The parable of the shepherd leaving his flock to search for one lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) has a special meaning for me. We raised sheep for a time when I was young. From my few years of experience I found they are difficult creatures. I have always empathized with the shepherd, out combing the hills for that one silly sheep. (You know it was raining.) I think of the shepherd, frantic to find the lost one, but anxious for those left behind. The parable doesn't say he was anxious, but I would have been. I know sheep.
While Jesus doesn't expound on the fate of the ninety-nine, my imagination fills in the blanks. Did one fall in a ditch? (They don't get up on their own. They lie there and die.) Did the coyotes come? (An old, weak or ill sheep is easy prey.) Was there a sudden storm? (Sheep have been known to drown in a few inches of water.) Yes, I would have been anxious about the ninety-nine.
Of course, this parable is really talking about people. Most of my anxiety-producing decisions have to do with people. For example, I recently made the decision to switch churches for the benefit of my teenage children. It was a bit wrenching because I was happily teaching a Sunday school class and a Bible study. My love and concern for those in my classes is deep; the fulfillment I found in those ministries is strong. In the old movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock has an oft-quoted line: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few--or the one." This sounds logical (as befits Spock), but when I read this parable, I find once again that God's wisdom is at odds with men's wisdom.
According to God's husbandry, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. In my case, it meant leaving my little flock at church, knowing the Lord is perfectly capable of providing other (probably better!) teachers while I minister to and support my first priority: my own kids.
One gets the impression that it was a "no-brainer" for the shepherd of the parable. He apparently marched off into the wilderness in search of the stray without a backward glance. With people, it seems harder for us to clarify the priorities. I think of young parents trying to balance work and children. I'm certainly not opposed to working mothers, having been one myself, but weighing the needs is often difficult. The decision to pursue a career might be about finances, but the less tangible benefits are often the hardest to sacrifice: the sense of doing something important and needed, of contributing to the good of the world.
At what point do the needs of the little tyke at home outweigh the needs of the clients, patients or customers?
This seems to be a particularly sticky trap for pastors and others in ministry who live a life of service and sacrifice with the focus on others. How often do we neglect the one beside us or "the few" struggling right in our own households because of the needs of the congregation, the ministry or the world?
The hard truth is that we are justified in our concern over the flock left alone in the wilderness. They could indeed stumble into the ditch, fall prey to the coyote or drown in the puddle. There is great potential for loss in leaving the ninety-nine. Is it worth the risk for one silly sheep or one little tyke? In God's husbandry it is. The shepherd weighed the possible loss of the flock against the certain loss of the stray and found it was a "no-brainer." The message of the parable is, Mr. Spock was wrong. The needs of the few, or the one, do outweigh the needs of the many.