THE LOST SHEEP
Peter: For God’s sake, Jesus, open your eyes! Can’t you see?... Matthew has been sold to the Romans, a bootlicker of Herod!
Jesus: Matthew is a man, Peter, like you and me.
James: Damn that man and damn you, too! Matthew is a traitor. Tax collectors are traitors, and they gotta be crushed like serpents!
Peter, James and I stayed with Jesus at the wharf’s inn beside the lake. The night before, Jesus was in the house of Matthew, the tax collector of Capernaum, and had dinner with him.
John: Haven’t you noticed that this guy, Matthew, is always alone as if he were a leper? No one in the city wants to be with him or go near him.
Peter: And you know why? Because he stinks and you can smell him miles away.
John: Is he the kind you want in the group, Jesus? What’s it that you really want?
James: I agree with Andrew. If this good-for-nothing creature joins the group, then I’m goin’. I don’t wanna be with traitors.
Peter: Neither do I. May the One in heaven cut off my balls if someday I betray my kind!
Jesus: I wouldn’t say that you are a traitor, Peter. Who doesn’t know that Matthew is a traitor to the country? But probably, we can all reform Matthew.
John: “Probably... probably...” And what could be worse is that he may spill the beans and get us all killed on account of your imprudence! I’m sorry, Jesus. You’re not gifted with political talent. You don’t even have a sense of smell. No one ever puts a wolf in the midst of sheep.
Jesus: Who ever told you Matthew is a wolf? Wolves are different, John. Matthew used to be like us. I know he’s a crook now. But still, he ain’t no wolf.
Peter: Oh really? Who then is the wolf?
Jesus: I dunno; but when I saw Matthew seated at that stall, alone with inkstain and half drunk.... I remembered an ancient story told to me by Joachim when I was a li’l boy in Nazareth....
Joachim: There was once a shepherd with a hundred sheep. When the sun rose in the morning the shepherd would get up and lead his flock to the mountain where there was greener grass and cooler water... All his sheep were strong, healthy, clean and well-taken care of, except one who was sickly at birth and had one leg shorter than the others. This sheep was always left behind because she was limping. Ever since she was born she was despised and ignored by everyone. No one ever played or ate with her. Nobody even went near her. She was always alone... One day, as the shepherd and his flock were going to the mountain, it began to rain... The shepherd started to run and his sheep ran after him to return to the fold. The sick sheep tried to run too, imitating her companions, but she couldn’t keep up. She would trip, then would rise again, and would fall again... The shepherd and his flock lost their way at the turn of the road. The lightning flashed and the fog blurred the way. The weak sheep got lost, and dragged her lame leg looking for her companions’ tracks. But the water washed away the road and she didn’t know where she was nor which way to follow. She went to and fro and was getting drenched in the rain, and got farther and farther away from the rest. It was getting dark... Meanwhile, the shepherd, followed by his flock, reached the fold. He always made them pass through the hole so he could count them one by one...
Shepherd: “...95...96...97...98...99... What happened? I’m missin’ one sheep. This can’t be. Maybe I counted wrong...”
Joachim: And he counted again...
Shepherd: “...95...96...97...98...99...there are only 99 of them! I’m missin’ one sheep! Maybe it’s the sick and limping one... Good Lord, where could this poor creature have strayed?”
Joachim: The other shepherds told him, “Hey, don’t worry about her. She’s sick and can’t walk. She’s of no use to you. Let her sleep in the open air, or just leave her to the wolves...” Evening came, and the lame sheep, alone and lost, continued to go to and from the mountain. She cried but no one responded. She cried louder and louder, but alone in the mountains all she could hear from afar was the howling of hungry wolves... The lost sheep got very scared. She ran without knowing where to go and fell into a ravine... She rolled over sharp rocks doing somersaults, sliding down below where the earth was muddy. She was beginning to sink... The shepherd was lying on his straw mat and keeping warm. He tried to sleep, but in vain; he was thinking of his lost sheep.
Shepherd: “...Mmm... What a time to get lost on a bad night like this!... Why does she always have to be the last? Uff... well, what can we do? She asked for it, let her come out of it. I am going to sleep.”
Joachim: The sheep with the broken leg still had a spark of life in her. As she exerted her last effort to get out of the ravine she sank even more. The mud was slowly swallowing her... In the warmth of his hut, the shepherd finally fell asleep... And while he was sleeping peacefully the lost sheep went down, down the dark ravine. The mud covered her mouth and her whole body. She could neither shout nor move. She was dead.
Peter: What happened afterwards?
Jesus: Nothing. That’s the end of the story.
Jesus: Yes, the story’s finished.
Peter: But why should it end that way, Jesus?... What did the shepherd do?... He let her die?
Jesus: Well, the shepherd did what he could...
Peter: What he could! Tell me why he didn’t look for the sheep...
Jesus: That’s easier said than done, Peter, to go out in the middle of the night during a storm....
John: Hell, he should’ve covered himself with a cloak!
Jesus: What about the other sheep, huh? He had to watch over his flock....
Peter: The good-for-nothing was sleeping!
Jesus: He had to take care of the ninety-nine sheep...
John: Bah, they could’ve been left alone. Didn’t you say they were healthy and strong? But the poor, helpless sheep...
Jesus: Well John, neither is she worth much. After all, she’s only one...
John: No, no, no, it’s not fair that way, Jesus. That story of yours has left a lump in my throat. I hate the ending.
Peter: So do I.
Jesus: I don’t understand you guys, because that’s just how you wanted the story to end....
Peter: We? But you were the one who told us the story, dammit!
Jesus: No, you did. You John, and you too, Peter. So did you, red hair! Fortunately, God has given it another ending. Yes, God tells us the story in a different way. Listen... Once, when the shepherd reached the fold, he began to count his sheep...
Shepherd: ...95...96...97...98...99... Well, well, I’m missin’ one sheep. I gotta go and look for it right away!
Joachim: But his companions told him: “How can you go out in this kind of weather?... There’s a heavy downpour out... It’s already night. You won’t be able to find her. Anyway, she’s only one. Are you going to leave the ninety-nine behind for this one?...” But the shepherd ignored them, took his staff, put on his cloak and hurriedly left in the midst of darkness to look for the sick and stray sheep...
Shepherd: Starlight!... Starlight, where are you?! Starlight!
Joachim: He called her by her name. He ran from one side to another, went up and down the hill shouting at the top of his voice until he was hoarse... He didn’t mind the rain, the cold of the night nor his weariness... He was only thinking of his sheep who was in danger. He had to find her before it was too late...
Shepherd: Starlight!... Where are you? Starlight!
Joachim: After having looked everywhere there was hardly a tinge of hope left in him, when he heard a bleating from afar... Yes, he knew that voice... Of course, he knew it was her!
Shepherd: Starlight! Starlight!
Joachim: It was his sheep, and she was alive!... The shepherd rushed down to the bottom of the ravine and took the sheep... she was out of danger! He then carried her on his shoulders, covered her with his cloak and returned her to his fold. He bandaged her wounds and lay her beside her sisters on the warm straw mat. That night, the shepherd was so happy that he woke his neighbors up...
Shepherd: My friends, I have found my sheep! I have found my sheep! She was lost and almost dead... But I have found her! Rejoice with me, my friends! Come, let’s all drink to this... I want everybody to be happy tonight!
John: Well, that’s better, dammit. But tell me...
James: ...Tell me, Jesus, after all is said and done, what’s the purpose of your story, huh?
Jesus: I dunno, James... Sometimes... sometimes I think God will be happier to see a lost soul like Matthew goin’ back to Him and changin’ his ways, than to see the ninety-nine whom we believe to be good and just.
Six centuries earlier, the prophet Ezekiel wrote in his book: “Thus says the Lord: my flock is astray and there is no one to take care of them. That’s why I am here. I myself will take care of my flock and watch over them. I shall take them from places where they go astray on cloudy and foggy days. I shall look for the lost sheep and bring back the stray ones, cure wounds and heal the sick. I shall lead everyone to the path of justice.”
Jesus’ friendship with Matthew, the tax collector, creates the first serious conflict in the apostolic group. The other disciples do not know how to interpret such a gesture.
If the gospel calls for a radical equality among people, it will necessarily provoke conflict in society and even within the same Christian community. It is difficult to eliminate such prejudices, to accept the other person as a brother or sister, and to overcome all types of discrimination. This is a long process and sometimes, a painful one. Even if properly channeled, these pressures may give way to a real crisis of growth and maturity within the community.
The parable of the lost sheep is one in which Jesus wants to explain what God is like.
At the outset it is surprising that Jesus compares God’s feeling and attitude with those of a shepherd. Together with the tax collectors and others of despicable occupation (usurers, money-changers, etc.), the shepherds were known as people of ill-repute during Jesus’ time and were undoubtedly considered among the “sinners.” They were suspected of pasturing their flocks in other people’s fields and were believed to be involved in much cheating and stealing.
Up to the present, it is the custom in Palestine for the shepherd to count the flock at dusk before putting them into the fold to ensure that no animal was lost. The shepherd in Jesus’ story has 100 sheep. For those familiar with those times, this flock was of average importance. Among the Bedouins the flocks would ordinarily number between 20 and 200 animals consisting of sheep or goats. A herd of 100 sheep was exclusively tended by only one shepherd who, because of his economic situation, could not afford to hire anyone to help him.
On the whole, the data of the evangelical text and the particular detail of a shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders makes one think that the sheep was an especially weak animal. This is basic in the narration in order to get a picture Jesus makes of God: it is not the worth of the animal which compels the shepherd to look for her. It is enough that the sheep is his own and he loves her for her being handicapped. He also knows her; he is aware that the sheep cannot find her way alone. The good shepherd – says Jesus on one occasion – knows each of his sheep and calls each one by its name (Jn 10:1-21). This parable deals essentially with God’s feeling – the joy of recovering the lost one. Such a feeling of joy will be fully manifest at the end of the story when the day of reckoning comes. God will be happier to announce the salvation of “one lost soul” than that of the many just ones. It hurts to see these erring ones all alone by themselves and being despised all their lives, but Jesus will be immensely happy to have them beside him. Jesus speaks of a joy defining God: that of salvation and forgiveness. He acts in the same manner as God who has a preference for the weak and the despised. We see God in Jesus’ words and works. The whole of Christian Theology is embodied in this...
Jesus compares God to a shepherd and says the same of himself. In the gospel of John, Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd. Such analogies have a lot of antecedents in the Old Testament. The text of the prophet Ezekiel (34: 1-31) announcing the Messianic times is the most direct source of Jesus’ being inspired by this parable. The image of the shepherd carrying his lost sheep on his shoulders is strongly emphasized by Jesus to his apostles. This, together with the fish and the bread, is also the most frequently-used symbol of the first Christians. We find this image of the Good Shepherd in sculptures, sepulchers, altars and catacomb walls where the persecuted Christians gathered to pray and celebrate their faith.
(Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:3-7)