The story of the lost sheep is one of the most well known parables. A shepherd loses one of his 100 sheep and decides to leave the 99 ‘safe’ sheep to search out the lost one. It is a story I use often within school settings, especially at the beginning of the school year, when many of the little ones are feeling a bit lost and need the older ‘sheep’ to look out for them. Looking at Luke’s retelling of the parable, I am beginning to wonder if I have misinterpreted the story. Read it here.
For a start, the Good Shepherd in Jesus’ story isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary when he leaves the 99 behind to search for the lost. The opening phrase of the story is ‘Which one of you’ – this is something which the crowd have experienced. They are part of the story, they understand the role of a shepherd, and they too have gone off in search for a sheep that has wondered off:
Which one of you , having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Luke 15: 4
It seems as if this is common practice.The second thing that strikes me is that the 99 other sheep aren’t particularly safe themselves: they are not secure within the sheep pen, they are grazing in the wilderness. They may be quite happy to graze in the wilderness, but they are not in a place of protection should a bear or wolf come along whilst the Shepherd is searching out the lost one. Just as Jesus has chosen to eat with ‘sinners’ rather than the religious leaders, the shepherd seeks out the one who have gone astray, even if it means leaving these religious leaders floundering in the wilderness of their dry faith and self righteousness.
We think of this parable (and the two that follow) as being stories of what happens when things are lost – if we are glass half full people we might think of them as stories of being found, Craddock suggests that they are stories of joy.
In the Old Testament reading set for today we hear more from gloomy Jeremiah. Jeremiah is really set into the depths of the doom – he is speaking of God’s anger to a people who are so full of their status as being special, so self assured in being people of the holy city of Jerusalem, that they have forgotten to listen to God, to follow his ways. Last week we heard how a quick succession of Kings with varying levels of faith in Yahweh and pagan practices was leading to difficult times.
The people of Jerusalem have been deceived by false prophets. They have believed messages that all will be well and Jerusalem can never fall. Knowles
Jeremiah has the thankless task of telling these people that despite their beliefs that they are safe and secure, a time is coming when the source of their security, the Jerusalem walls, will be destroyed.
For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. Jeremiah 4: 22
The people of Jeremiah’s time are lost like the sheep of Jesus’ story. For a while they have been in the wilderness, but now they will become lost. Which brings us to that sense of joy which Craddock speaks of. In amidst the anger, the prophecies of doom, and the call for repentance, is a promise tucked away in verse 27
For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Jeremiah 4:27
There is hope. There will be a time of being lost and bereft, even ‘the earth shall mourn and the heavens above grow black;’ but it will not be the end. For Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem these would have been frightening times, but there was always hope, and it was Jeremiah’s job as a prophet to keep speaking that hope alongside the doom and gloom. God is love and he will not see his people destroyed, but he can no longer tolerate the evil practices that his people have fallen for.
The joy in the Gospel story is much easier to see – the celebrations are explicit. The shepherd calls his neighbours together to celebrate when the lost one is found, he calls together his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him. I wonder who the neighbours of a shepherd might be? Other shepherds? The sheep out in the wilderness?
In the searching out of the lost one, all in the wilderness are called to feast with the shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is telling this story to tax collectors, sinners, pharisees and scribes: those in the wilderness, those who are lost and those who are beginning to find their way home. Jesus has sought them out and invited them to feast with him, to break bread with him. Jesus is offering joy to those who were broken and despairing.
There is a promise of joy for us too. The question is whether or not we will allow ourselves to be drawn in from the wilderness to celebrate with Jesus. Do we have hearts open to all those whom Jesus is drawing in, all those Jesus has sought out and is seeking to place within our flocks?
Paul had spent much of his life in a wilderness of judgementalism. Like the people of Jeremiah’s time, he had felt safe within the status of Jerusalem. For him, the keeping of rules and rituals was all that mattered, however, he was more lost than most. For Paul the story ends in joy. Jesus seeks Paul out and doesn’t give up searching until he is found and restored to fellowship with Yahweh, with God. Read more here.
If there is a thread running through these three passages it is that of despair and hope, of loss and celebration. The skies darken under the battlefields that bring destruction, but Jeremiah keeps speaking of God’s restoration to come. Paul is blinded by the light from heaven that is Jesus himself, but the darkness only comes in order to reveal the truth of God’s calling on Paul’s life to be a light-bearer to the Gentiles. The shepherd in the parable risks much to save the lost little lamb, however, The Good Shepherd will see himself nailed to a cross. On that day too, the heavens darkened in mourning and it seemed as if all was lost, but the Easter joy that followed will always be the greatest of celebrations.
Something to watch:
Something to think about:
- Was there a time when you found yourself physically lost?
- Are there tools that you use (satnav etc) to prevent yourself from getting lost?
- What has it felt like to be be found, or to find yourself back on the right road?
- Where do you see yourself in the parable of the Lost Sheep? Do you sit with the shepherd, the lost sheep, the sheep that remain in the wilderness, or with the neighbours called to celebrate?
- Are there times when, like Chris the sheep, you feel not only lost, but burdened by the weight of isolation?
- Where is God when the sky turns black?
- Is this a story of loss, coming home or celebration?
Something to listen to:
Something to pray:
Lord Jesus Christ,
in the knowledge that you love us enough to seek us out, however often we go astray, that you are always ready to welcome us back, eager to forgive and forget, so we come now, summoned by our love, despite having erred and strayed like lost sheep, disobeying your will and rejecting your guidance in so much.
We come in penitence, but also assurance, knowing that you welcome us joyfully and without reserve.
Teach us, we pray, as we worship now, to value you as much as value us. Amen