“When he (the shepherd) has found it (the lost sheep), he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Lk. 15:5).
Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is built on a long tradition that stretches back to the time of ancient Israel. David was the king of Israel, but he was a shepherd before he was a king. It was the shepherd’s slingshot that vanquished Goliath, after all, not the warrior’s sword. The pastoral vocation of keeping and tending the sheep colored the religious experience of Israel, and it’s continued to color our own understanding of God.
To the point, we start with the psalms, the prayer book of Israel traditionally ascribed to David himself: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7), it says in another psalm. “We are your people and the sheep of your pasture” (Ps. 79:13), in yet another psalm addressed to God. “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Ps. 77:20), it says in Psalm 77, extending the range of pastoral ministry all the way back to the Exodus. Yet David was the preeminent shepherd, who in his vocation as king never forgot where he came from. “He (David) shepherded them with a faithful and true heart, and guided them (the People) with the skillfulness of his hands” (Ps. 78:72).
There’s another dimension of the pastoral relationship between God and his People that is captured by the prophets of Israel, and which is very much to the point of Jesus’ parable. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Is. 53:6), it says in the prophet Isaiah. Here the People of Israel are cast in the characteristic role of lost sheep, sheep that have left the track and are headed in the wrong direction. It’s the shepherd’s job to go in search and to bring back the lost. “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (Zech. 13:7), it says in the prophet Zechariah, a reminder of the shepherd’s role in gathering the flock. Short version: sheep go astray, so they need a shepherd.
So the parable of the lost sheep has a long tradition going back at least to David, the shepherd king, but now fulfilled in Jesus himself. He not only told stories about lost sheep; he himself was the shepherd come to seek the lost. The Gospel of John makes the connection plain when Jesus tells the religious leaders, “I am the good shepherd” (Jo. 10:11). But the connection is no less clear when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus himself is the one who leaves the flock to go in search of the lost; he is the shepherd who searches for the one who has gone astray.
There’s a significant detail in this parable that we shouldn’t skip, and that is when the shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders to bring it home. St. Gregory of Nyssa saw the taking up of the sheep as a gesture of divine compassion akin to Jesus’ own compassion in taking our human nature upon himself. (Comm. Cant.) He came a great distance in search of the sheep: from eternity to the present, from divinity to our human state. He became one of us in order to save us from ourselves, through ourselves. He took up our human nature to heal the world from sin.
When the prophet Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,” posing the problem of human sin and self-will, he then added, “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). When Jesus takes our humanity, he takes all that we are and redeems it through his one perfect offering of himself. He takes away the sin of the world (Jo. 1:29), taking it up and laying it on his shoulders. We were sheep that were lost and now we are found.
The pastoral relationship between God and his People, and Jesus’ own ministry as the Good Shepherd, is reprised in the pastoral ministry of the priests of the church. It’s providential that this parable comes so early in Fr. Brad’s ministry here at St. James’. There are lost sheep galore in Madison, as there are in every community: sheep who need the pastoral ministry of the church, and the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
That good news means new life for the world. It doesn’t just point the way home for us, for the sheep that are lost. Rather, it means the shepherd has come looking for us, as one of us, and that he rejoices when he finds us. That good news poses a mission for us, who are called to share in this ministry. Fr. Brad is not the only one here who is part of the search party! God is continuing this search through you all at St. James’ Church, calling you, in your turn, to search for those who have lost their way, and to bring them back rejoicing.