The parable of the lost sheep has always had more questions for me than answers.
Was it normal for a shepherd to leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go looking for one? Was it normal to be so happy with finding one sheep as to throw a party? Did Jesus really think that the Pharisees were righteous and did not need repentance? Is it really the case that most people do not need to repent?
It is clear that the parable has a surprise element but current readers will miss what the surprise is if they do not know a little bit about first century shepherds. Ernest van Eck in Parables of Jesus the Galilean (2012, 117-139) explains that shepherds were very disreputable in Jesus’ time. They were seen as bandits and agitators and were deemed unclean.
Their status was very different from the nomadic times of the sheep owners that we find in the Hebrew Bible. Van Eck also explains that they earned very little and if they lost a sheep they had to replace it which would cost them a month or more in wages. So this is a story of somebody on the margins of society taking a huge risk (while acting surprisingly honourable) to be able to sustain his family. Does God (and the church and we) take similar risks to go after the lost?
11 September 2016
This weekly blog on one of the lectionary readings is by Anne Claar Thomasson-Rosingh, Programme Leader for Lifelong Learning at Sarum College.