Reading: Matthew 18.12-14
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.’Matthew 18.12-14 NRSV
Jesus said: … does [the shepherd] not … go in search of the one that went astray?
How often do we find ourselves searching for something that was not where we expected to find it? Perhaps a wallet, or a set of keys; perhaps a book or our spectacles? No matter what we may have mislaid, that item will become the focus of our attention until the moment when it is found again. All else will be driven from our minds as different anxieties and emotional responses dominate our thinking.
Today’s reading does not provide us with the only moment in the gospel narrative when Jesus speaks of losing, searching and finding: the parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son are just two further examples.
The society in which Jesus lived would have easily understood his use of the image of a lost sheep. They would have grasped the depiction of God as a loving and caring shepherd, just as they would have readily identified themselves with sheep existing under the protection of the Good Shepherd. Similarly, there would have been a clear understanding of the value of sheep. Like modern-day farmers, first-century sheep owners would have known the value of each sheep, and the need to keep them all safe. Jesus’ message today is clear: if human shepherds value their sheep so highly we should be in no doubt that our divine Shepherd values each of us so much more.
There is another aspect to all of Jesus’ ‘lost and found’ parables: they all end in a time of rejoicing. This rejoicing is not just a personal inner glow that something is back in its ‘proper’ place, but rather it is a sense of celebration that is shared with others, and is centred around praise and thanksgiving to God.
We all have times when we feel lost, wandering in a wilderness of despair, hopelessness and even anger. In such times we need to recall Jesus’ words to his disciples, that the Good Shepherd, Jesus himself, is searching for us. He knows our feelings of confusion and abandonment; he is actively seeking us out in order that we might be brought back into his nearer presence, into that time of rejoicing that will surely accompany our homecoming.