie that I have never been able to get out of my head since I first saw it.  It is what Costner says as a Coast Guard trainer.  After showing a host of sobering videos of floundering and sinking ships in often horrible and life-threatening weather conditions, he tells his class of trainees, “You have to go out…but you don’t have to come back.”    

            That’s the heart of our Chief Shepherd, Jesus.  He went out after us…and He didn’t “come back” until he died for us. 

            Some of us were talking this week in one of the small groups I’m a part of.  One man had had a very frightening experience in his AA Support Group where a group member came completely unhinged.  This brother had to leave the room and call 911 because he was afraid for his own safety and that of others.  I had a much less severe incident this week but one that left me feeling what many parents feel when they are downtown with their children and afraid for the safety of their kids around sometimes threatening, sometimes bazaar-behaving people.

There are strong emotions within each one of us that want to avoid danger and flee to safety. But once you have become part of God’s flock, His family, to become more like Christ we must learn to lay down our lives daily.  This is why some of you are preparing to go to some pretty dangerous places in the world to share the Gospel.  In some ways, it seems more spiritual to be willing to work in Indonesia or The Congo or even the Middle East than to come downtown and risk something just to go find one more lost sheep. 

What we need to remember is that the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.  And God’s will is always to seek and to save those who are lost.  You and I can get shot spending money in a shopping mall…or going to class at a high school…or making money on the 21st floor of a high-rise office building downtown.  OR we can minister in one of the spiritually darkest buildings downtown or most dangerous blocks in the city to one of the most deranged people around…and be protected by the angels of God who we can’t even see…or ushered into God’s presence while voluntarily laying down our lives for sinners.  That’s what our Shepherd did…and it’s what He will ask us to do day after day after day. 

The last thing I’d like us to see about God this morning from this parable is that…

3.)  God’s joy is greater over rescued strays than over safe sheep.  That doesn’t mean that the Shepherd of our souls doesn’t rejoice over His sheep who are safe in the fold.  I’m sure He gets plenty of joy out of his obedient children too. 

But much of the story line in both accounts of this parable is about WHAT is going on in the heart of the Shepherd when one of his strays was found.  Not only does it say that His joy is great at that time but one of the accounts tells us that the Shepherd throws a party when he gets home with his lost lamb. 

“Home” must mean heaven in this context as Jesus clues us into a bit about life in heaven when he says in Luke 15:7--I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. 

ILL:  Losing…and finding our 7-year old David at Gettysburg during a massive reenactment in 2000. 

What does all Jesus’ discussion here about rejoicing in heaven and joy of the Shepherd at finding his lost lamb teach us about God?  Doesn’t it shout to us that one of His great joys is the saving of lost sinners?  Doesn’t it show us that this has always been God’s heart with humanity? 

  • This is why Jesus was more than willing to hang out with the “sinners” of 1st century society and risk the ire of those who didn’t.
  • This is why he probably enjoyed himself a lot more around those sinners than around the Pharisees.
  • This may have been why “sinners” were drawn to hang out with Jesus: they could sense the joy he had…the joy of God himself…over their genuine questions about life…just as the Pharisees could probably sense his disappointment at the hardness of their hearts evidenced by their questions meant to condemn Him. 

APP: What would this lead us to believe if we are people growing more and more into the image and life of Jesus?   

  • That when we are not in that “search and rescue” mode of looking for lost people, we’re not going to be experiencing one of the greatest joys God has in heaven and which He has for us as well on earth.
  • That if we want to bring joy to God’s heart as His children right now, then seeking the lost, one person at a time, will be one of our primary passions in this life.


  • Who is someone you know who is a “lost sheep” right now whom God would like to rescue? How about praying for an opportunity very soon to hang out with them, share a meal or coffee or otherwise engage in their life in some life-giving sort of way that may help them find Jesus?
  • Maybe YOU are that lost sheep—feeling paralyzed by life, by sin, by the weight of everything. Jesus is calling to you and He has been after you from the very beginning—not to punish or berate you, but to pick you up, put you on his shoulders and carry you home through this life and into eternity.  Will you let Him?
  • Do you need to ask Jesus to form more of His heart for lost people in your heart? How about we pray for each other on that?  How about we put that on our prayer list for ourselves?  How about we find one child or teenager we can pour something of Christ into so more of God’s little ones won’t be straying from the fold?