The lost sheep. Now, there’s a nice story, and a familiar one too. I expect most of us first heard it when we were children. No collection of children’s Bible stories would be complete without it, usually illustrated with a rather syrupy picture of a kindly shepherd carrying a fluffy lamb on his shoulders across a flower-strewn meadow.
It seems such a simple story, but I wonder whether we really understand it as well as we think. I wonder whether we hear it in the way that Jesus’ first hearers would have done.
Very few of us, I’m guessing, have any serious experience of farming. To most of us, sheep are just endearing creatures we like to get a glimpse of on a country walk, symbols of a pastoral idyll. They aren’t a familiar part of our everyday lives. It is very easy for us to have sentimental picture of them. But Jesus was speaking to people who knew about sheep, who kept them and depended on them. I’m sure they cared about their welfare, and felt sorry when they were in pain; but they weren’t pets. They were their livelihood, their clothing and, yes, their food too. When Jesus tells a story about sheep he knows that.
To them, this man who goes to look for his lost sheep wouldn’t have done so primarily out of sentiment. It’s not that this was a particularly cute sheep, one that he was especially fond of. He searches for it because it represents a significant proportion of his wealth. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t describe him as the shepherd; he describes him as the owner – one who “has a hundred sheep”. Each one of these sheep is a valuable asset to him - not just in emotional terms, but in hard financial terms too. He can’t afford to lose one. He is even prepared to put the other ninety nine at risk – leaving them in the wilderness – to fetch this one back. That doesn’t seem very sensible if he really wants to protect his property; maybe he will come back to find that they have all wandered off too, but finding this one sheep, who he knows is in trouble now is worth that risk. If he has to rescue the rest later he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it, but he can’t just shrug his shoulders and say “ easy come; easy go – one sheep here or there will make no difference.”
The second story Jesus tells makes the same point, but it makes it even more clearly. A woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and she turns the house upside down to find it. Finding that coin was vital to her. These coins were probably the only money she possessed in her own right. They were her insurance against disaster. They might, one day, be all that stood between her and starvation. Of course she looked for the one she’d lost.
Jesus puts these stories in the form of questions. “Which one of you, wouldn’t go and look for the sheep you’d lost?” “What woman wouldn’t sweep every corner of the house to find that stray coin?” They sound like rhetorical questions, ones he doesn’t expect an answer to, but I wonder what happens when we actually try to answer them. Think about it. What kind of person wouldn’t bother to search for these lost things?
The answer is, “Someone who felt they didn’t really need them. Someone who had plenty more where they came from and simply wouldn’t miss them.”
We accumulate a lot of lost property here in church – glasses, watches, pens, gloves and umbrellas. They sit at the back there waiting for their owners to reclaim them, but often no one ever does. Why? Presumably because it’s not worth the effort to them. They’ve got another umbrella at home, they didn’t really ever like those glasses anyway. If it is something that’s really important to them, though – the camera with the irreplaceable wedding photos on it – you can be sure they will be in touch very quickly.
The truth is that if something matters enough to us we’ll shift heaven and earth to find it again. It’s only the things we think are expendable, disposable, easily replaceable, which are unclaimed. “Which one of you,” asks Jesus “ wouldn’t go and look for something you’d lost?” The one who doesn’t care whether they get it back or not. The one who thinks they can get along fine without that sheep, that coin, thank you very much.
It’s not like that for the people in Jesus stories, though. The sheep farmer needs that lost sheep. The woman needs that missing coin. And God, says Jesus to the Pharisees, needs those tax-collectors and sinners whom they have been so quick to reject. He needs them to be part of his kingdom, just as much as he needs the Pharisees. He needs them because they have something to give. They are of value. It’s not just that God feels sorry for them, but that without them his kingdom will be missing something it needs to have. He can’t build it just with the respectable and righteous – or those who think they are. It won’t be complete. It will have gaping holes in it. There is something which these tax-collectors and sinners bring which is essential to the whole.
That was shocking to the Pharisees, it may seem pretty strange to us too, but I am sure it is true. And I think it is as just as important for us to hear this message as it was for them.
Most people’s lives run into difficulties sooner or later, whether through their own fault or because of something that happens to them. Like that lost sheep we feel isolated, confused, vulnerable. But one of the hardest things to deal with in that situation is often the sense that you haven’t got anything to give anymore, nothing that people want anyway.
Once, people sought you out, wanted to be with you, wanted your skills or your opinions, but now it is as if you are irrelevant to them. They might feel sorry for you and want to help you get back on your feet out of compassion for you, but they don’t seem to need you. The space you used to occupy in your workplace or your family or your social network closes over as if you were never there.
Yet my experience, at least, tells me that often those who have gone through those dark times have gifts to give that are unique and precious. Speaking as someone who’s been through divorce I know that the people who helped me most in that time were those who had been there too. The least helpful advice came from the happily married. It wasn’t their fault. They meant well, but what did they know of the landscapes I was going through?
I recall too, a man who phones for a chat now and then, whom I met first during my ministry in Gosport. He’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, from an appalling family background in a rough part of Glasgow. When I first met him he was a homeless drunk who used to turn up in local churches begging for money. But about twelve years ago he hit rock bottom and with a lot of help from Alcoholics Anonymous he came off the booze and drugs and has stayed sober ever since. I met him again not long after this turn around, in the local supermarket where he was working as a bag packer and after that we often had little pastoral chats over the frozen peas. Eventually these developed into a regular times together when he’d come to talk to me about his life . He’s stayed in touch as I have moved around, and I can honestly say that he is one of the bravest and most inspiring people I have ever met. It’s not a rags-to-riches fairy tale with everyone living happily ever after. His substance abuse has permanently damaged his health and he struggles with all sorts of physical and mental problems. Often he isn’t well enough to work, but he carries on getting up in the morning, doing what he can for himself and for others. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like much of a life to me, but he’s enormously grateful for what he has. He’s had to reflect deeply on himself in order to find the strength he needs to keep going and whenever we talk I come away feeling richer, knowing that I have been on the receiving end of something very precious and very holy. He is a man whose wisdom and gentleness shines out through the cracks in his life like a beacon – it is a real privilege to know him. But to many others, I’m sure that he must seem like just another welfare-dependent drain on society, someone to feel sorry for, but not someone who has anything much to give to the world. How wrong they are!
The Pharisees in today’s Gospel story, says Jesus, aren’t just behaving callously towards certain sections of their society. They are also missing out on some of God’s greatest gifts, the treasures he wants them to have, and they are missing out on finding God’s own presence too. After all, where is God in these stories? He’s not on the hillside with the good sheep, he’s out there hanging off the edge of the cliff with the one who has strayed. He’s not sitting in the front parlour quietly counting the coins he knows he still has; he’s in some dark and forgotten corner of the house amid the dust and the cobwebs looking for the one that has rolled away. If we want to be with him, to find him at work and to share in that work, then that’s where we need to start looking; in the dark and lost places of our own lives, and in the dark and lost places that others find themselves too.
God will go to any lengths to find us, even to the cross, even into the darkness of death, uncovering unexpected treasure where we just thought there was wasteland. Who knows what we are missing if we won’t go there with him?