A certain man had 100 sheep. One night, while gathering his sheep into their fold and going through his usual routine of counting them, he discovered that one sheep was missing. The man was not surprised, nor did he have to wonder which sheep had failed to stay with the flock. It was the same sheep he had had to retrieve the previous night and numerous other nights before that. Angrily, the man locked the gate of the sheepfold behind him and said to his other sheep, “I’ll be back.”
“We know,” bleated one of the faithful flock members. “Same song, fortieth verse. We’ll be here waiting for you when you get back with that straggler. Tell us, though, how many more times do you plan to do this? Hasn’t she used up your patience yet? I think I’m speaking for the whole flock here when I say she gets on our last nerve. Let her stay out all night for all we care. Maybe she’ll learn her lesson when the buzzards start circling.”
“Hey!” said the shepherd. “Do you think I enjoy this? I’ve had it up to here with her. Does she think I have nothing better to do than save her worthless tail night after night? Believe me, she’s going to get a piece of my mind this time, if I can even find her.”
With that the shepherd stalked back across the pasture while the 99 sheep in the fold began discussing the cool welcome they would give the lost sheep when she finally returned. “We’ll show her nothing but our backsides,” they declared. “And any one of us who shows her the slightest bit of kindness is just asking for the same treatment!”
The tired shepherd retraced the steps he and his sheep had made that day. Eventually he came upon the lost sheep. As usual, she had managed to get into a predicament that any sheep with half a brain would have been careful to avoid. There she was though, bleating piteously, hanging on for dear life to the flimsy bush that was the only thing standing between her and the valley floor fifty feet below.
As the sheep looked up in one last desperate hope of deliverance, she saw her shepherd standing at the edge of the cliff. Arms folded and a scowl on his face, the shepherd taunted her. “Well, you’ve got yourself into quite a fix,” he said. “Let me think. What is this? The fourth time this week? No, wait. It’s the fifth time, isn’t it?”
The sheep scrabbled for a firmer grasp on the fragile bush.
“I asked you a question, lamebrain! Now answer me. Isn’t this the fifth time this week I’ve had to come looking for you?”
“I don’t know,” replied the sheep.
“Well, I do know,” said the shepherd. “And I know something else. You are the most useless piece of fleece I’ve ever come across. You’re not worth all this trouble. For two cents I’d walk off and leave you dangling right where you are. Either you’ll fall to your death or some wild animal will shred your worthless carcass to pieces. Is that what you want me to do, leave you here?”
“I don’t know,” said the sheep, whose situation was growing more precarious by the second.
“Oh, you don’t know that either, huh?” asked the shepherd. “You don’t know much, do you?”
“I don’t know,” said the sheep, beginning to cry.
“Go ahead,” demanded the shepherd, who had worked himself into a righteous anger by that time. “Throw out your sorry explanation. Let’s hear why you got into trouble this time. Maybe it will be good for a laugh. How come you’re back out here on this ledge?”
“I don’t know,” sobbed the sheep.
“Don’t you know anything?” shouted the shepherd. “What? Have you got rocks rattling around in your head where your brains should be?”
“I don’t know.”
“So help me!” whined the shepherd. “I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’ve got 99 decent, well-behaved sheep back in the fold, and here I am wasting my time on you.” With that he reached his staff down toward the stranded sheep. “Help me get this around your sorry neck,” he instructed. “Maybe I can pull you up, or, maybe your neck will snap. Makes little difference to me.”
The sheep did not change her position but continued hanging onto the shrub.
“I said,” yelled the shepherd, “help me get this staff around your neck! You don’t deserve saving, but you are my responsibility and I’ve got my reputation to think of.”
The sheep did not respond.
“What? Aren’t you going to put forth even a little bit of effort here?” asked the shepherd. “Do I have to do everything for you?”
“I don’t know,” said the sheep.
“For crying out loud!” shouted the irate shepherd. “I’m trying to save you here! This is the best offer you’re going to get. The least you can do is cooperate with me! Now, do you want me to save you or not?”
“I don’t know,” said the nearly hysterical sheep.
“You don’t know?” shrieked the shepherd incredulously.
The sheep looked down at the peril below. She looked up at the angry face of her would-be savior. “I think . . . I think I’ll just stay here,” the sheep stuttered.
At that moment, the slender stalk pulled free from the dry, cracked earth, and the sheep plummeted to her death.
Commentary on this parable: Sadly, the shepherd in this parable represents the image I once held of Jesus. I knew he was the only one who could save me, but I suspected that his offer of salvation was made grudgingly. I feared that deep down inside he would resent his gift and would remind me every day just how undeserving of it I was.
But you can believe this often-rescued sheep when I tell you that the shepherd depicted here is the exact opposite of the Jesus I now know. Never do words of accusation or recrimination come from his sweet mouth. He counts as his highest joy the privilege he has been given to save you and me. In fact, saving us was his only reason for living.
And, if that flock of self-righteous sheep in this story looks like any church family you have known, pity them. They very likely see Jesus as I once did.