Matthew 18: 10-14
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time….” (Albert Schweitzer)
A favorite childhood memory is my mother’s night-time lullaby to my sister and me. Each night Mom soothed us to sleep, singing all stanzas of the hymn “The Ninety and Nine.” Some nights we fell asleep smiling, feeling safe, like members of the flock. Other nights, with tears on our pillows, we felt like that one lost sheep. Yet always we slept assured that the Shepherd watched over us, cared for us, and reached out to us, whatever our need. My first image of the Good Shepherd was my Mom; my first image of the Lost Sheep, me.
Jesus tells the parable of The Lost Sheep in Matthew and Luke, during his journey toward Jerusalem to die. He introduces four characters: one sheep, the ninety and nine, the Shepherd, and “You and Me.” While seemingly childlike in its simplicity and ability to comfort, on repeated readings the story exposes multiple layers of complexity, asking many more questions than it answers. When we finally understand it, it leaves us like those early disciples, overwhelmed.
One unanswered question hovers around the crisis of the “one.” Luke’s sheep is lost, like New Testament “sinners” (those unbelieving outcasts with whom Jesus ate and drank, hoping to redeem.) Matthew’s sheep goes astray, (like half-hearted believers who intentionally leave the fold or defy the faith).
Unanswered questions abound about the ninety and nine. How vulnerable were they when left behind? Were they in a safe place or on an open mountain range, fending for themselves? Did they stay together or scatter? (Sheep will be sheep!) Did they carry on leaderless for the sake of the one? Or do they suggest the Prodigal’s brother, with whom we often identify – angry, jealous, and unforgiving of a renegade’s reckless tendencies at the group’s expense?
Unanswered questions surround the Shepherd’s care. Did he assure the safety of his flock before leaving? Was his departure a responsible act? Or not? Every loving parent of more than one child knows this dilemma well. Every dedicated teacher, every compassionate pastor, every responsible public servant knows this dilemma. The Shepherd’s struggle is ours when we ask, “Under what conditions are we wisest to leave the many for the one? What risks will we take?” Does that mean we love the one more?
Whether lost or gone astray, the “one’s” plight is the same – separation. Ways we stray today are too numerous to list, sometimes intentional, sometimes not; but either way, when consequences avalanche, they throw us off-balance, take us off-course, keep us out-of-focus, blindside us to purpose, and separate us from God, our best self, and Christian community. Like the one sheep, we are lost.
The parable’s view of the Shepherd’s character evolves – through job description, pastoral imagery, and the person of Jesus. In leaving the many to go after the one, this Shepherd portrayed the transcendent, yet always present God whom Jesus sought to reveal:
Personal – Jesus called Him “Father”!
Seeking – with initiative, He seeks us!
Limitless – no task is too difficult, no distance too far, no danger too great!
Unconditional, Sacrificial Love, ready to risk all again and again!
By the parable’s end, it is unmistakably clear that Jesus, the storyteller, is the Living Portrait of God’s Love – willing still to make the journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion for our sakes!
The Lost Sheep’s double-edged message first assures us that the Father’s love will not let us go. Then comes its mandate: When lost… be found! When found…return to the fold! Once there, accept discipleship and its cost! At this Lenten season, be the shepherd … in Jesus’ name.