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Matthew 18:10-14

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

     10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

     12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

This passage from Matthew is only a few verses long, but it seems to me that it makes a point that’s central to our understanding of our relationship with God in Jesus. And what’s more, I think it casts a helpful light on the actual intended meaning of one of the most beloved passages in the Old Testament.

This parable is a familiar one. Luke’s version appears in the fifteenth chapter of that gospel, as part of a collection of three parables about things that are lost, and then joyfully found. The others are the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son. Luke sets the scene for the parables by telling us that Jesus told them in response to criticism by the religious leadership that he was befriending people they considered especially sinful.

Which is why I say that this parable of the lost sheep is intended to help us come to a better understand of our relationship with God. And Jesus does that by using a metaphor that was widely used in Hebrew tradition to represent the religious leaders of the Jewish people – the metaphor of a shepherd.

That metaphor, of course, is one used by the most beloved of all the leaders of the Hebrew people as the heart of what became one of the most beloved passages in their scriptures: the twenty-third Psalm.

It’s still both familiar and beloved – among followers of Jesus as well as Jews. A veteran hospital chaplain once told me that when he was present with a Christian patient who was in a coma, he would often recite the 23rd Psalm aloud. He said that in a surprising number of cases, he would see the patient’s lips move. That’s how deeply ingrained this psalm is in our lives of faith. Just about everybody who participates in the Christian faith in any way – and even some people who haven’t been to church in years, for that matter – can recite the opening sentence of the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

But there’s an interesting wrinkle to the 23rd Psalm that some of you might remember hearing me raise in the past, one that arises out of the nature of the Hebrew language. In Hebrew, quite a few of the words and phrases have more than one meaning – they can be translated in more than one way. And in addition to its familiar form, the opening sentence of the 23rd Psalm can also be translated, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall never be allowed to get lost.”

Personally, I suspect that’s what the psalmist really had in mind when he wrote it. Because when you think about it, that might really be a better way to think about our relationship to God – as a God who never loses track of us. Because when Jesus talked about the Good Shepherd, he seemed to be saying that the most important trait of a good shepherd was that he refused to allow any of the sheep to get lost. And when a sheep did wander off, the good shepherd went after it, and kept on searching until he found it. And then he joyfully celebrated the return of that lost sheep.

It strikes me that’s one of the reasons this metaphor of God as our shepherd has traditionally had such resonance with believers – because we realize somehow that it  does kind of illustrate our relationship with God. Sheep are cute and huggable, but as anyone knows who has experience with them, they’re also kind of clueless to the point of being self-destructive. Sheep are easily frightened, and they tend to wander off. And when you think of it, you could say all those things about us. Spiritually, we can be dumb, we get spooked easily, and we tend to wander away from the path God sets out for us.

But with this parable, Jesus makes the point that God was so determined not to lose us that he took human form and came down into the wilderness of this world to bring us back to his flock. He never stops looking for us when we wander off, and one by one, he leads us back home, then joyfully celebrates our return. It’s a really moving illustration of God’s desire to be reconciled to us, don’t you think?

It seems to me this parable also raises a couple of other ideas that are important for followers of Jesus to keep in mind.

First of all, if it’s our master’s work to be tirelessly searching for lost sheep and leading them back to the fold, then it’s our work, too. Every person we know who is alienated from God is a lost sheep that Jesus died for. That would seem to mean that learning to help people learn that God loves them and is looking for them – well, that seems like it goes with the territory for followers of Jesus.

And furthermore, this parable seems to suggest that finding and leading home the lost will involve risk. And sacrifice. And work. Don’t forget that the shepherd leaves the comfort and safety of the flock and forges off into the unknown in the search of the lost sheep.

But the story also holds up the promise of sharing in the great joy of our God when we join him in the work of finding the lost. Because if we are faithful helpers in that process, helping to lead those who are lost back to the Good Shepherd who loves them, then we are contributing to the celebration God will have on their return.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that you have searched tirelessly for each of us in the times we have wandered away from your flock, and that you have celebrated our safe return. By your Spirit, move us to join eagerly in the work of helping you find those who are still lost, and make your love known to them. Amen.

Blessings,

Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 143 and 147:12-20; Nehemiah 9:1-25; Revelation 21:22-22:5; and Matthew 18:1-9.)