The Good Shepherd
—Kate Harrison, 11 Sep 2016
Luke 15. 1–10.
I want to share a little frustration I’ve always had about this morning’s gospel reading. I’m not sure it paints me in a terribly positive light. You see, whenever I hear the story of the lost sheep, when I hear other people talking about it; how you can imagine the little lost sheep bleating plaintively, scared and alone until the brave, strong shepherd comes and saves it and bring it home, I think, "well, that’s only half the story." I find myself thinking about those left in the pen while the shepherd goes out searching for this one sheep. I wonder how did they feel? Did they feel abandoned and vulnerable? They were all there, safe in the confines of the pen, they had each other…but what good was that if a fox came whilst their beloved shepherd was out searching? This one 'lost’ sheep had chosen to stray; to not stay close to the others and to the shepherd. Did those left wonder if they could now be at risk? Were they bleating too? And when the shepherd brings the sheep home, I’m sure there was rejoicing in the pen and a fabulous welcome…but along with the celebration and the relief that the lost sheep was now safe, I wonder whether there was also a sense of relief that the other 99 were safe. Maybe there was even a little bit (or maybe even a lot) of resentment towards this sheep which had caused all the trouble in the first place.
It’s always useful when you read a parable to wonder very carefully who or what each character is meant to represent. So here we have the shepherd character and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he is Christ. Then we have the lost sheep: I’ve heard various claims that he or she can represent people who turn away from Christ and choose a different path, rejecting the truth or that he or she is people who have never heard the Gospel message and so are lost through no fault or choosing of their own. I’ve also, of course, heard that this lost sheep represents the marginalised in society and that Christ brings them into safety, that there are no barriers to His love and that all will be gathered in.
So where do I fit in? If I am going to see this story as a living text, showing me the truth of God and bringing me closer to His design for me (remember the image of the potter moulding us as long as we stay malleable and ready to be moulded from last week), I need to know where I am placed in the story. Once I could have been the lost sheep, in more than one way, found and gently brought home. I know that I keep returning to that position when I forget how to love as Christ loves or when I deliberately decide to turn my back. And I know that Christ’s willingness and capacity to pick me up and bring me back home is limitless.
But…I still find myself coming back to the other sheep. You know, the 99 faithful ones left all alone in the pen. Maybe that’s who I am. I imagine the shepherd looking around, counting us up, realising that one is missing… "I’ll be back as soon as I can", he says. "Flossy matters". (Well, what else are sheep called, other than Shaun?!) And I can just imagine myself feeling a little lost and alone myself, despite the 98 other woolly bodies besides me. "I matter too".
Hmmm…this makes me sound very much like the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining—dare I say, bleating, "Why is Jesus spending time with them when I am here needing attention with my constant questions?"
You see: I told you it didn’t show me in a very good light.
But I don’t think I’m unusual. When the plight of refugees is in the news we hear people saying "Well, they can’t all come here. We’ve already got too much strain on our schools, health service and housing". Isn’t that just a way of saying "don’t go and save that sheep. I matter too". The truth is, of course, that the resources needed to fix all of those things will never be met, and those services are stretched and, yes, people are suffering more than they need to. But we still have more than those who are asking for our help. Much more! Saying "what about us?" makes those who are in more need invisible.
Jesus is the shepherd who looks out for those who need freeing from oppression. He will never abandon us. But we must not stand in His way. As the only hands He has on earth, we must look for where He needs us to act…and we must act.
When we hear of a proposal from our politicians to change something in the welfare system or education policy or healthcare, for example, our first response should not be "what about us? We matter too". Our first response should be "will this help someone who is more vulnerable than me?". Of course we matter. But if our needs are being met more completely than someone else’s, then those needs must take precedence. This is what Jesus would do. In so many situations, we are the ones with a voice. We are loud and we will be heard. Those who are victims of inequality are rarely heard. If we are to do any bleating at all it must always be in favour of the lost. Whoever they may be. Because it is not until all are free and safe that we will be complete—all together—safe in God’s care.