I am, maybe, unusual these days in that I actually know a shepherd. I know him quite well because he’s a member of our church family. I can imagine him, as the night falls, striding his way over the Hampshire downs to find that lost sheep.
This is one of Jesus’s most instantly accessible analogies - the vulnerability of the animal and the tenderness of the shepherd evoke an instant and glitteringly clear picture of the sort of God we can know - one who loves us.
But look at the context - Jesus is not giving a sermon to the converted. He’s talking to “tax collectors and sinners”. Yet again, Jesus is taking the love of God out of the establishment and into the lives of those on the margins of society and the outcasts.
Here is a message for those of us who may drift towards Churchianity, rather than Christianity. Are we geared up just for the “99” or are we ready, too, for the lost to come in?
Are we ready for the homeless, the addicted, the abused, the released prisoner, the refugee, the atheist, the abandoned single parent?
I think there’s often a danger that non-churchy people will be threatened or turned off by the neck ties and pretty frocks, the formality of the building and (in some cases) the impenetrable nature of the liturgy.
The church is learning, I think, that authenticity and obedience to Jesus’ message are found, not in holding up a mirror to remind people of their own perceived inadequacies and failings, but by offering a sanctuary where there is an emotional openness within a judgment free zone where people can encounter Jesus and His radical, transformative love for them.
Make me accepting of others not like me. Open my heart to others who are seeking you, around whom I may feel uncomfortable. Show me what we share, not where we differ.
1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 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 neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.