“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7, NRSV)
We are all familiar with the famous good shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost one, who is the keeper of the gate, who lays down his life for the sheep. This brief essay is about the good shepherd’s younger brother, the bad shepherd. We all know him well, although he usually goes by another name.
The bad shepherd, fearing for the safety of his flock, built a wall around his sheep while they were grazing on the mountain. The wall saved the bad shepherd from one trouble that often plagued his older brother: sheep wandering off from the flock and being lost. The bad shepherd’s sheep did not wander. The boundary between the flock and the rest of the mountain was clearly marked; the wall kept the sheep from straying. It kept wolves from entering the flock. It kept the sheep safe. By the end of the day, the sheep had eaten all of the foliage inside the wall and they began to starve.
During another summer, the bad shepherd found that one of his sheep had fallen from a small mountain cliff, breaking her leg. He knew that he could nurse the sheep back to health with a couple of months of careful attention. On the other hand, such an approach might lead the sheep to believe that there would be no real consequences to jumping off of cliffs. She might jump again — and she might even convince other sheep to go with her. These worries whirring in his mind, the bad shepherd carefully gathered the wounded sheep in his arms and carried her off to another mountain, far away from the other sheep. He left her there in the hope that she would heal herself and realize the true costs of cliff-jumping.
One morning, the bad shepherd counted his sheep and found that one was missing. He asked his brother, the good shepherd, what to do. “Leave the flock behind, because those sheep are safe, and search for the lost one,” the brother advised. Yet the bad shepherd felt unsure. What if the lost sheep did not want to be found? If the sheep wanted to be with the flock, surely he never would have gotten lost in the first place! So the bad shepherd made up his mind: he would not wander after lost sheep. The sheep could find their own way back. Morning after morning, he made this same decision. Finally, his job became quite manageable. With no remaining sheep, it’s easy to be a shepherd.
This Christmas season, I pray that the mercy and love of the Good Shepherd will be with all and each of us bad shepherds.