Why is Jesus more than a shepherd?

Jesus was often accused of hanging out with those who were considered sinners, and on one occasion when the religious elite were berating Jesus for welcoming and eating with undesirables, he told them this parable:

“If any of you had a flock of a hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go and search for the one that’s lost until you found it? And when you’d found it, wouldn’t you happily carry it home on your shoulders? And when you got home, wouldn’t you call your friends and neighbours and say to them, ‘I’m throwing a party because I’ve found my lost sheep!’ In the same way, there’s more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and turns back to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!”

It all sounds perfectly reasonable does it not? Like us, the religious elite would have made the connection between the shepherd and God. After all, the shepherd had long been used as a metaphor for God in Jewish scripture. Therefore, the parable tells us something about what God does — that God seeks out the sinner to bring her or him home. However, the parable would have left Jesus’ listeners with their jaws dropped and mouths agape, and they would have been shocked for three reasons.

Firstly, it is unlikely a shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep vulnerable and alone in the wilderness to go off and find one that had gone astray. Secondly, you might lead a sheep by a piece of rope or prod it in the right direction with a stick, but it is unlikely you put a dirty, smelly sheep on your shoulders and carry it home. And finally, you might mention it in passing conversation, but it is unlikely you would throw a party for your neighbours and friends to celebrate!

Jesus, telling this story was communicating something important about the very character of God. The thought of a holy, righteous God, risking everything for the lost, losing all pride, coming down to our level, carrying us, and partying hard when someone who is lost returns to him, would have been anathema to his pious, law-keeping listeners, however, to the broken, the marginalised, the hurting, and the lost, it would have been music to their ears!

Jesus, “being in very nature God”, modelled the very character of God that he described in this parable. He was, in telling this story, communicating to his listeners that he, himself, was the shepherd God — the God that takes risks; the God that descends to our level to rescue us; the God that carries us home on his shoulders; the God that throws a party to celebrate.

When God looks at humanity he makes no distinction. In a flock of sheep there is no social hierarchy, no difference in age, race, or gender, no distinction between the rich and the poor. Anyone — any one of us — can be lost, waiting to be found by God, and carried home.

Jesus calls us to follow him and be his disciples. He calls us to copy him — to love others as he first loved us. It is very easy to stay with a particular flock and to associate only with those with which we identify — those who in our eyes are delectable, acceptable, and respectable. To reach out to those with whom we do not identify — the undesirable, objectionable, and invisible — means stepping out of our comfort zone. To identify with them means to rub shoulders with them. To bring them home means to welcome and accept them.

Today, if you are reading this and you have been marginalised, belittled, ostracised, or left out in the cold; if you have made mistakes, hurt others, or hurt yourself; if you have walked away from relationships, said harsh words, or behaved badly; if you are continually hijacked by inappropriate or disturbing thoughts, desires, or feelings; if you feel undeserving, a lack of self-worth, or that you are unlovable; then hear the message of Jesus — that God loves you, has come to you, and wants you to find your home in him.

Amen.