Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” 3So 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?” (Luke 15:1-4)
And He really had me up to that point …!
I love the way the Gospel writer introduces this episode in the life of Jesus. Jesus is hanging out with a group of persons of very dubious reputation and the religious authorities are understandably somewhat dismayed that a person with a reputation for holiness is rubbing shoulders with the riff-raff of their community.
I am sure it would be different if Jesus had simply been preaching at these people – telling them to put away the bottle and get proper jobs and learn to be responsible members of society, but the problem was that Jesus didn’t simply stand back and lecture these people but ate with them!
There’s a saying in Arabic that translates “how can you be my enemy when we have broken bread together”, and it is significant that Jesus, throughout the entire period of His earthly ministry, did not simply preach, lecture and teach people but also touched people, embraced people, and sat down and ate and drank with them.
“You can tell a man who drinks by the company he keeps”, or so the saying goes, and maybe that’s how Jesus got His reputation as a big drinker! Either way, Jesus didn’t seem to care much about His reputation and this confused people, and so He told them a story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep …”, and immediately Jesus loses me.
As I say, He really had me up to that point, but any story that begins “Which of you, having a hundred sheep” is not my story! I don’t have a hundred sheep. I’ve never had a hundred sheep. I never even owned one sheep, and I suspect that almost everybody else in our church falls into exactly this same category!
We are 21st century urban Australians. Our only point of contact with sheep is with our teeth. We know them only as food, and hence the prospect of one of them running off and disappearing is something completely alien to us.
Cicero said that the first rule of public speaking was to ‘render your audience benevolent’, and so we professional speakers do work hard at building rapport with our audiences.
I don’t begin my sermons with the address “Comrades!” (well … I don’t do it any more anyway, as it does tend to alienate some people). For the same reason, I do my best to avoid filling my sermons with boxing analogies (I do my best, OK!).
I’m not suggesting that it’s Jesus’ fault that the story He tells isn’t a good fit with our congregation, but it does remind us that Jesus was address a very different sort of audience when He first told this story. Jesus pulls a narrative straight out of the farming life of 1st century Judea, and the experience of a 1st century Jewish farmer is not my experience.
Having said that, the only three groups of people explicitly mentioned as being a part of Jesus’ audience – Pharisees, Scribes and tax-collectors – were all middle-class professionals! They weren’t pastoralists either. Even so, the challenge for us here is to do our best to adopt the mindset of an ancient near-eastern shepherd for a few moments as we listen to Jesus’ story:
“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?”
Now, as I say, I am not an Ancient-Near Eastern Jewish farmer. Even so, I think I can safely assume a few things here:
Firstly, if you have a hundred sheep it’s because shepherding is your business. If you had one sheep it might be your pet. It might follow you to school each day, as Mary’s little lamb did, but if you have a hundred sheep it’s because your livelihood depends on them. This is not a hobby farm. You don’t raise sheep for the sheer joy of it! You are either going to shear these sheep and sell the wool or you’re going to sell the sheep themselves as mutton! Sheep is your business!
The second thing that seems obvious to me is that leaving ninety-nine of your sheep on their own while you go and search for one that has gone missing is not simply foolish but entirely irresponsible!
I note that Jesus highlights the extreme nature of His shepherd’s act by stating that the sheep are left “in the wilderness” rather than securely penned up somewhere or hidden in a cave. The shepherd leaves these defenceless creatures in the wilderness while he wanders off looking for the one that has gone astray.
“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?”
OK. I’m not an Ancient Near-Eastern shepherd, and I don’t pretend to have any intricate knowledge of the pastoral techniques of 1st century Jewish shepherds but I think that the answer to Jesus’ question is pretty clear nonetheless.
‘Which of you would do this?’ Jesus asks, and the answer is that nobody in their right mind would behave like that!
No shepherd then or now would put his or her entire flock at risk for the sake of one wayward lamb! It is neither sensible nor moral!
If sheep were your business, this would be a very sure-fire way of going out of business! And if you followed the pattern of Jesus’ shepherd in this day and age you’d probably also attract the attention of the RSPCA for the neglect shown to the vast majority of the animals that you were supposed to be in your care.
“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?”
“Absolutely none of us!” is the obvious answer.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” (Luke 15:8-9)
Now here we have a story that hits much closer to home. Indeed, I’ve known a number of people just like this!
They lose their precious coin and they have no idea where to find it, and that’s because it’s buried under a huge pile of newspapers and other clutter that the old dear has been hording ever since the Great Depression!
We had a number of dear souls in our parish who were just like that! They’ve all preceded us now into the great cloud of witnesses and I won’t mention them by name. Even so, you knew that whenever the church had a jumble sale they would be your most generous suppliers – bringing up trailer loads of junk that had been horded for years – and taking home afterwards an even bigger trailer-load of junk that would occupy the spaces left by the junk that had just been taken out! And coins would go missing, and coins would be found, and great would be the rejoicing!
‘What sort of woman would behave like that?’ Jesus asks, and the answer to his question is quite straightforward. It’s a woman with an obsessive compulsive disorder!
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:11-24)
The parallelism in the three stories is significant. The shepherd comes across as an idiot. The woman is a complete neurotic. The father could be described in both those ways.
From a logical point of view the father is an idiot. He takes his son back even though the boy has disrespected him, hurt him, abandoned him and betrayed him.
For some reason this father seems to care more about his tragic offspring than he does about his own good name. He’s a father who is less concerned with justice than he is with picking up the weaklings that nature in her wisdom had decided should perish! He’s a parent whose sentimental affection for his wayward child is so all-consuming that he seems to be incapable of just giving thanks for his remaining good children and getting on with life.
What sort of father is that? A senseless father – that’s the obvious answer – and we know that father, because we are that father.
Love is senseless – that seems to be the only conclusion we can reach.
St Paul didn’t list ‘senselessness’ in his list of the qualities of love – “love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or rude” (1 Corinthians 13) – but perhaps he should have added this one too: Love is senseless!
I’m reminded of an old Woody Allen joke about a guy who goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doctor, my flat-mate thinks he is a chicken”. The doctor replies, “shouldn’t you be sending your flat-mate to see me?” He says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”
For Woody Allen, that’s what relationships are like. They don’t make any sense and we have no idea how to make them work but we keep going with them because we need the eggs!
I’ve listened to a lot of articulate spokespersons for Atheism in recent years and their point always seems to be that the Christian religion doesn’t make a lot of sense. My response has always been, “what in life does?”
When it comes to the significant things in life – most especially love and relationships – how it all happens and what drives us to do the things we do and what makes it work is all very mysterious!
But comrades, let’s not get too comfortable with this! Jesus was speaking to a different group of people at a different time, telling stories that we can’t expect to fully understand, and moreover, He speaks of a God that we will never understand.
Yes, we get a glimpse of the love of God when find ourselves pouring ourselves out for our children even when it doesn’t make any sense to do so, but we struggle to go beyond that. We don’t sacrifice ourselves in the same way for the tax-collectors and sinners, for the homeless guy who hovers around our street or for the abused children of Syria. Of course we don’t, because it wouldn’t make any sense to do so!
And it doesn’t make any sense and it never has made any sense and it doesn’t make any sense to believe in a God that loves with such indiscriminate abandon either.
Love is patient, love is kind, love is senseless. God is love!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on March 10, 2013.
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Author's Bio: 

'Fighting Father' Dave - Parish Priest, Community Worker, Professional boxer, Martial Arts master, Father of three. Dave's goal is to offer an alternative culture for young people, based on values of courage, integrity, self-discipline and teamwork. Visit for more information.