Sometimes I think I should have been an accountant instead of a priest. Luke 15 (the chapter from which Sunday’s gospel lesson comes) is one of the foundational texts for Christianity. It’s a collection of parables of lostness—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (prodigal) son. It seems the success of Jesus’ parables hinges upon the audience’s ability to answer the question, “Which one of you…” in the affirmative. In other words, Jesus says, “Who among you wouldn’t leave the 99 other sheep in search for the lost on?” He asks, “Who wouldn’t stop everything and search for the lost coin and then throw a party when he found it?” As a priest, I feel like I’m supposed to answer the way Jesus wants me to, but I must admit my heart isn’t really in it.
Priest, yes. Accountant, maybe. Shepherd, definitely not. I worked on a small farm one summer, but I never kept sheep. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m almost positive that, if sent out into the wilderness to look for one missing sheep, I’d spend the whole time saying to myself, “Is this sheep really worth it? One sheep? Really? Bleepity-bleeping sheep! It better look sorry when I find it!” After a cursory ten-minute look, I’d likely give up, declare the animal lost forever, and then return to my front porch, willing to pay for the animal myself. Why? It’s not because I don’t like sheep. And it’s not because I’m lazy or self-interested (though that’s part of it). Mainly, it’s because the math doesn’t make sense.
We’re talking about a 1% attrition rate. It’s one sheep out of a heard of one-hundred. The average gestation of a ewe is 146-147 days. (I looked it up.) That’s less than 5 months before TWO new lambs are born. (Again,I looked it up.) Think of all the things that could go wrong with the other ninety-nine while the shepherd is out looking for the one screw-up. Why would he risk it all for that one little sheep? Why does the one matter that much? It’s the one that got lost. Maybe we should let natural selection take its course. Let the coyotes remove the wandering idiot sheep from the breeding stock.
But there’s my real prejudice. And that’s why this parable speaks to me. Maybe God’s seeking out the lost doesn’t really make sense. Maybe these parable aren’t built on the premise that everyone would agree. I need to spend some time this week looking that up. Would a shepherd really leave ninety-nine behind in search of the one? I wouldn’t, but God would. For me, that’s the point. God is the ultimate non-utilitarian. There is zero attrition with God. No one is lost—not even one. God is the great shepherd because, despite having several billion sheep in his sheepfold, God takes time to search for every single one that wanders astray. Sometimes parables are supposed to make sense, and sometimes, like God’s love, they aren’t.