In Luke 15, Jesus shares the famous parable about the lost sheep.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5)
As I read the parable a strange question comes to mind: what happens if there is no shepherd?
The parable is beautiful as a shepherd’s love for each individual sheep is so strong that he’s willing to risk everything to find the one sheep who has wandered off. While many would think a 99 to 1 ratio is good enough, and would never risk the 99 just for the 1, this shepherd loves each of the sheep so much that the shepherd leaves the 99 in the open country to search after the 1, and once finding the lost sheep brings it safely home to the fold.
But what happens if there is no shepherd? What happens if a sheep wanders off and no one goes looking for it? What happens if the shepherd is too concerned with self-preservation to risk all for the sheep? What happens if the shepherd isn’t paying attention and no one knows the sheep has wandered off? What happens if there is no shepherd?
We love the story partially because it has a happy ending. But if there was no shepherd to search for the sheep who has wandered off, or if the shepherd was lazy and didn’t search for the sheep, then the story would have no hope; instead the sheep simply wanders off and is lost. The hope in the story is entirely contingent on having a good shepherd who searches for the sheep. If there is no Shepherd, there is no hope.
I’m reminded of the words of Ezekiel the prophet in Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel is a prophet during the time of exile, and in some sense, he is explaining why Israel found itself being ruled by a foreign power. In the first few verses of chapter 34, Ezekiel tells Israel that part of their problem was a lack of leadership. The leaders of the people, Ezekiel refers to them as shepherds, have failed to care for those in their care. Instead, the shepherds have used their position to enlarge their own wealth and positions.
“Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:2-5)
Exile happened in part because there were no shepherds to care for the sheep. With no one to care for the sheep as they started to wander off, the sheep became lost.
Which again raises the question, what would happen in our story if there was no shepherd? What would happen to the sheep that was lost if there wasn’t someone who decided it was their task, their responsibility, to care for the sheep? What would happen to the broken and bruised, to the weak who wanders off, or to the one who has every intention of staying with the group but somehow finds themselves alone; what happens if there is no one who cares enough to be responsible for the sheep who wander astray?
Then, I begin to think about my own life, the areas and places God has placed me, and the ones God has brought into my care, and I wonder what is my responsibility? As I meditate on what it means to be a disciple of the Good Shepherd, and what it means to follow Jesus and take Jesus and reflect Jesus into the spaces where there is no light, no joy, and no hope, I wonder, what will happen to the sheep if I fail to be a faithful shepherd? What will happen to the sheep if they wander off and I don’t take the time to search for those who are lost? What will happen to the sheep when they become broken and bruised if I won’t stop to bind their wounds and carry them on my shoulders back to the fold? What will happen if there is no Shepherd?
Perhaps these sheep are my responsibility. Perhaps these sheep are my calling. Perhaps our paths have crossed and it is my responsibility to watch out for them, to care for them, and if need be, to search for them when they have wandered off and bring them back. Perhaps it’s more than just being a good friend or volunteering in a ministry, but it is in fact an act of discipleship to walk in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd and search for the lost who have gone astray. Perhaps that’s what it means to be a faithful shepherd.