One day on the highest hill of the sheep pasture, some of the leading sheep of the land decided that too many of the younger sheep were wondering astray and getting lost, thus becoming a drain on sheep society. Of course, it was expected in a free sheep society that a small percentage of sheep would always be wondering off and getting lost, but the recent statistics of lost sheep were becoming quite alarming and something had to be done. After putting their sheep heads together they came up with what they believed to be the solution to their problems – the “no sheep left behind act.” Under this new law all young sheep would be taught the basics of how to stay in their own flock and be a self-reliant, productive, sheep. To prove that they were indeed not lost, and to help gauge their risk of being lost in the future, they would be tested annually on the basics of sheep knowledge. All training of young sheep from here on out was to be done by ‘highly qualified’ sheep instructors carrying out the ‘scientifically based research’ strategies to assure that as many sheep as possible passed the annual test. In order to allow for some form of local autonomy, each individual flock could determine their own standards of what it meant to not be lost. The ‘no sheep left behind act’ would hold local sheep instructors accountable for quality work, pay more attention to minority sheep who had a tendency of getting lost more often than others, and restore credibility to the public sheep education system. Another touted aspect of the law was that sheep who were a part of a failing flock were allowed to transfer to higher performing flocks. One of the lesser publicized features of the law was that recruiters for the sheep army were now given full access to the flocks, in order, of course, to provide another safeguard against certain young sheep getting lost. Sheep could sign up and join the never ending battle against the wolves and receive help for furthering their sheep education and careers after they had served, assuming they made it out with all four legs intact. After several years of the law being implemented across the land the greatest performing flock was given an award for having the highest percentage of not lost or left behind sheep. Out of 100 sheep in the flock, 99 were not lost, a remarkable percentage that served as a model toward which every flock in the pasture should strive. It was a wonderful party and celebration for those 99 sheep, well-attended by friends and neighbors. The one notable absence was that of the shepherd. He sent a note congratulating the 99 sheep for their good work, but said he was not able to attend the celebration of the 99 because he had other more pressing business to take care of.
NRS Luke 15:1-7 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to (Jesus). 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 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.”
The “Parable of the Lost Sheep,” as it has come to be called, is actually the first of three “lost and found” parables that Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back, together making up the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. The second parable follows the same structure of the first.
The shepherd with sheep is replaced with a woman with coins, each coin worth about a days wage that a laborer would make. Like the sheep, all of the coins are in safe keeping except for one, which becomes lost, and now all of the energy of the woman becomes focused on the search for this one coin. After careful searching, she finds what she was looking for. Her response is also to call together her friends and neighbors for a party, celebrating what has been found.
The third parable is the one commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son but is more accurately titled “The father and the two lost sons.” This is the longest parable of the three and the most complex. In place of the flock of sheep and the set of coins is a human family – a son who willingfully disrespects his father by cashing in on his inheritance early and leaving home, and another son who disrespects his father by refusing to accept this lost son back into the family when he returns. This parable concludes open-ended. The father calls friends and neighbors to celebrate finding what was lost, but it is unknown whether the other son will join the party.
This series of similar parables is prompted by the situation described at the beginning of the chapter. The tax collectors and sinners, the lost people, were coming near to listen to Jesus, and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus’ lack of attention paid to the type of company he was keeping, especially at meals. Grumbling, it should be noted, is a keyword with a bad track record in the Bible. This is the same word used for the attitude of the Israelites in the desert, grumbling against Moses for the rough conditions and poor food quality of the wilderness wonderings. The Israelites grumbled for not having enough food, and now the educated religious folk are grumbling that too much food is being shared with the wrong sorts of people.
This is not the first time in Luke’s gospel that this concern has been raised. In Luke’s skillful way of organizing his gospel, he often raises a question early on and addresses it briefly, only to revisit the same question later and provide another, more full exploration of that concern. A very similar question had been raised earlier when Jesus was eating with Levi, a tax collector. In chapter five, “The Pharisees and their scribes were grumbling to his disciples saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”
Now in chapter 15 Luke is revisiting this question and expounding on Jesus’ response. Who are those who receive the focus of Jesus’ energies? Who are those God is keeping company with? Lost sheep, lost coins, lost children. God the shepherd, God the house-wife, God the loving father, all pre-occupied with that which is lost.
The parables are intended to be relatable to every day life, a story we can easily place ourselves in. To my memory I’ve never lost a sheep, but I did spend a whole spring break of high school searching the countryside of Bellefontaine, Ohio for cows that got out of our barn after I spooked them while running through the barn lot playing hide and go seek and trying to escape the person who had found me. I did escape…and so did seven cows. More recently, with a toddler in the house, things do seem to come up missing fairly regularly these days. Lost keys, lost cell phone, lost contact lens case lid. Eve likes to play with all these things and they often have a way of wondering off into strange corners of the house, or occasionally into drawers Eve is now able to open and close and leave deposits. So 99% of our lives may be in order, but that 1% becomes the focus of our energy and our searching. We put everything else on hold to locate the lost item we suddenly realize we can’t live without — sometimes taking a whole spring break, sometimes taking a few hours, sometimes simply asking your toddler where she put those keys and having her lead you to a room and pointing to a small bottle laying in the corner that has the keys inside it – true story. Mary Schertz, professor of Bible at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana where I attended, writes this. “The point is that whether or not we would actually leave 99 sheep to go look for one, or turn a house upside down in search of a single coin, all of us have experienced a crisis that abruptly turns our attention from the macrocosm to the microcosm. When such a crisis occurs, a normal human reaction is to shift focus, marshal all resources and apply every effort to solving the problem” (Christian Century, Sept. 4, 2007, p. 18).
Like Jesus’ original audience, we can relate to this scenario. But, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is an entry point of familiarity, something corresponding directly with our normal every day experience of life, followed by the unfamiliar, something that challenges us to re-orient ourselves to a new kind of normal. A normal that seems out of the ordinary for us who so easily get out of touch with the normal, everyday activity of a passionate God pursuing what is lost.
The same surprise twist comes toward the end of each parable. Finding what was lost is not the end of the story. Whereas a typical response may be breathing a sigh of relief, kicking oneself for letting this get lost in the first place, making a half-hearted mental note to self not to allow this item to get lost again, and getting back to more important things one must do besides engaging in this annoying waste of time searching and searching – instead of this response, each parable ends with a party, an elaborate celebration to rejoice in what has been found, inviting together friends and neighbors. This could appear frivolous and unnecessary to onlookers, and probably appeared that way to the Pharisees who were listening. More wasted time, more wasted resources. Some commentators have joked that perhaps the shepherd served roast mutton to his guests, and perhaps the woman spent several of her coins to throw the party. This could very well be the case. The spirit of these parables is not one concerned with maximizing flock size or coin count. It is a spirit of joyful abandonment, of unreserved reveling in the lost one who is now found. This is the kind of shepherd and house-wife that God is. Diligently, persistently pursuing the one who has strayed from the group. Searching the entire countryside, sweeping the entire house, pulling an all-nighter until the lost is found, and then being so thrilled with the find so as to party all through the next night with anyone around who’ll join in. The crisis of the absent one is transformed into a celebration where all are invited to be present.
As the opening ‘parable of the lost sheep’ remix, ‘no sheep left behind’ illustrates, our efforts to search after other members of the human family are partial and incomplete at best, misguided and harmful at worst. It’s a messy and difficult undertaking to follow the shepherd and the house-wife into the business of searching for what is lost. This is made all the more complex when a dangerously high percentage of the flock appears lost, and a high percentage of the coins that the woman should have in her purse come up missing. Some of the sheep these days are wondering away toward drugs; many come from broken homes; some seem so self-absorbed it’s hard to connect with them; some, disproportionately minority sheep, find their way into prison before they even get out of high school; some of the sheep never make it back from the battlefield and many of the ones who do come with trauma that will affect their mental health the rest of their lives. In this flock of 100 we’ve got a whole lot more than one sheep wondering out in the darkness. We might need to stay on the search path for a long time, devise some new strategies for how to search together as teams and communities, and if we do find anyone along the way we might need to improve our celebration skills and start throwing some loud parties in order to share and multiply the joy.
There is another surprise twist that comes with these parables. Initially we are asked to identify with the one searching. Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not go after the one that is lost?” But subtly at first, and then openly at the end of the third parable, we are asked to identify with the one being sought. The one the shepherd is patiently pursuing, the one the woman has overturned all of her furniture in every room of her house to find, the prodigal one the father has run out to embrace and the cold-hearted one the father begs to come join the party. The lost ones. The ones Jesus came to seek out and the ones the Divine Spirit is continually seeking out. This is us. And so, the words of Psalm 51 – “Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to your steadfast love. Create a new and right spirit within me.” Lost in comfort, lost in materialism, lost in the smog of all our pollution, lost in hectic schedules, lost in emotional isolation from others, lost in cynicism, disappointment, and despair. Lost, but being passionately pursued by a God anxious to throw a party on our behalf. Lost, but prime targets for grace and healing and restoration. Wondering astray, but gently being coaxed to meander our way back into the family. We join the shepherd in seeking out the lost even as we ourselves are being sought out by the great shepherd.