I think God has a real heart for outcasts, and right now I’m not talking about the lost sheep in today’s story. I’m talking about shepherds. You might not be aware of this, but shepherds were not highly respected in the ancient Middle East. They were dirty, they were uncouth, and they were considered a very “low” occupation. But in spite of this, or maybe partially because of it, God held them to a place of honor. Of course, the two greatest leaders in the O.T., namely Moses and David, started out in the fields.
But the real kicker is the fact that God compares himself to a shepherd multiple times in Scripture. Of course you’re probably familiar with David’s 23rd Psalm, famous the world over. But the Psalms call God’s people “sheep” at least eight times besides there. The prophets also repeatedly quote God as dealing with his people as a shepherd, such as here. Ezekiel in particular predicted that, in stark contrast to the false shepherds (bad leaders) who'd come before, the Lord himself would come and be the good shepherd who'd be what they'd been waiting for. And the imagery just continues into the N.T. One of my favorite passages in John is where Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” obviously claiming that he’s fulfilling Ezekiel’s promises.
Why do I bring this up? Just to remind you that when God’s word calls us sheep who need a shepherd, it’s not a compliment. Quite frankly, sheep are just about the stupidest domesticated animal we have. As I mentioned in January, there’s a reason why they need constant oversight and protection. They tend to wander away from the herd and into situations they can’t get themselves out of, like off a cliff or into a brier patch. My favorite anecdote is that they’ve been known to drown because they literally are too stupid to come in from the rain. And they have no natural defenses against predators, so they’re an easy mark.
That’s why they--and we--need Someone greater than ourselves to rescue us, the point of today’s story. With many Middle Eastern shepherds, their animals weren’t just a source of meat or wool. The sheep weren’t numbered—they were named. The shepherd would regularly have a headcount so that he would quickly know who was missing. And just like the story says, the moment he realizes that one is missing, he'd spring into action, leaving the rest to go find it. Can you imagine him, calling the sheep’s name, frantically searching for this animal like it was a lost child?
Oh, what a beautiful image when he finds it! He puts it on his shoulders and carries it all the way home. When he makes it there, he calls his buddies and tells them there’s going to be a celebration.
By the way, this parable really illustrates the limits of such stories to teach us. Parables are not allegories, and they have one—or at the most a couple or three—points to make. They’re not meant to teach a comprehensive view of God or anything else. For example, does the Lord really leave behind (or neglect) some of his established children in order to go after that one who’s missing? Really? I don’t think so. The story mentions this in order to hit home just how important that lost sheep is to its owner, and how important the lost are to God.
There are two more things I’d like to bring to your notice regarding this passage. One, it presents a wonderful image of the lengths our Savior God will go to in order to bring us back to himself. That shepherd went all over the countryside, and he wasn’t going to quit until he brought that sheep home on his shoulders. This is a pattern that goes back all the way to the Fall of our first parents, as recorded in Genesis. They disobeyed his express command, and he didn’t wait for them to come to him to confess. No, he sought them out and chased them down with his indefatigable desire to redeem and restore.
I’d also like to remind you that our Shepherd had to do a lot more than just find us and carry us home on his shoulders, as he himself reminds us in John's Gospel. No, our Shepherd laid down his life for us. It cost him his very blood to bring us into his fold. Aren’t you glad he did?
Lord Jesus, even though I’m one of your sheep and I belong to you, I still tend to wander away from you. Please bring me back when I need it, and do whatever it takes to keep me close by your side.
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