The Parable of the Lost Sheep
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
One of my favorite parables has long been The Parable of the Lost Sheep, if, for no other reason than it makes for a great children’s sermon. I’ve told you this before – how I’d get the children together and tell them the parable, and then I’d let them play hide and seek in the sanctuary. I’d count to ten and then come looking for them like the good shepherd looking for his lost sheep. Only I’d intentionally overlook one. And then I’d feign the excuse that we were running out of time and needed to go on with the service. Invariably, the children would call my hand. “Oh, no!” they’d say, “You can go on ’til you find the last sheep.” Of course, that’s the point I was hoping to get across. It worked like a charm every time.
Artists have depicted The Parable of the Lost Sheep in many ways over the years. The one I brought this morning is a print by Alfred Soord. Here we see a young shepherd boy standing precariously on a high ridge holding on to a rock with one hand above him, while reaching down to a stranded sheep on the ledge below. Notice the strong muscles of the shepherd flexing to maintain his grip and keep his balance, while, at the same time, reaching for the stranded sheep. What makes this particular work compelling to me is that, overhead, you can see that the vultures are already circling, waiting to tear into their helpless prey, should the shepherd fail.
Well, the point of the parable is obvious: The kingdom of God is like a good shepherd who has a flock of a hundred sheep who, losing just one of them, will leave the others and go after the one that is lost until he finds it and brings it back to the fold.
It’s a simple point, really. Yet, looking closer, the parable hits home in a number of unexpected ways, and that’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning. Specifically, what does this parable say about the nature of God; what does it say about us; and what does it say about our relationship to each other?
First, the parable strikes at the heart of our value system and confronts us with the magnitude of God’s infinite mercy, forgiveness and love. Listen once more:
“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them,
wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness,
and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?” (v. 4)
The answer is: Nobody! Zilch. Nada. That’s not the way we think. If you have a hundred sheep and you lose one, well, too bad. That’s just the cost of doing business. One sheep out of a hundred is an acceptable loss. Hey, it’s only one percent. No big deal.
When you think about it, our whole lives are based on an acceptable percentage of failure. We start every school year knowing there will be a certain dropout rate. Not everyone will graduate. Marriages start out with a predictable rate of divorce. Not every marriage will make it. We’re happy when the employment rate is below five percent. We don’t expect everyone to be able to keep a job. And sad to say, not every newborn baby will live. I saw in the paper just this week where the infant mortality rate world-wide had dropped to just below five percent, the first time it’s ever been this low.
You get the point: As far as we’re concerned, losing only one sheep out of a hundred is not so bad. You might even say it’s remarkable. But with God, every sheep counts. And that’s the first lesson of the parable: With God, nothing is lost.
William Barclay tells a little story in his layman’s commentary that I just love. It’s a little dated – set, I’d say it’s set in the 19th Century, but it makes a good point. A young doctor was backpacking across Europe. He’d traveled for several weeks – much of the way by foot – so that, from his outward appearances, he looked like a bum. He hadn’t shaved, his hair was long and matted, his clothes were dirty and worn. For some reason – I forget the circumstances – he became seriously ill. A couple of strangers found him lying half conscious by the side of the road and got him to a hospital. The attending physicians examined him and shook their heads. One looked at the other and whispered in Latin, “What a worthless bloke. We’d do him a favor to let him die.” The young doctor lying on the table understood every word. He looked up and replied, also in Latin, “Never call a man worthless for whom Christ has died.”
So often, we give up too easily. When others fall through the cracks, we’re quick to write them off: “You can’t win ’em all.”. Not so in the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a good shepherd who has a flock of a hundred sheep who, losing just one of them, will leave the others and go after the one that is lost until he finds it and brings it back to the fold.
With God, nothing is lost. That’s the first point, and the second is this: With God, we live in community with each other, so that to talk about being lost is really to talk about being separated from each other. In other words, the sheep was lost because it was part of the flock to begin with. The very fact that it belonged to the flock led to the fact that, when the shepherd counted heads, it was obvious one was missing.
Being lost has to do with our connection to each other. We’re interrelated. So that to talk about one who is lost is, at the same time, to talk about the effect one who is lost has on the others. Like the man who said, in the wake of his wife’s death, “It’s not only that I’ve lost her, but that I’m lost without her.”
This is a correlation I’ve come to appreciate more and more over the years: The more intimately we’re connected to another person, the more we agonize when we’re separated; the less we’re connected, the less we’re affected. Remember the pictures of missing children they used to put on milk cartons? They evoked a little sadness, I suppose, but I doubt that they caused us to lose much sleep. But if it were your child? Now, that’s another story!
In December, 1980, our youngest son, Christopher, got separated from us at the mall. We were living in Sherman at the time. It was Christmas, and the mall was packed with shoppers. We drifted into a bookstore. John and Patrick were with their mother. Chris was with me. Or so I thought. I was skimming through a book with Chris at my side. I put the book back on the shelf and looked down at Chris. Only it wasn’t Chris. It was somebody else’s kid. “Honey, is Chris with you?” I called to the other side of the stack. Donna replied, “I thought he was with you.” We panicked. We searched the bookstore, then went out into the promenade of the mall.
You’ve never seen such bedlam. There was a sea of shoppers moving in both directions. Donna went one way with John and Patrick. I went the other. As I got to the front door, I looked out across the parking lot. It was about nine o’clock at night. It dawned on me that Chris may have gone out to the car. I bolted out the door and ran across the parking lot as fast as I could. We’d parked near the street, about a quarter of a mile away. Sure enough, when I got there I found one brave little four-year-old boy clinging to the driver’s side door handle. I guess he figured if he held on to the car, we couldn’t leave without him. I picked him up and held him and, just about that time, Donna and the other boys got there. We hugged each other and cried for what seemed like an eternity. Our little boy was lost, and now he was found. Thank God.
This is the essence of the Kingdom of God – we’re family – brothers and sisters in Christ, joined by our common allegiance to him. And because we belong to the body of Christ, when only one is missing, something about us is missing, as well.
I tell you, every time I did the little children’s sermon I told you about, the kids got it right: You can’t go on with the service until the last sheep is found and brought back to the fold. The kingdom of God isn’t complete until everyone is safe and secure and accounted for.
This is why it’s so important for us not to give up on those who’ve dropped out of the church or fallen by the wayside or gone astray. It’s not simply that they’re lost, but a part of us is lost, as well. We live in community with each other, or we don’t live at all.
When you think about it, there are lots of reasons why people drop out. Some get angry and upset and bent out of shape. Others get their feelings hurt over something that was said or done. Sometimes people drop out because of something they’ve said or done to alienate themselves from others. And sometimes people drop out because they just get out of the habit.
One Bible commentator said sheep tend to nibble themselves lost – they graze from one tuft of grass to the next all day long with their heads down and, when they look up, they don’t know where they are or how they got there, and they certainly don’t know how to get back to the flock. It’s not that they’re particularly stubborn or rebellious or stupid, it’s simply their nature: Sheep stray and, when they do, they get lost.
The Good News is the good shepherd comes looking for them, and he searches until he finds them, and, when he does, he brings them back to the fold. That’s a model we’d do well to follow in the life and witness of this church – not to be content with those who show up on Sunday morning, but to be persistent about reaching out to those who don’t. The parable ends this way:
“When he (the shepherd) has found it (the lost sheep),
he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors,
saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'” (vv. 5-6)
To be honest, this is not the way we’d like for this parable to end. We’d rather for Jesus to say,
“When he (the shepherd) has found it (the lost sheep),
he carries it on his shoulders…
When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors,
saying to them, ‘Well, it’s about time…
I hope you learned your lesson…
You can come back this time,
but it’d better not happen again.'”
That’s not the way the parable ends, is it? The way Jesus told the parable, the shepherd and all of his friends and neighbors rejoiced. In fact, Jesus goes on to say,
“I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven
over one sinner who repents,
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who need no repentance.” (v. 7)
Alford Branch brought this parable to life in a new way for me last Saturday at our Presbytery meeting. Rev. Branch is the pastor of the Holmes Chapel Presbyterian Church in Monticello. He said the Holmes Chapel Presbyterian Church is located within a few blocks of one of the diciest neighborhoods in town. He said that just to walk down the street is to invite drug dealing, prostitution, gambling and violence.
Long story, short, Rev. Branch said he felt that the Spirit was leading him to go down that street. He didn’t want to go. He wasn’t interested in what the folks down there had to offer. Plus, he was concerned about what his parishioners would think if he was seen on that street. He put up quite a fight, but, in the end, he went where the Spirit led him.
He said he drove his truck down the street and parked by the curb and asked the Lord, “Now what?” He sat there for a while, and slowly, people started coming up to the window and talking to him. They all knew who he was. They wondered what he was doing there. When they were convinced he wasn’t there to condemn them or cause trouble, they began opening up to him.
He came back to his church the next Sunday morning and told his congregation what he’d done. At first, they were pretty upset. “Why are you wasting your time associating with those people?” they wanted to know. He said, “Because some of those people are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your aunts and uncles.” He wasn’t kidding, and they knew it.
In time, it transformed the church. They started taking food to the neighborhood one day a week and feeding all who’d come a delicious hot meal. As they ate together, people started talking to each other. But, before long, reconciliation began to take place, relationships were restored, and lost souls were brought back into the community of faith.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep speaks to us best when we hear it in the context of the MIAs – those individuals and families we know and love with whom we have, for whatever reason, become disconnected. Just remember this:
• Each one of them counts. In God, nothing is lost.
• What’s more, they’re family. As long as they’re missing, a part of us is missing, as well.
• And finally, it really doesn’t matter what they’ve done or why they’ve strayed. All that matters is that we go to whatever lengths are necessary to reach them and be reconciled to them and bring them home.
That’s the nature of the Good Shepherd. It ought to be the nature of any church that bears his name.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.