Shepherds and sheep

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who will not be bound by human convention or constrained by human wisdom, and whose love extends to all. Amen.   

When we were in Tanzania, we observed the local Masai herdsmen (often children) herding their sheep to pasture in what seemed to be a harsh and unforgiving land. Each person had somewhere between ten and twenty sheep and they were kept together with a switch. I don’t know, but I assume the loss of one sheep due to carelessness would have been a serious matter when the total number was so low.

How different from the Australian experience! When I was young I visited a sheep station that was 100 square miles in size. The boundaries were fenced as were the interior paddocks – no opportunity for sheep to wander off. Shepherding was required only when it was time to move the sheep from one pasture to another and then it was done from the back of a motorbike – no switch and no personal relationship between shepherd and sheep. I can no longer remember how many sheep the landowner stocked on the property, but I clearly remember a delivery of sheep. A double, two-layer sheep trailer disgorged its contents in front of us – probably in the vicinity of two hundred sheep. In the crush of the transport one had died. The farmer immediately took out his knife and skinned it in front of us. Before our holiday had ended, that sheep had contributed to at least one evening meal. When such large numbers of livestock are involved, there is no room for sentimentality. Pragmatism rules the day.

But back to our Tanzanian experience which is a much better illustration of today’s parable. Small herds are not only more precious, they are better able to be cared for in a more intimate way. There is no need for them to be herded on to freight trains or abandoned to their own devices far from the homestead. Small herds can be protected from wild animals which Australian fences do not deter and it is easy to recognise when one is missing. Every evening the animals are returned to the village where they are contained behind a fence in the centre of the huts so that they will be safe until morning. Every morning they are taken from the pen to once again find pasture.

From what we can gather, herding in Jesus’ day was similar to that of the East African experience. There were some notable differences. The Palestinian herdsmen didn’t necessarily return to a village in the evening (think of the shepherds to whom the angels relayed the news of Jesus’ birth). Instead, crude walls out of stones were made in the pastures to protect the livestock from predators. These sheepfolds seem to have been ad hoc structures – in any case, they were constructed without a gate. In the evening, the shepherd would herd the animals into the enclosure and then lie in front of the opening so as to be able to prevent wild enemies from entering. The shepherds may have built fires for warmth and added protection, but all that kept the animals safe from harm was their shepherd’s ability to aim a sling or to otherwise deter or frighten off an attacker.

Seen from the perspective of shepherding in Israel, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep is far from a benign, feel good story. Jesus’ audience would have justifiably been shocked and outraged. What sort of shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to the wolves in order to go off and search for one that is missing? Wolves or hyenas could cause far greater loss to the shepherd among ninety-nine unprotected sheep, than to one isolated sheep. In other words, for the sake of the one, the shepherd is risking several, if not all, of the others.

You can almost hear the gasps of Jesus’ listeners – the Pharisees, the tax collectors and the sinners. They are not herdsmen, but they have some idea of animal husbandry – even the biggest cities of Palestine are not far from the countryside. Is this shepherd crazy they must be wondering? What is one sheep when you have ninety-nine safe and sound? It gets even worse.  Not only does the shepherd abandon those sheep which have kept close to him, but when the shepherd recovers the sheep which has strayed, he calls all his neighbours over to rejoice with him. Surely that is an over reaction. A party for a lost sheep?

Jesus has almost certainly caught the attention of his listeners. They are probably beginning to wonder what sort of meaning he can draw from the story. How can he use a story about a lost sheep to defend eating with tax collectors and sinners which, in the eyes of the Pharisees breaks the codes of purity and implies that he overlooks their obvious sinfulness. What they have not realised is that the story is a not so subtle attack on their own arrogance and self-satisfaction and a challenge for them to re-assess their understanding of God. Jesus piques their interest and then he goes in for the kill. This is what heaven is like he says. God (we are to suppose) seeks out not the upright, not the law-abiding, but those who have strayed. The people whom the Pharisees despise, exclude and denigrate are the very people whom heaven will seek out and rejoice to welcome home.

What a slap in the face that must have seemed to the Pharisees.  From what we can tell these righteousness and law-abiding people, believed that behaviour set them apart from those around them and assured them of a place in heaven before all others. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is an affront to everything they had been led to believe and it was a direct attack on their attitude towards those who didn’t achieve their high standards of behaviour. They think that entrance into heaven is something that has to be earned by keeping the law, by prayer and by fasting, that God has particular standards that people have to reach before God will grant them salvation. At the same time they are so sure of that they are right that they have made themselves both judge and jury of the behaviour of others. Anyone who doesn’t conform to their standards is, they believe, automatically excluded from the heavenly realm.

Jesus puts the lie to that belief. Contrary to God’s abandoning and turning his back on sinners, God does what for the Pharisees is unthinkable – God seeks out those who are lost and takes more pleasure in the return of a sinner than in those whose very goodness leads them to forget how much they need God and who believe that their righteous behaviour sets them apart from and above everyone else.

There are times in our lives when we wander from the path, and when we do, God seeks us out and brings us home rejoicing. At other times we find ourselves safe and secure in the fold. At such times it is important that we remember the love sought us out and that we do not begrudge the fact that God extends that love to those who in the present are lost. Having been found, it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be smug or self-satisfied, that we do not think that we better or more worthy than others. We are all beneficiaries of God’s love and we are all dependent on God’s forgiveness. God’s loving forgiveness seeks us out, overlooks our faults, restores us to the fold and welcomes us with rejoicing into the realms of heaven.

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