The lost sheep
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).
Like many others, the story of the lost sheep has always fascinated me. I fondly remember when picture roll aids were introduced in Papua New Guinea many years ago, how I would intently gaze upon the Harry Anderson painting of Jesus Christ seeking the lost sheep that was entangled, trapped between a shrub and the sleep rocky mountain.
It begs the question, “what man of you . . . is like this Shepherd?”
It wasn’t until recently that a preacher at our local church shared the story of a prince in the Bible that further enlightened me on the love of God as expressed in this parable.1
Unlike Australia and New Zealand, the rest of the Pacific has very little to no sheep. Christ told this parable to a crowd that saw, knew and looked after sheep. It was all too common to see sheep and shepherds, and easy to imagine the personal relationship that exists between a shepherd and his flock.
Sheep, as we in the Pacific can only read about, are vulnerable and helpless against attacks. Unlike other forms of livestock, their safety is entirely dependent on someone outside of themselves—a shepherd. The shepherd’s vital and intimate role is to defend, protect and lead the flock of sheep to graze and drink along their journey. An interesting fact worth noting is that the sheep intimately know the voice of their shepherd,2 even at a well where various flocks converge to drink. Hearing a call from their shepherd, an almost supernatural phenomena unfold: each sheep heeds the distinct voice of its overseer and follows accordingly.
The Good Shepherd
There is a “Good Shepherds Hall of Fame” throughout the Bible. The inductees are men and women who have demonstrated the self-sacrificing love and character of God in their humble and faithful duties as shepherds. Jacob, Joseph, Rachel, Moses and David, to name just a few, were entrusted sheep under their care.
Of course, Christ titled Himself “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-16). “As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day” (Ezekiel 34:12).
From the life of the sweet singer of Israel, we learn more clearly of the Lord as our Shepherd and Provider.3 The parable of the lost sheep then is graphically played out in the story of a prince who was “lost” and found.
David the shepherd
During his early years as a shepherd, David was taught by God the lessons of self-forgetfulness in caring for sheep so that he could be a man after God’s own heart.
“The Lord has chosen David, and was preparing him in his solitary life with his flocks, for the work He designed to commit to his trust in after years.”4
When David was drawn in tender love and favour toward the house of Saul, Jonathan the Prince of Israel, in particular, showed ultimate self-abnegation and preference towards David. Thus, a solemn vow between the two friends, between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin was forged, which lasted even after the division of the kingdom in the time of Rehoboam, son of King Solomon.
The special prince
After the kingdom was settled under David and he had rested from his battles, he remembered God’s kindness to him and enquired if there was anyone left from the house of Saul (2 Samuel 9:1). There was a son of his friend Jonathan, a prince named Mephibosheth. He was lame. David ordered Mephibosheth be fetched immediately from his caretakers and brought to him.
Upon arriving at the palace to meet the King, Mephibosheth’s striking response is very similar to what a lost sheep might say, if it could speak: “What is your servant, that you should look upon such a dead dog as I?” (2 Samuel 9:8).
As a dead dog or lost sheep, Mephibosheth considers himself unworthy of all the effort that has gone into finding him—the favour bestowed on him, singled out by the King and furthermore, that his special condition could be accommodated—all by someone who he may have, up to that point, considered an enemy.
This man eats with sinners
“So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem: for he ate continually at the king’s table. And he was lame in both his feet” (2 Samuel 9:13). What a special privilege it was to dine with the King as one of his own sons!
When David records his encounter with the Lord, describing God as his own Shepherd, he describes how God has prepared a table for him, even when enemies are there (Psalm 23:5).
The joy that floods the heart of God when one sinner repents is immeasurable. However, when Christ tells the story, He was contrasting this image of the joy in heaven with the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees who accused Jesus of receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2).
So the question beckons again, “What man of you . . . ?”
The parable is the first of a trilogy of lost entities: a lost coin representing those who are in the house of God, but are lost in the crowd without knowing it and need to be cleansed and have dust shaken off them so their potential and true value are realised; a lost son who knowingly believes in the love of his father, and finally returns after waking up to himself, despite a time of prodigal living.
The lost sheep however, represents those who know they have lost their way, and like Mephibosheth, are hanging onto hope, that someone, who is as loving and caring as Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd, just might make the extra effort, maybe through the dark night, at the peril of his life and even at the expense of the other 99 who depend on him, to bring salvation.
A distinct order of sheep
Just as every sheep is special in the sight of the shepherd, every child of Adam is unique and precious to the loving Creator. The human family is extra special since it came from the hand of God as a new and distinct order:
“All heaven took a deep and joyful interest in the creation of the world and of man. Human beings were a new and distinct order. They were made ‘in the image of God,’ and it was the Creator’s design that they should populate the earth.”5
So the question lingers, “What man of you . . . ?” Only the Creator of a special order of beings, His dear children, could “so love the world” that in choosing between the 99, and going further, “He gave His only begotten Son” so that “whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Songwriter Elizabeth Clephane’s classic hymn, “The Ninety and Nine”, is an old-time favourite account of the lost sheep. The hymn closes with these jubilant words:
“And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
“Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”
“Likewise, joy shall be in heaven” (Luke 15:7). Fortunately for us, the Bible does not tell of an unhappy and scornful Shepherd.
What man of you?
Finally, the question is be settled with each of us today; “what man of you . . . after all that the Lord has done for you, are willing to deny oneself, take up your cross and follow Him?”
There can never be any other way! For the work of the Master must be ever carried forward in the spirit of the Master. May the love of Christ continue to compel us!6
Russell Woruba is technical lead at PNG Department of Information and Communications Technology.