“Looking for Lost Sheep”
Text: Luke 15: 3-6
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.’
There are so many scriptural references, particularly in the Psalms, to God as a shepherd that I can imagine how difficult it is to think about this particular parable in a new way. The most famous of those references is, no doubt, the 23rd Psalm, but there are many others. Today, I want us to take a minute and think about what possibilities this parable may offer to us if we can remove the assumptions that God must always play the part of the shepherd.
Once again, I’m looking at a parable in a new way that I find little support for in the conventional wisdom of Bible scholars and commentaries. Everywhere you turn the assumption is always that God is the shepherd in this parable and the lost sheep represents some lost soul that has yet to find God. There are more than just a few shortcomings in these interpretations I would like for us to at least consider and think about. Of course, as I always say, these are some of my thoughts and ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts, but I do ask that you think about it.
Before we dive head first into this parable, I think it might be a good idea for us to refresh our memories just a bit on the state of the human condition. What I mean by that, is often we forget about our priorities, we forget what should be most important in our lives and we forget what our basic human calling is. We simply focus on the wrong stuff much of the time. I’m not pointing any fingers here, other than at myself, because I am just as guilty of this as any of you.
I heard a story once that I think speaks volumes about the human condition. There was a very devout and righteous man who was is prayer and meditation one day when the Lord appeared to him. This man was a hard working farmer and according to the Jewish tradition, he had always kept the Sabbath and had always kept the law. The Lord appeared to him and spoke; God told him that it had been noticed how devoutly he had kept the law and he was to be awarded for his diligence. The Lord went on to explain that the farmer would be granted three wishes. But it was also explained that whatever the farmer wished for, his neighbor, who the farmer had a little trouble getting along with, would also be granted the same wish, but double in portion.
So the farmer thought about this for a minute and figured he didn’t have anything to lose, so he wished for 100 cattle. In a flash his corral was filled with 100 cattle. But he walked to the top of a hill where he could see the property of his neighbor and there grazing in the valley was a herd of 200 cattle belonging to his neighbor. At the sight of the 200 head of cattle, the farmer’s joy of receiving the 100 soon turned to anger and jealousy. “Why would his neighbor who was far less devout than I am be given double what I received?” he thought to himself. “It isn’t fair!”
But the farmer had two wishes left. So this time the farmer wished his farm encompassed 100 acres of land. Immediately he had a deed in his hand that declared his farm was 100 acres in size. He was filled with immense joy and pride at having such a large farm. Just then his farmer neighbor rode by on horseback and announced he had just received 200 acres of land making his farm the largest farm in the area. The farmer’s heart sank and his joy was replaced with anger and jealousy and his inner spirit was in turmoil. There wasn’t any joy left in the farmer’s heart; his passion to be first and be the best and to have the most overshadowed his joy that should have come from the granted wishes. His joy and literally been transformed into anger, greed and jealousy. But the farmer had one wish left.
So the farmer went to the Lord seeking his third and final wish; he then wished for God to strike him blind in one eye.
And the Lord wept.
Sometimes it is a little easier to point things out with humor than it is to just come right out and say it. But often the human condition is such that our own greed and prideful nature gets in the way of an honest and open relationship with our God. We value possessions, we value our accomplishments, we value our status and education far more than we value our relationship with God. That is why I think we have this parable backwards.
Let’s look again at this parable and consider honestly if the shepherd in this story really represents God as you understand God. In the opening verse of this parable it is announced that God will leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness. In the first place, I don’t think any level headed shepherd would do such a thing, let alone God. Not to mention that God should have the ability to be all places simultaneously, so leaving the 99 sheep unattended should not be necessary, if you are God. Further, it is my belief that God treats all of God’s children equally; it is not in the nature of God, as I understand God, for God to be reckless in the care of 99 children while God is occupied searching for just one. The metaphor does not make sense. In this opening verse of the parable, God is proven to be a poor shepherd.
From a practical understanding of God, we have always been taught that God sees all and God knows all and it is impossible to hide anything from God. Does this sound like a familiar teaching to you? Isn’t that sort of the image of God that you grew up with? A God who knows every move you make? With that basic concept of God, does is strike anyone else as strange that God could lose something and have to go search for it? Can any one of us become so elusive that God would have to search for us? It strikes me as highly unlikely.
After the sheep is found, the parable tells us that God then celebrates with friends and exclaims the sheep that was lost has been found. Even understanding that a parable is metaphor, it is hard for me to imagine who the friends and neighbors are of God. I suppose if we believe that God is a being of some sort, and that being is surrounded by other beings that are angels and archangels and God gathers all these beings together for a celebration about a lost sheep. If you want to interpret the parable with God as the shepherd that seems to be the image you are left with.
None of this makes any sense to me. I understand the basic principle of the parable is that we are to understand that God seeks us out and wants to be in relationship with us. But the troublesome images of this parable lead me to the conclusion that when Jesus told the parable, he may have meant something entirely different. My impression of Jesus is that he was far too spiritually connected to just let some of these troubled spots slide. I think we have gotten it wrong all this time.
Remember the story of the farmer I told a few minutes ago? This story points out that we as human beings can at times have trouble with our pride and our possessions getting in the way of more important issues. We all know people who allow work and making a living interfere with family and their own personal spirituality. Some of us may have experienced that ourselves.
What I would like for you to think about is this; consider this parable from the perspective that we are the shepherd and God is the lost sheep. In this parable the 99 sheep represent the fruits of the labor of the shepherd. The 99 sheep represent our worldly possessions and those things we have worked for our entire lives. If finding God, or connecting to God, or finding our life’s purpose in God means leaving the 99 possessions in the wilderness, we should be willing to do that in order to find God. Not the other way around.
Not to mention, when we do find God, we are not to stay quiet about it. Rather we are to gather our friends and neighbors and tell everyone to rejoice with me, because I have found a connection to the Divine that works for me!
To turn the tables on this parable makes a lot of sense to me. I cannot accept that we are ever lost from God. It is one of my foundational beliefs that God is always present and God is always with us; we can never be separated from God and therefore can never be lost from God.
On the same topic but from a different perspective, I also believe it is more than possible, perhaps even likely, that God can be lost from us. Without the presence of knowing, or acknowledging an existence, God is often overlooked, not thought about and in essence lost from our consciousness. In the same way we don’t think much about beating our own hearts or growing our fingernails and yet it happens. The process of beating our hearts is lost to us most of the time, we don’t think about it. In the same way, the presence of God is like a lost sheep that we forget to think about, we forget to acknowledge. This happens in part because we become focused on the other 99 things which draw our attention away from the Divine Spirit that resides within.
Are you willing to leave the 99 things in the wilderness and seek the presence of God?
Go in peace. Amen.