Out On A Limb | Matthew 18:12

What do you think? If a man has one hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine, go to the mountains, and seek that which has gone astray? (Matthew 18:12)

The parable of the Good Shepherd and his care of the lost sheep stirs within us a sense of the enormous love God has for each of us. Those sheep that are safely tucked up in the sheep pen can be left, while the shepherd goes off, searching over valley and hill, among the banks of streams and across rough stony ground for the one sheep that didn’t keep up with the flock. Perhaps this sheep had found a delicious patch of grass to nibble, or more seriously perhaps it had bruised a hoof, and needed to walk more slowly while favouring that leg. We never find the reason for the absence of this sheep — or lamb — from the body of the flock. To the shepherd it was enough that one of his charges had not made it to safety and with nightfall approaching it would be prey for lurking wolves.

But not all shepherds care for their flock with such devotion. Before we go further I’d like to include in the category of shepherd all those who have the responsibility to look after the welfare, physical or spiritual, of others. Here we can include teachers, clergy, members of Parliament, parents and workers in the welfare sector. Many of those in such responsible positions appear to ignore or dismiss the needs of those entrusted to their care, while seeking to feather their own nests. Of these the Old Testament prophet speaks, in Ezekiel 34:4:

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

These shepherds have served their own interests without concern for the needs or interests of those in their charge. If we take stock of events in our own neighbourhood, state or country we may find many examples of the damage that has been done to the most vulnerable of our citizens. Stretching back over months of questioning, the Independent Commission Against Crime inquiry in Australia has shown us time and again how methods to pervert the law have been attempted, and in many cases accomplished. The very people we elected to govern us; have been shown to put self-interest before good governance. Frankly we cannot put our trust in many of those around us, for they are not able to care for their charges.

Here we return to the Good Shepherd. The story told in Matthew portrays one who puts the care of those in his charge before his own welfare. One can understand that the Shepherd would be tired and hungry as night approached, yet still he went out to search for the lost sheep. Casting my eye over dignitaries who have shown the same devotion to those in their charge, I cannot by-pass Princess Diana. She visited patients with AIDS and held some little ones in her arms. When she went to Angola she visited those crippled by land mines. She was deeply committed to the campaign to ban landmines, appalled as she was by the human and social consequences of this inhumane weapon which strikes blindly at the innocent.

Jesus, in the same manner, seeks out those who have been damaged as the result of their own actions or the actions of others, and cradles these people in his arms. How many times in our own lives when we have felt defeated by circumstances not of our own making, have we known the presence of our living Shepherd? I certainly have known that peace and love with which he surrounds me at such times. And it is almost as if I can hear his voice, “Peace, be still.”

Jesus knows the feeling of isolation, for his friends ran away when he was arrested. He faced Pilate, Herod and the Pharisees without any legal counsel speaking for him, presenting the truth. Alone he faced crucifixion and death. For these reasons we know Jesus has been before us in circumstances we can but imagine. In him we can place our trust, for he will be with us no matter how black “the night of our soul” we endure. He will go out on a limb, when we are too paralysed by fear and pain to climb to safety in our own strength. No branch is too high, no limb too thorny for the Shepherd of our souls to tackle on our behalf.

For us the choice of trust is easy, for Jesus promised, “My yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” To walk alongside Jesus yoked together in love is to know a life filled with blessings, hope and love.