One of the illustrations frequently used in the Bible is of sheep. Sheep are very dependent creatures. They have a symbiotic relationship with people, where the sheep rely on the shepherd for protection. In return, the shepherds get wool and food from the sheep. It’s this interdependence that makes sheep a perfect metaphor for God’s children. We need God’s love and protection, and in return we should give God the glory and praise that he is due.
The best known story involving sheep is the parable of the lost sheep. That parable starts off “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Now, those of you who have heard this story before probably don’t see anything outrageous in that first sentence. Take another look. Leaves the ninety-nine in the open country? What kind of shepherd would do that? If you were a shepherd, would you risk having your other 99 sheep wander off while you searched for one? Of course you wouldn’t.
I think this parable makes even more sense when we look at it with the other two parables contained in Luke 15: the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son. The woman who swept her house looking for a lost coin threw a party to celebrate when she found it. She likely spent many times more on the party than the value of the coin. In the same way, the parable of the prodigal son is about a father taking his son back, even after his son had taken his share of the inheritance (which was a way of telling his father “I wish you were dead”) and spent it on cheap highs.
All these parables are about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t work like the system of the world. His values and priorities are often nonsense in this world. These parables tell us the extent to which God loves us, that he would stop everything and come running after us. Even when we choose to run from God, He is still there for us and looking for us, ready to bring us back into the flock. It reminds me of 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”