Jesus begins his parable with a question:
“What man among you
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
Jesus is being his usual tricky self here,
making it sound as if what he is proposing
is obviously reasonable,
when in fact nobody with an ounce of shepherding sense
would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the desert
in order to look for a single missing one.
Even the most basic form of risk assessment
would tell you that this is a very, very, very bad idea.
We find a version of this parable
in the second-century document
known as the Gospel of Thomas,
which tries to make this very, very, very bad idea
sound a bit more reasonable
by noting that the lost sheep is the largest of the flock,
and also by having the shepherd tell the sheep when he finds it,
“I love you more than the ninety-nine” (logion 107),
suggesting that this is somehow a very special sheep.
But the parable as we find it in Sacred Scripture
gives no such indication, makes no such excuse
for the shepherd’s professional irresponsibility.
The only thing special about the sheep is that it is lost
and the other ninety-nine are not.
We might forgive the author of the Gospel of Thomas
for trying to make Jesus’ parable
a little less offensive to common sense,
a little less foolish.
But honesty requires that we recognize
that if we measure the shepherd’s behavior
by our ordinary human standards
it really doesn’t make much sense.
This is why the fifth century bishop Peter Chrysologus,
who perhaps knew something about actual shepherding,
noted, “This story…speaks of no earthly shepherd
but of a heavenly one,
and far from being a portrayal of human activity,
this whole parable conceals divine mysteries” (Sermon 168).
It is not a lesson in animal husbandry
but in the mystery of divine love:
a love that might seem foolish by human standards,
a love that squanders security on a risky venture,
a love that favors the lost one,
no matter how seemingly unimportant that lost one is.
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
the God who, our second reading tells us,
“came into the world to save sinners.”
Jesus presents the shepherd’s foolish action
as if it were completely reasonable
because, as St. Paul says,
the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25).
For most of us today, parables about shepherds
might not seem to have much in the way
of immediate relevance.
Perhaps if we want to grasp the reckless foolishness
of divine love seeking the lost one
we need new parables.
On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001,
I cannot help but think
of those first responders in New York,
police and firefighters,
who ran back into the burning, collapsing towers
to try to bring out those who were lost
within an inferno that fear and hatred had created.
Over four hundred of them lost their lives that day
in what some might call an act of heroism,
but which others might see
as a foolish and reckless mission
with little or no hope of success.
But we who seek to be followers of Jesus
ought to see in their actions
neither pointless sacrifice
nor even mere heroic bravery
but a parable of God made flesh in Jesus,
the divine lover who comes to seek the lost one,
even at the cost of his own life.
For we believe that in Jesus Christ
God ran headlong into the inferno of our world,
an inferno kindled by sin’s fear and hatred
and within which we were lost.
He took upon himself the suffering of the cross
in order to find us
in the midst of the world’s pain and chaos
and to bring us forth
into the dawning light of his resurrection.
And through the grace of his Sprit Jesus continues
to enter into the disasters of our lives—
the disaster we make by our choices
or which fortune forces upon us—
to find us and bring us home to God.
Into the pain and chaos and tragedy of my life
Jesus comes to rescue me:
not because I am the best,
not because I am special,
but simply because I am lost.
Both the reckless shepherd of whom Jesus speaks
and the heroic first responders of September 11th
should be parables to us
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love
that God has for the lost one,
the love that led Jesus
through the cross to the resurrection.
But the shepherd,
the heroes of 9/11,
and the cross of Christ
should also stand as a challenge to us:
in coming to seek us in our lostness,
in bringing us out
into the light of his resurrection,
Jesus calls and empowers us with his Spirit
to become sharers in his ministry of reconciliation.
He calls us to seek the lost one,
even if our efforts seem unlikely
to yield success as the world sees it.
He calls us to enter into
the inferno of fear and hatred
that sin has made of our world,
with faith that the grace of God
will find a way to use us
to speak a word of hope,
to perform an act of love,
to risk opening up our lives
so that we become parables
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love of God.