March 7, 2015
A-sheep-LikeFaith

3 comments

Rediscovering The Parabel of the Lost Sheep

The parable of the lost sheep is a story told in 4 sentences:

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders  and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”  Luke 15:4-7 (NIV)

For the 4 decades I studied the Bible as a city-girl, before I ever became a shepherd of my own sheep, I always had questions about this parable. Do you relate to any of them?

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”

  • Is 100 a lot of sheep? What is the size of the flock suppose to tell me?
  • How does one go about “losing a sheep”? Is this carelessness on the part of the shepherd, or on the part of the sheep?  What would motivate a sheep to get lost?  What does “lost sheep” signify to a real shepherd?

“Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

  • Why does Jesus phrase this as if the audience knows this is a given fact? What was it about shepherding they knew, that isn’t obvious to me as a non-sheep owner in this century?
  • Why would a shepherd leave behind 99 perfectly good, well behaved sheep who are right where they are suppose to be, not causing him any trouble?
  • What motivates the shepherd to go look for a lost sheep? What could he be thinking?

“And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders  and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

  • Why is the shepherd so joyful? What does it really mean to a shepherd to have a lost sheep back?
  • What are the full meaning and implications of this parable? What message was Jesus meaning to convey about Who He is, and our relationship to Him?
  • What is the full context of this parable?

Now, having personally shepherded a total of  75+ sheep of my own (not all at one time); having sheared a total of  200+ sheep (and counting) on my own and others’ farms; having befriended dozens of shepherds both locally and outside of my state; having worked with quite a few on their own farms where I’ve been exposed to a variety of shepherding practices and personalities, and  at least 5 breeds of sheep; here is how I  answer these  questions about this parable:

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”

  • Is 100 a lot of sheep? What is the size of the flock suppose to tell me?

Flocks come in different sizes.  Some are only a handful of sheep, a dozen, less than 100, or hundreds.  This one was a pretty sizable flock of a hundred  –at least it is sizeable by today’s hobby farm standards.  Dr. Constable’s commentary notes on Luke 15, regarding what was considered the norm in Palestine during Bible times state:

“Herds normally numbered between 20 and
200.”  Dr. Thomas Constable,

If it were a small flock, like 5-25 sheep, missing one of them might make enough difference to the shepherd that he would really have to go look for the missing sheep.  The loss of just one sheep from a small flock  may be noticeable to him economically, with fewer pounds of wool, meat or milk,  to use in his home for his family, or sell at market, than he would have had with with the missing sheep’s contributions included in his resources.    If the shepherd’s income were small, there is all the reason to hold onto every single last one for his own benefit.  When you don’t have a lot, you scrap to keep everything you’ve got.  But 100 sheep is a large enough flock, that looking at it from only an economic perspective, in my opinion there is no real reason to go searching for one sheep that is missing.  Any flock of this size has probably got at least some, if not many, ewes that are either pregnant, or soon will be.  With a 5 month gestation period, and (for most sheep breeds) half the time twins or triplets are born,  if one sheep of 100 has gone missing, it is safe to say it would be replaced many times over within 6 to 9 months.  And when I’ve sheared even only 20 sheep, it is hard for me to notice a difference between 20 bags of wool, and just 19.  I think the shepherd’s motivations in this parable cannot really be economic. 

The size of the flock in this parable tells me this particular shepherd is not a lazy shepherd  who only cares about the well-being of his own pocket.  The health and safety of his sheep are a priority to him, which  costs personally in terms of more work effort, time, and resources.  He puts the welfare of even one of his sheep ahead of his own comfort. 

A lesser shepherd of 100 sheep would be looking for his own warm bed and hot meal at the end of the day, and not worry about looking for just the one that failed to show up.  He wouldn’t consider it worth his time.

  • What does  “lost sheep” signify to a real shepherd?
These are Mini-Cheviot sheep.  When they are outside, they are more relaxed about staying together as a herd than other breeds are.  They spread out a bit more over the landscape, but still operate as a herd when danger threatens.

These are Mini-Cheviot sheep. When they are outside, they are more relaxed about staying together as a herd than other sheep breeds. They spread out a bit more over the landscape, but still operate as a herd when danger threatens.        Photo by Sherilyn Miller

Sheep like to stay together.  Some breeds are better about flocking together versus others, like Cheviots, who tend to be more relaxed about scattering out over the landscape than other breeds, but all sheep are herd animals.  Even very intelligent, independent sheep, like Katy Brown, my Icelandic Leadersheep,  don’t like to be alone.  If one has gone off alone, it was not her  first choice to do so.  Yes, they can get separated sometimes for different reasons, but if a sheep can help it, it doesn’t go off alone unless it is hurt. A lone sheep is a stressed sheep.  The herd instinct is so strong, being away from other sheep is stressful to them.   But a sheep in pain will separate itself from the flock, even if it isn’t too weak to keep up.  This way she is less of a danger to the flock, by not attracting watching predators to attack the flock by her weakened presence advertising to them, “Easy prey, come and get it!”  Otherwise, a sheep likes to stay with her sheep-friends. This means it is odd for one to not show up with the rest of the flock when called or counted. 

The good shepherd knows a missing sheep means something has gone wrong for the sheep. He knows if the sheep had a choice in the matter, she would be with her flock, where she belongs and feels safe.   He knows that without him, the sheep is vulnerable to dangerous predators that will not just injure, but destroy a sheep.    His sheep needs him.  The good shepherd responds to the sheep’s need, bearing the inconvenience of  searching for it in the dark.  He does it for compassion; because He really cares about what happens to the lost one.

  • What motivates the sheep?   WHY is the sheep lost? 

The lost sheep might have gotten sick or injured, and become too weak to keep up with the herd, or separated itself from the herd because it is in pain.  It might be a pregnant sheep in labor.  It might be a sheep that has either laid down or fallen on uneven terrain in such a way that she is really stuck. Due to heavy wool growth, and/or pregnancy,  her center of gravity may be so off,  she could be trapped in a low spot of the ground, stuck, and unable to shift her body weight enough for it to be possible to get up.  A sheep that is “cast” like this,  trapped on her side, will die from bloat (the build up of gasses in the rumen to the point it puts so much pressure on the heart,  it stops beating).  In any case, the sheep might already be dead by the time it is noticed to have gone missing.

<span Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

  • Why would a shepherd leave behind 99 perfectly good, well behaved sheep who are right where they are suppose to be, not causing him any trouble?

A good shepherd knows that out in the “open country”, the herd will likely stay together, and are much less vulnerable as a whole herd, than the lost sheep is out there by itself.  The herd of sheep has a plan when an enemy threatens:  bunch up together in a whole group, keep the lambs in the middle, and run.  They might even charge and trample the predators as a group.  Together, although they could still be attacked, their odds are better than the lone sheep’s, who will surely die away from the protection of the herd.  The longer she is out there, the lower the chances are that she will stay safe.  The 99 are safe enough; the Shepherd knows it is the lost one who needs him the very most right then.

  •   What motivates the shepherd to go look for a lost sheep? What could he be thinking?

A shepherd would realize the sheep could already be dead by the time he has realized she is missing.  But because he cares, he will not assume the lost one is dead, and risk sacrificing the chance to save her if she isn’t dead.  He cannot rest within himself until he knows for sure, one way or the other.  He is emotionally motivated to do all he can to help, even at the risk of his efforts not being enough.  Sometimes you do all you can to help a sheep, and it is enough.  Sometimes, it isn’t.  Shepherds live with this kind of  uncertainty from day-to-day.  They put forth extra effort when they know if they don’t at least try to do all they can, the loss of life is inevitable.  Maybe it isn’t always practical, and tough decisions have to be made on a farm, but a good shepherd does as much as he is capable of doing in the best interest of his sheep. He tries because he knows the vulnerabilities of his sheep without his efforts.

At least to some degree, a shepherd  is  emotionally invested in his sheep.  The more of his time and energy he spends on the sheep, the more connected to them he becomes.  The more he is around them, the more they are a part of his life, the more shepherding becomes a part of his whole identity.  Becoming emotionally invested in other living creatures one is around on a regular basis is normal,  but something we usually only know today in terms of the cats or dogs we may live with.  It is somewhat similar to how caring shepherds may feel about their sheep, but with sheep, one has a whole society to supervise, care for, and interact with, not just one or two! As good parents feel overwhelmingly responsible for the well-being of their children, a shepherd feels similarly responsible for the well-being of his sheep.

Consider the reaction of this shepherd to the loss of his sheep that were stolen by sheep rustlers in the UK in 2011:

“…95 of his sheep were stolen in one night…. he is too distressed to talk about it…” 

Rory Knight Bruce, “Return of the Rustlers”,

The Daily Mail.com, August 29, 2011.


Bedtime in the barn.  But where's David?  Photo by Kelli Miller

Bedtime in the barn. But where’s David?         Photo by Kelli Miller

One night when I put my flock to bed in the barn, a young Gulf Coast sheep named David did not show up with the rest of the flock when I called them in and counted to be sure they were all there.  At 7 months old, David was still considered a lamb, but old enough to be weaned, so he was at that age when Mercy, his mom, didn’t have to keep up with him all the time.   Even though I knew he had to still be in the fenced pasture that surrounds the barn, I was worried about him.  It wasn’t like him to not show up with the rest of the flock.  With the back fence of the pasture being only barbed wire at the time, I knew it wasn’t impossible for the nightly howling predators to get a hold of him, which was why I was putting the flock to bed in the barn at night.  I knew if he was hurt, he needed me.  If he was sick, he needed me.  If he was dead, I would need to know.  At the very worst, I would need to find him to move his body out of the pasture, as far from the flock as possible so as to not attract whatever creatures always made the scary sounds at night in the woods behind the back fence.

While I was stumbling thru the dark searching for David, trying  to not step in a hole I couldn’t see, or trip over ant hills cloaked in the inky black, I thought about what losing David would mean to me.  I thought about his parents, Mercy and Isaac, both still a part of my herd.  I remembered the history I shared with them, and the lessons I had learned caring for them.  If something really bad had happened to David, I realized it would mean I wouldn’t get to see how he turned out when he grew up. I wouldn’t get to see the lambs he would make one day, and what they would be like.  I wouldn’t get to see what kind of wool David  would produce as an adult after his lamb’s fleece.  I’d never get to make anything out of yarn I’d planned to spin from his (and the flock’s) yearly wool that would keep me warm, that I could look at and say, “David gave me that!”  I would never get to discover the potential I suspected David had; I would never get to see what I could accomplish with him.  These things registered as a  sense of real potential loss to me.

I was so happy when I found little David at the back of the pasture, standing very still in the dark.  He was too weak to really walk, but he was still standing.  The last thing a sick or injured sheep wants to do is lay down, since it means assuming a posture that is less than “ready to run” from any threat, and since he is in pain, he already feels more vulnerable than usual.  David recognized my voice, and bleated back to me just a little, but I could tell even that was hard for him. Even though most lambs don’t learn to trust me until they’ve been in the flock for over a year, David must have been glad to see me.  Instead of shrinking back from me as I moved toward him as I expected, he didn’t resist when I bent down to pick up his 45 pound wooly form.  It was awkward lifting him since he was so big, particularly since he already had a decent set of horns!  David took after his granddaddy with those horns.  I had to figure out how to hold him so I wouldn’t get knocked in the face when he’d turn his head.  He was too big to sling across my shoulders in a regular shepherd’s carry.  I couldn’t lift him that high by myself.  So I picked him up as if he were a four legged, first-grade child.

As soon as I lifted David up, I could tell two things: 1. based upon his irregular breathing, he was really in a lot of pain; and 2. David had a fever.  I positioned his head on my left shoulder, and as soon as he rested it there, he relaxed in my arms.  He was so hot, it was hard to keep holding onto him, but I did.  Stumbling under his weight and smiling in the dark, I celebrated all the way back to the barn.

“And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”

Being in such close contact with the injured lamb put me in touch with what he was going thru. I shared his experience with him.  In the light of the barn, I sat down and sprawled David across my lap to look him over.  I took his temperature with the glass vet thermometer.  He was running 105°, whereas healthy sheep temp is only 103°.  I found a white lump on his face.  It looked like a thorn or sticker had gotten stuck in his cheek when he was grazing.  It had become infected and formed an abscess.  David needed antibiotics and pain medicine.

“Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

I pulled out my cell phone and, with David still sprawled across my lap, I called my shepherd-friend Maranda, who lives nearby, to come and help me.  She left her family to eat dinner on their own without her, –in essence leaving behind her own “99”– to bring me some extra antibiotics she had for sheep.  I had the pain medicine.  Maranda helped me think through what could have happened to him,  talk over the treatment options, and decide what the best plan of action would be to help David get better.  Two heads are better than one.  In my experience, shepherds are always great at helping one another out.  Maranda shared my joy at finding David alive!  Because she was a shepherd too, she understood my happiness.


  • Why is the shepherd so joyful? What does it really mean to a shepherd to have a lost sheep back?

The shepherd is happy when he finds the lost sheep, because now he can make sure it will be okay.  He is relieved it is safe, and not destroyed.  He celebrates that the one he was so worried over, is finally found!  The shepherd not only took great pains, going out of his way, stumbling over dark, uneven ground to find his sheep, but he was happy to do it. The welfare of his dear sheep meant more to him than his own comfort.  The shepherd is happy that this time, his extra efforts were enough!

  • What are the full meaning and implications of this parable? What message was Jesus meaning to convey about Who He is, and our relationship to Him?
    Yes, this parable does speak to how God values us, but it also speaks to what kind of God, or Shepherd, we have in Him.  It shows His heart for the lost (unsaved), but also His heart in general for all of us in need.  We all have pain in our lives.  We are all “lost sheep” in some way or another, whether it is in regards to eternal salvation, or to our deep needs for healing.  In this parable, Jesus assures us He is the One who cares about our needs when He doesn’t have to; even when it costs Him personally; even when it doesn’t make “economic sense” to do so.  Our Shepherd is emotionally invested; emotionally driven to seek us out because we are in need, not in spite of it!  Because He loves us and we are His, He puts our needs ahead of His own.  He is responsive to our needs for restoration with Him, and all our other needs as well!  He cares because He knows us; He can’t wait to see “how we’ll turn out”, how we’ll respond to His efforts; what He will be able to do with us as a result of His care.  He cares because He knows we need Him, because we’re lost without Him.  
Marissa, a "lost sheep" in the back of the pasture.

This is what Marissa, a “lost sheep” who separated herself from her flock looked like when I first spotted her in the back of the pasture.   Marissa is a Gulf Coast Native.                                              Photos by Kelli Miller

Marissa didn’t come to the barn with the flock when I called them in for supper. When I found Marissa at the back of the pasture, she was running a fever, very weak, and could hardly walk. She did not try to run from me, but because she was so heavy, I had to lift her into the wagon to be able to carry her back to the house. The vet made a farm call and said she had pneumonia and pregnancy toxemia.  Her odds weren’t good.  The vet said there was a good chance she and/or the lambs she was carrying would die.  Against the odds, Marrissa and one of her twin lambs she delivered the next month did survive!  She would not have made it if I had not gone looking for her when she first got sick.

3 thoughts on “Rediscovering The Parabel of the Lost Sheep

  1. I welcome and appreciate comments! Please help me improve by telling me what you like, what questions you have, and how you think I could improve this post. I am still struggling to learn how to get it to format in WordPress the way I want for it to. Always a work in progress.
    Thank you for taking the time to share my shepherding journeys and discoveries with me.
    Sincerely,
    Kelli

    Like

  2. Beautiful and insightful post! I really like your concluding remarks: we do not make “economic sense” but we are all infinitely valuable.

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: