On the surface, this parable comforts us with the truth that Jesus treasures each of His children. But there’s more! What can we teach children regarding Christian love for the lost sheep? How can we teach children to care for the lost?
Consider Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke. I’ll address the theological points and then offer a few suggestions on presenting this to students, both younger and older.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3–7)
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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
It makes sense that Jesus uses straying sheep to illustrate His point. First, sheep tend to wander; they need a shepherd. Listeners relate these sheep to those who walk away from God. Second, sheep have great value, and they especially did for those living in Jesus’ time and culture. Sheep provide fur, milk, and meat, all of which are essential for daily life.
Why ninety-nine and one lost? Imagine you have several one-hundred-dollar bills in your pocket and realize you lost one earlier in the day. How much time will you invest in retrieving it? Will you place yourself in danger to recover it? Similarly, if a congregation has one hundred active members and one walks away, how hard will the ninety-nine work to reach the wanderer? The seats are still filled. We still garner enough in offerings to pay the pastor. Why bother?
There are important Gospel notes in this beautiful parable. The shepherd’s gracious outreach to the lost sheep is paramount. Notice that the lost sheep is not looking to be found and is not looking for the shepherd. The shepherd goes after the sheep. God comes after us, not vice versa. What sweet comfort we have knowing that a God who needs nothing comes looking for you and me.
Also, the shepherd places as much value on the one lost sheep as on the ninety-nine who are safely in the flock. Of course, spiritually speaking, the Holy Spirit’s work to reach the lost doesn’t place God’s children in danger. Nevertheless, the idea dramatically illustrates God’s overwhelming, selfless grace. This grace is counter to human value systems.
Ideas for Younger Students
Introduce this lesson with the following exercise. Bring one hundred items of something valuable (dollar bills, fake money, Hershey’s Kisses, fun-size candy bars). Before the kids arrive, hide one in the classroom. Hide it so it can be found but still requires time and effort to do so.
Show students the ninety-nine items. Then ask them to look for the one hidden item. Give them a few minutes to find it. Once they find it, pass out the other ninety-nine items. Ask students how much they wanted to look for the one hidden item. Now that they have so many more, has their interest changed? Stress the idea that one is valuable even if we have many more. Help them see how God is passionate about seeking us even though He has everything, including many other children.
Once you have finished teaching the lesson proper, ask students to look around. Help them see how much space there is in the room, how many empty seats there are. Invite them to list family members or friends who are missing. If you have time, write the names of those who could be invited on pieces of paper and place the pieces of paper on the empty spaces or seats. Little ones might be interested in drawing pictures of those they would like to invite.
Ideas for Older Students
Begin the lesson with an analogy that suits the context. Tell students how much they can anticipate earning at an entry-level part-time job, say at McDonald’s. Research the median income in your state. Help students see the difference between the part-time job and the median income. Then have students imagine that the part-time earner and the median-income earner both receive a check for $1,000. Who would value it more? Connect this to the attitude we often have toward the one who is lost. Though we are often satisfied with the many, God values the lost one just the same.
With older adolescents, you might consider tying the Lord’s work of reaching the lost to the contemporary issue of immigration. Pose the following questions to get started:
“Pretend you work at the border of a country and have the authority to accept or turn away those who wish to enter the country. Whom do you admit? Whom do you turn away? What criteria would you use to make the determination? Is there anyone who should be denied?”
Help students connect related thoughts to God’s work of reaching the lost. What criteria does the Lord use? Who “deserves” to hear the Gospel? Who is worth our effort and time?
- “Children of the Heavenly Father”
- “Go into the World (Go Ye, Go Ye)”
- “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
- “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb”
- “Jesus Loves Me! This I Know”
Looking for suggestions on teaching other parables?