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.’
Today’s reading opens with Jesus asking his disciples a question that is often heard in a whole range of contexts: What do you think?
In earlier days I taught Philosophy and Ethics. Philosophy, meaning love of wisdom, is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence. The study of philosophy demands an openness of mind, a willingness to think the ‘unthinkable’, and the courage to set aside the ‘received wisdom’ that fills our minds as we follow the path of logical thought. The study of philosophy sits well alongside the study of Ethics because ethical thought takes us deeper into the analysis of why human beings behave as they do. Ethics addresses such issues as rights and responsibilities, fairness, and standards of behaviour in relation to others in society. Underpinning the study of Philosophy and Ethics is one core question, the question Jesus asks his disciples today: What do you think?
Jesus asks the ‘big’ philosophical question in the context of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his sheep to seek out and bring home the one that is lost. On several levels the shepherd’s action makes no sense. Philosophy is often studied at higher levels in conjunction with Politics and Economics. The student of philosophy is encouraged to temper their idealistic reasoning with the harsh reality of political expediency and economic realism. On this basis, it makes no sense for the shepherd to leave the ninety-nine in order that he might seek out the one that is lost.
In the 18th century, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham championed the theory of utilitarianism, which said that our thoughts and actions should be founded on whatever creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Later in the 19th century, the politician and philosopher John Stuart Mill reworked Bentham’s theory into: the greatest good for the greatest number. Whether we espouse Bentham’s original version, or Mill’s rather sinister, Orwellian adaptation, utilitarian argument would suggest that we can think just one thing: let the lost sheep bear the responsibility of their own foolishness.
Of course, Jesus’ message is very, very different. Jesus’ approach in respect of the lost sheep is one that demonstrates the message of hope that lies at the heart of the Christian message. God does not abandon any of us, no matter how far we may have strayed from him. As in the parable of the prodigal son, the father is always waiting with open arms, ready to rejoice that we have turned away from sin and returned to the fold of true believers.
Let us pray that, no matter how far we find ourselves from God, we might never forget that he is searching for us; he is calling us by name; he is ready to welcome us in joy and love. Let us also pray that we might play our part in that mission to find and welcome home those who have strayed.