The good shepherd

Streuli Silvan /
Streuli Silvan /

When my wife and I first began thinking seriously of having kids, there was the inevitable question of how many. She grew up as the oldest of five, and imagined having five children of her own. I grew up as the younger of two, so five sounded like a bit much to me.

There’s no “right” answer to the question (we ended up having two — that’s another story). But there is an important tipping point: it’s a challenge to have more kids than you have hands.

Young kids tend to wander off. They don’t mean to. And it’s not because they didn’t hear you say, “Stay here.” But depending on how distractible they are, if something captures their attention, they can be drawn to it like moths to flame. It doesn’t matter what you told them. If you’re not holding their hand, they may get lost.

Sheep can be like that.

Their brains follow a simple and predictable logic. See grass. Eat it. They don’t think, “But the shepherd told me not to wander off.” If the shepherd isn’t paying attention, a sheep can be drawn from one tuft of grass to the next until it’s separated from the flock and hopelessly lost.

As we saw in the previous post, Jesus responded to the Pharisees who were looking down their noses at him by telling three stories. In the first (Luke 15:3-7), a lone sheep wanders away from its flock of 100. As New Testament scholar Ken Bailey suggests, a flock that size would require two shepherds.

What does a responsible shepherd do when a sheep gets lost? Chalk it up as a business loss? Make up a story about how the flock was attacked by wolves?

Or search high and low until he finds it?

A lost sheep is a terrified sheep — so terrified, in fact, that it may just plop itself down in a state of helplessness. If the shepherd manages to find it, he will likely have to carry the traumatized animal on his shoulders all the way home. That’s lugging a burden of about 70 to 80 pounds over uneven terrain. But the shepherd who would refuse to make the sacrificial effort is disreputable.

The good shepherd diligently seeks the ones who have gone astray. And when he gets home, he throws a party. In fact, there’s a lot of partying in Luke 15. There is great rejoicing in heaven, Jesus insists, when the lost are found.

But Jesus’ point is not as much about the lost sheep as about the shepherd who does the finding. Remember, he’s responding to scribes and Pharisees who are grumbling about the riff-raff he lets hang around him. He even seems to like them somehow!

The Pharisees would probably object to being compared to lowly, grubby shepherds. But Jesus is suggesting that they’re falling down on the job: as the teachers of God’s people, shouldn’t they be the ones seeking the lost? He puts a startling picture in front of them: Can you imagine a God who not only sacrificially seeks the lost, but who rejoices when one comes home?

Jesus suggests that there was a party in heaven the day I accepted him as my Savior. Was it because I was such a notorious sinner, one of the world’s Ten Most Wanted?

Maybe. But Jesus’ parable isn’t about me and how lost I was. Nor is it about you. It’s about the God who seeks. And it’s especially about the God who rejoices.

The second parable, I think, makes that point even more clearly. More on that in a subsequent post.