A friend of mine recently introduced me to a new way of seeing the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He first noted that sheep like being together. A lost sheep, therefore, wants to be with the other sheep, but has somehow wandered off or been separated from the flock. The lone sheep’s desire is to return to the flock, even if far away from it. Therefore, the shepherd is quite right in seeking the lost sheep, who will quickly, when it hears the familiar voice of the shepherd, seek him out and be returned to the flock.
This friend of mine pointed out that, without us even realizing it, we can sometimes read “defiant” in the place of “lost.” As Jesus followers, we look out at the world and dub them all “lost.” We might even consider those who are in the midst of our faith communities but are confused and making bad choices as being representative of the lone sheep. But not all of those people outside or even inside the church are lost: some are merely defiant. If the chief marker of being “lost” is searching for the truth and longing to be part of the comunity of God’s people (the flock), those who are making willful decisions to distance themselves from a faith cimmunity and are seeking things other than the truth, are not “lost” in this sense. In fact, if the Shepherd were to come and offer his assistance, such a sheep would not take it. It would only turn tail and run farther away.
When we look at the other stories that Jesus tells and the encounters he has, we learn very quickly that, while he is in passionate pursuit of the lost, he is more than willing to let the defiant go on their way. He ordered his life according to priorities, and setting off on a wild goose chase across the countryside looking to hog-tie defiant sheep was not high on his list. He repeatedly told the Pharisees, who were one example of defiant sheep in his world, that God was not pleased with how they were operating, but he didn’t chase them down and plead with them to mend their ways. And in the case of the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus actually put an obstacle in his way (“give away all your money and then you can come follow me”), but Jesus didn’t go chasing after him when he turned away and moped over what he stood to lose; he just let him go and didn’t ever seem to give it another thought.
Our instinct is to pour ourselves into the defiant, perhaps even more than the lost, because the defiant require more work from us if we are to keep them from getting away from us entirely. And we think we are doing our Christian duty and honouring God in the process. But what about the lost, who will respond to our calls and the Good News we come to offer them? I am not suggesting we cut people off entirely, no matter how stubborn, because the defiant can (by God’s grace) become the lost, at which time we extend a hand and usher them into the fold. But the greatest wisdom comes in discerning between the lost and defiant and spending ourselves time accordingly.
And what about the found, who are poised, waiting to be mentored and challenged, who will return out investment of time 100-fold? Should we not honour them with the time they are craving, rather than wasting our breath on foolsihly wooing the defiant? It is not as much our Christian duty (and privilege) to be about exhorting and encourging the saints?