The Lost Shepherd and the Amoral Love of God (Proper 19C Lectionary Reflection)

'sheep' photo (c) 2007, Jim Champion - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Lectionary Reflection – Proper 19 C – Luke 15:1-32

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

So begins the most well-known and treasured Psalm of all time. At hospital beds, it is recited by patients and chaplains alike. In times of distress and discomfort, its soothing words are meant to bring succor and peace.

It is supposed to be a comfort, to consider the Lord our shepherd.

But, to be honest, God is an awful shepherd.

In Luke, Jesus tells a story of a shepherd who loses one sheep. So, having lost the sheep, the shepherd leaves the flock in the wilderness untended to go in search of the lost one, refusing to return to the 99 until that one is found.

Which one of you, Jesus asks, wouldn’t do the same?

That’s an easy question to answer. No one would do that. No decent shepherd would leave the bleating flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness where predators and poachers abound in order to find the lost one. It’s not like the sheep are safely fenced in. It’s not like the shepherd knows where the lost sheep has gone. It’s not like the shepherd even knows when he will be returning to the flock. He only knows he won’t return until he finds that one sheep — which will likely be dead and eaten by wild animals by the time it is found.

No shepherd would risk the flock — his livelihood — for the sake of one errant sheep in the wild. It is excessive, foolhardy. No shepherd would do something so irredeemably irresponsible.

At least no decent shepherd.

The most disturbing image of this parable, however, is what happens once the lost sheep is found. The shepherd returns to his home — not to the flock! Carrying his sheep, he goes home to celebrate with his friends and neighbors that what has been lost has now been found.

Meanwhile, the 99 continue to wander and bleat in the wilderness without a shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd? Thanks, but no thanks.

God is an awful shepherd.

Because as soon as I join the flock, the shepherd is lost. Perhaps we should think of this parable in those terms, not the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost shepherd.

Because the shepherd has truly lost his way in this story, lost all sense of right and wrong, responsibility and consequence.

The shepherd is so lost to love and extravagance that he shirks his responsibility to the 99 for the sake of the one.

The shepherd is lost.

Maybe, in this parable, that is the call for the sheep that remain: To get lost, too. The problem is we are too often perfectly happy to bleat in the wilderness with the other 99, ignoring the dangers around us, ignoring the shepherd who has left us. There is comfort in the herd with its illusion of security.

But the shepherd is missing. To find the shepherd, the sheep must leave the fold. To find the shepherd, the sheep must leave and get utterly and profoundly lost in the world.

Find the lost sheep and we will find the shepherd. Where one is, the other is there also. If one is in the presence of the lost sheep, one is in the presence of God, for where one is lost, alone, alienated, marginalized and oppressed, there also is God. To find the shepherd, the sheep must be among, one of, in solidarity with those that the 99 have forgotten, those the 99 have ignored, those that the 99 have judged, those the 99 have left for dead and believed not worth the effort.

For too long we’ve gotten it backwards. We do not bring the lost sheep to God. Rather, the lost sheep bring us to God.

When I read this story — and the two others in its context — I can’t help but puzzle at them all, with their overarching themes of God’s transgressive and indiscriminate love. These stories seem to reject my religious sensibilities of orthodoxy and even orthopraxy. It casts an image of God so loving as to be completely unconcerned with consequences and punishment for sin and wrongdoing.

It is a love so profound as to be amoral.

Does it matter how we live? Certainly. Does our tradition and the Jesus of the Gospels want us to live in certain ways — say following the Golden Rule? Without a doubt. But none of that — the ethical code, the morals by which we are to live or our ability to follow them — affects God’s love toward us.

Because God’s love is amoral. It isn’t concerned with morals, codes and ethics. It isn’t concerned with our rightness or wrongness. Rather, it is concerned with our belovedness.

But that is no way to shepherd the sheep and certainly no way to rear sons, right?

Because, ultimately, we believe like Machiavelli, that as a ruler, it is better to be feared than to be loved, that consequences and punishment keep the world in line.

The way God shepherds the sheep?

That is no way to run the world.

Which, in the end, I suppose is just fine.

God isn’t running the world, after all.

God is loving it.

________

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About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Barry_D

    Well, omnipotence helps :)

    • http://twitter.com/DavidRHenson David Henson

      I don’t follow. But then again, it’s late. Maybe help me understand what you mean, if you could. Thanks, Barry_D.

      • Guest

        He means that God, being Omnipotent, never actually abandons the other 99 Sheep while still independently pursuing the sole lost sheep.

      • Guest

        or rather “omnipresent.”

      • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

        Okay. Yes, omnipresent, not omnipotent. If that’s what Barry means, sure. No wonder it seemed so unclear. It kind of misses the point of the post, but okay.

  • Jonathan Pelton

    “These stories seem to reject my religious sensibilities of orthodoxy and even orthopraxy.”
    I really like that line

    Ruminating over the Prodigal Son this past weekend has made me think similar thoughts to what you describe above. I think that one of the older brother’s major sins was self-centeredness; he was far too concerned about his own rights, labor, property etc. when his Father simply wanted him to rejoice with him over the younger son’s return.

    I think that we as Christians can be so concerned over ourselves and our own salvation that we miss God saying “Yes, you are saved, that’s done and accomplished, now come with me.” When we have been truly converted (as if the process ever stops) we find that we are on God’s team, so to speak, apart of God’s endeavor. We have laid down our own goals and ambitions in favor of God’s. And what is God doing? He is proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.

    “Find the lost sheep and we will find the shepherd.” If we really want to commune with God, we must join Him in His work, we must love whom He loves and serve whom He served. You will find God among the least of these.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeannie.b.richards Jeannie Boudreau Richards

    This article is definitely worth the read! What a unique perspective on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Thank you, David! JB Richards, Author https://www.facebook.com/pages/Miriamne-the-Magdala-First-in-the-Series-of-the-Yeshua-Miri-Novels/206903979347028

  • http://www.facebook.com/rjoseph.owles R Joseph Owles

    Wow!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Joesmamma Kathleen Bergin Green

    “To find the Shepard we must leave the fold” – Brilliant! Thank you!

  • Yvette

    Perhaps we are to assume that there are other shepherds in the field to continue guiding the flock. Wouldn’t this be the purpose of partnership in leadership? Just as with humans, quite often those that stray in curiosity are destined to be great leaders, but only if they are looked after on their journeys. This is why we need communities of leaders “shepherds,” not simply “saviors” and their sheep.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    It’s no wonder that this parable leaves us puzzled, given that animal husbandry has now been replaced by industrial farms and capitalism, and most of us know nothing about raising animals any other way (if at all). By the loss of our understanding for how a “good shepherd” behaves, we have deeply lessened our ability to take the message of this parable seriously. Here’s my take, for any who are interested: http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/good-shepherds/

  • GordonS

    OK, I’m a little late in getting to this, but I thought I’d throw this out there. Why did you assume that the shepherd took the sheep home? The text doesn’t explicitly say that he did. It would make sense to me that the shepherd leaves home, goes to the flock, finds one missing, goes & finds the missing sheep, and returns the sheep to the flock before going home. But let’s assume that he in fact takes the sheep home. Now why would he do a thing like that? Mmm, I bet he is happy. He wants his friends to rejoice with him. He wants to party. I smell a fire burning. I don’t think this ends too well for the sheep after all.

    What kind of shepherd is this?

  • Michael Peterman

    Luke 2:8-15 indicate that shepherds worked together. Jesus described himself as the “Good Shepherd” in John 10:11. Saying the opposite of scripture is edgy… but I think you know better. I’m not comfortable contradicting Jesus. The point of the three parables is repentance and how God will pursue the ones that belong to him but have strayed.

  • cmm

    I like the idea, it makes sense. however some of the exegesis is a little off for me. something like leaving the sheep unattended. does the parable say that explicitly, or are we reading into it something we think we’re seeing that actually isn’t there?

    would there be anywhere else you could pull this theory and give a little proof for what your saying? it’s so far against the grain that it may get scoffed by scholars who would reject your exegesis.

  • Beth

    Something for me to sit with. I have to say it stirred something in me when you wrote about leaving the fold.

  • Jeff Linthicum

    What you fail to realize is the context immediately preceding this parable. What did he warn? It is better to have a millstone around your neck than to cause a little one to stumble. If you cause a little one of these to fall away because of your chasing after who is greatest, then I will leave you in pursuit of the one who you chased away. Context is king.

  • Dan

    I like the idea of needing to leave the flock to find the lost one… I’m just not comfortable with the ‘ease’ with which God is called an “awful shepherd”. He is, after all, the Good Shepherd and I’ll not contradict scripture. Besides, I think God does deserve some respect, even in the context of making a point.


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