The other ninety-nine sheep won’t let me fall asleep these days.
The parable of the one lost sheep has been really bothering me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the parable. I love that Jesus treasures and pursues me more doggedly than anyone else in the world. I love that he searches the highways and in the hedges, whether I’m aimlessly drifting or willfully wandering. Even if I’m shaking my fist at him or at the rest of the flock.
After all, turning the world upside down to rescue us is in Jesus’s DNA. Literally. His incarnation as a human being left no doubt that God will leave everything perfect and beautiful to reach us even in the most broken and ugly places. Jesus’s alongside presence means everything to me. Because it means he will seek after me, even to the ends of the earth, and carry my weary, sorry self home. Even if no one else does.
Even if no one else does.
That’s the thing that’s been striking me deeply. Churning in my brain.
The other ninety-nine sheep won’t let me fall asleep these days. How could that one sheep wander off all alone? Didn’t anyone notice she’d been left behind? Or that she’d run away? Did no one care? Was she limping? Was she distracted? Malnourished? Misguided? Attacked by predators from the outside? From the inside? Were the ninety-nine too focused on their own foraging? Did they just shrug their shoulders because that one was a troublemaker anyway?
Pondering these sheep has kept me awake. Because however this story started—whether the lost one chose to leave or the others ignored her floundering—she now found herself separated from safety, from nourishment, from fellowship. Of course, I realize this is just a parable. Maybe I’m reading way too much into it. But I don’t think I am. Because it was the Good Shepherd himself telling it, standing in the middle of people flocking to hear him. And the truth he taught that day was the depth of his fierce love for them and for us: his precious prone-to-wander sheep. He assured the sheep that he will keep on coming for us, no matter where we are or why we left or how long we’ve wandered. Because, while ninety-nine percent is quite an impressive retention rate for humanity, it’s not enough for divinity. Not for the one who spilled his blood so that none would be lost. None.
And the people listening that day knew it. Because Jesus was alluding to Ezekiel 34, God’s promise of the Good Shepherd to come. And that promise also included some words for the whole flock.
“And as for you, my flock, thus said the Lord GOD: . . . Is it not enough for you to graze on choice grazing ground, but you must also trample with your feet what is left from your grazing? And is it not enough for you to drink clear water, but you must also muddy with your feet what is left? . . . [Y]ou pushed with flank and shoulder against the feeble ones and butted them with your horns until you scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock . . . Then I will appoint a single shepherd over them to tend them—my servant David . . . I will grant them a covenant of friendship . . . For you, my flock, flock that I tend, are mine; and I am your God . . .” 
My heart aches when I think about the scattered one. About her bruised and downcast soul. And to be honest, my heart is tender because I’ve not only seen that sheep, I’ve been that sheep. I know the bewilderment of being crowded out. The pain of being dismissed. The emptiness of realizing I was going it alone. Familiar feelings for so many of us these days, it seems.
Yet Jesus has pursued me to every single one of those bitter places. Lifted my head and sat down next to me in the dirt. Even quietly, patiently held my hand while I shook my other fist. The Good Shepherd has never failed to seek me, even on the days I didn’t want to be sought. Nor failed to bind up my wounds, even when I didn’t realize I was bleeding.
And so, what stings deeply these days, what troubles me when I read those red letters, is not that I’ve been the one crowded out. Instead, I’m grieved that mine may have been the shoulder in someone else’s way. Did I leave trampled leaves and muddy water in my wake? Did I tell a weary one to just try harder? Did I demand that he consider my circumstances while I disregarded his? Did I mock the one who disagreed with me? Roll my eyes at the one who was confused? Jesus doesn’t. Ever. He gently pursues and carries his sheep home, bearing burdens we can’t possibly know.
Of course, I know I’m not the Good Shepherd. I know I will still fail to notice. And others will still fail to notice me. I am desperately grateful that even as we fail, Jesus continues to seek and pursue us. That he readily enters the places I’m afraid to go. Or refuse to go. And that he continues to shepherd me toward being a kinder, more observant sheep, a buddy in the flock. A sheep others can count on.
As I lie awake counting these questions, I find that Jesus pursues me even here. Inviting me to leave my disquiet and learn to go searching along with him. For discouraged sheep who need their shepherd. But who could also really use a friend.
I want to become that friend. To pursue others by coming alongside them. To do better at remembering that the flock is really just one big buddy system. Where I notice others drifting—or running—toward the edges. Where I go lock arms with one who finds herself at the fenceline and simply listen. Taking my cues from the only shepherd who’s actually experienced first-hand what it feels like to be a sheep, living among other sheep.
“By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love and unselfish concern for one another.” John 13:35 AMP
Cover image by Martin Schmidli.
 Quted from Ezekiel 34:17–31