TODAY’S READING: Matthew 18
There is a contemporary worship song that celebrates Jesus leaving the ninety-nine to find “me.” I find this song sung in lands full of churches ironic. I’m not saying it’s untrue in these contexts, because every lost soul matters; it’s just ironic as the text clearly indicates the shepherd left the many and safe for the dangerous zones (mountains, Matt. 18:12) to find the ones without access. The ninety-nine in the churches sing as if they were the one. We make the same mistake in our hermeneutic of “little ones” with the popular application being children (v. 10). However, Jesus was clearly talking about the lost (v. 11). The little ones in His mind are the lost, the unreached peoples who have wandered away, the one UPG not represented in the fold. The ones whose angels always see the face of the Father in heaven are the Pashtun; they have no representative pleading for them, so angels take up that advocacy.
I am by no means saying that pagans in cities full of churches or cute kids in Kenya or Colombia are lesser souls than unreached peoples. I am saying that the Bible’s attention is ever on the one with no access to the gospel. Jesus repeatedly sought and seeks to yank our attention towards the one in the mountains, the one underrepresented, the one who has never heard, the other sheep, the cities beyond. We do a disservice to God if we make the poor child in a Christian home overseas or the lost pagan who has willingly rejected the gospel one-hundred times the focus of missionary efforts. Jesus says we must leave the ninety-nine, we should not stay among them singing about how we are the one. Jesus, whether it sits well with us or not, is actually saying: “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these unreached peoples should perish without representation around my throne, and I wish my children would stop singing about how they are the focus of My attention, the one. I wish they would leave the ninety-nine and search with me in the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan.”
It is this missionary context that Jesus brought up a sinning brother, binding prayer, and compassionate hearts. Notice His transition: “It is not the will of your Father…that one of these little [unreached peoples] should perish. Moreover if your brother sins…” (vv. 14–15, italics added). What a strange link and transition to forgiveness and prayer. Unless, of course, it is sin to neglect the inconveniently located unreached while you jump around with the found. Jesus seemingly implies that He takes missions so seriously that we have a collective responsibility to keep each other focused, an accountability so serious that those who don’t align with God’s assignment for the church are to be ostracized (v. 17). Jesus then goes on to tell us to pray together (vv. 18–20), and when we gather to pray for the lost (the chapter’s context), He is there in the midst. Evidently, leaving the ninety-nine to search for the one and banding together to pray for the lost is the same place—the place where Jesus is.
Should we not have compassion on our fellow man, just as Jesus had pity on us (v. 33)? Is not the proper response to being saved more time on our knees and less time jumping around? We can jump around uninterrupted in heaven. For now, let’s pray and let’s leave the ninety-nine seeking the one, for that is where Jesus is and where He commands us to be.