The Lost Sheep

I love Luke 15. I cannot think of another chapter of the Bible that so encapsulates the Good News of God’s eternal kindness, his unchanging mercy, his covenantal love.

Jesus is questioned when he seems to prefer spending time with sinners rather than with the rule followers. In answer, he offers three different parables, each of which paints a picture of our shared and fallen human condition and God’s response: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.  We tend to call the last one “the prodigal son,” but it is really a story about a merciful father and his deep desire for relationship with both of his sinful sons – the younger one who goes far away and squanders everything and the other one who “loyally” stays home, but with such a self-righteous and hardened heart.

I have already written about the lost coin. Today I would like to consider the story of the lost sheep. Several details invite deeper curiosity.

First of all, there is the shocking description of leaving ninety-nine sheep behind for the sake of finding one who is lost. It makes sense at first. Every Wisconsin farmer I’ve ever known shows amazing concern if one of their livestock are lost or in danger – both from a perspective of caring for God’s creatures as well as the serious financial consequences even with the loss of one animal. But how seriously and for how long? Doesn’t there come a point at which it no longer makes sense to leave the ninety-nine behind?

I found a much deeper answer to that question when I was reading Jean Daniélou’s hidden gem The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. He traces the thought of one early Church Father after another, and shows great consistency on the theme of “the ninety-nine” representing the heavenly angels. The eternal Son of God leaves heaven and comes down to earth to seek out and save these strange spiritual beings, the humans, who (so unlike the angels) are also bodily beings who have the capacity to change their minds and repent and be saved.

That is a massive paradigm shift for many of us, who tend to hear about the ninety-nine versus the one and proceeed to imagine ourselves on one side or the other. Rather, Jesus is telling the Pharisees and scribes that they, the tax collectors, and the rest of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are all on the side of the lost sheep. He makes the same point ten chapters earlier when he proclaims, “I have not come to call the righteous to conversion, but sinners.” If we are not ready to identify ourselves as sinners in need of mercy, we will not be able to receive salvation.

Another question we might be curious about is why the sheep got lost in the first place? The normal instinct of a sheep is to stick with the other sheep and stick with the shepherd. Pulling away from the herd feels scary and threatening and goes against normal survival instincts – unless there is an even scarier threat that somehow causes the sheep to seek its own security, only to find itself very far away from the shepherd and the flock, far away from any real salvation.

The biblical stories are clear – we as human beings are under attack by a cunning and fierce enemy who wills maliciously against us and plots for our ruin. John 10 describes how the enemy lies, seduces, steals, and destroys. He loves to torment human nature – especially by getting us to agree with some of his lies in a way that ruptures relationships. The more he can isolate us from God, from each other, and from our truest and deepest self, the freer reign he has to torment us.

This is not to say “the devil made me do it” – nor is that how God sees it. When he seeks out Adam in the garden, he helps Adam to get over his denial and blame-shifting and to confess the truth of what he has done. Together with Adam, you and I can say truthfully that evil chose us and that, at some point, we started choosing it back. Without dismissing culpability, we can have the deepest compassion both on ourselves and on other sinners, knowing that it all started with a malicious attack of a very evil spirit. What a contrast from the self-righteous shaming of the scribes and Pharisees, who were eager to look down on “sinners.”  And let’s face it, during these tense times, most of us don’t have to try very hard to find ourselves judging or shaming or belittling “those people” who think differently than we do or who live differently than we do. Nor is that a “conservative” or “liberal” trend; it’s a human trend that runs through all ideologies.

Another point of curiosity and wonderment is the shepherd’s quest. I was moved to tears the other day reading the description of Asterius of Amasea as I prayed the Office of Readings: “When one of them was separated from the flock and lost its way, that shepherd did not remain with the sheep who kept together at pasture. No, he went off to look for the stray. He crossed many valleys and thickets, he climbed great and towering mountains, he spent much time and labor in wandering through solitary places until at last he found his sheep.” In those moments in which I deeply identify with the lost sheep, passages like this help me feel truly blessed and chosen by God. I matter to him, not because of anything I have done, but because he desires me and wills my salvation.

Then there is the return journey home. In many ways, that is where the truly arduous work begins. The rescue itself is swift. Carrying a sheep back through all that rugged terrain is a different story – especially when the scared and shocked sheep begins doing what scared and shocked sheep are apt to do. I speak of bodily functions. Those of you who are farmers and have carried a lost or wounded animal know what I am talking about! Speaking for myself as a lost sheep that has been rescued and is being brought back to the house of the Father, I must admit that my restless spirit does not make the journey a smooth one. I am not unlike those Israelites who took forty years and much wandering to travel that 500 miles back to the promised land. If it had been a literal and linear journey, that would have meant advancing a whopping 180 feet per day (or 210 feet per day assuming they rested each Sabbath from such a grueling pace). It turns out that, like those Israelites, our journey back to the Father’s house is anything but linear. But it sure is an amazing and wonderful adventure, and it will make for a great story when we get there.

There is one final point of curiosity, namely, the amazing joy with which we are rescued and received back into the Father’s house. In all three stories, Luke 15 explodes with this theme of festive rejoicing. What God wants more than anything else is to embrace us warmly, delight in us deeply, and throw a party for us. There is so much joy in heaven – both in our rescue and in our return.

Nor is it a matter of gutting it out for decades until we finally get out of this misery. Even now, in this life, he desires us to have a taste of that heavenly partying, rest, and delight. He builds Sabbath rest into his covenant with us. Observing the Lord’s Day can become an occasion for deep delight in knowing that we are already at home in our Father’s house.

God has zero interest in judging or condemning. His deep ache is to celebrate in festive delight with his each of his beloved children. To be sure, he always honors our freedom and will never force our rescue, but he certainly will not rest in seeking us out, and in bringing us into his rest, where we will find joy beyond all imagining.

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