I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. [John 10:14-16 (NLT)]
In Ezekiel 34, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel—not the caretakers of sheep but the prophets, priests, and leaders who were supposed to protect their people in the same way a shepherd does his sheep. He accused them of not searching for lost sheep and abandoning their flock to be attacked by wild animals.
Surely the people were familiar with Ezekiel’s words when they heard Jesus tell the parable we know as “The Lost Sheep” or “The Good Shepherd.” Told both in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness so he can search for a lost one. Although its point is to illustrate God’s overwhelming concern for saving His people and to explain Jesus’s conduct in associating with sinners, the shepherd’s behavior in abandoning ninety-nine sheep seems irresponsible. Who’s going to keep them from going astray, drowning in a pond of water (that wet wool is heavy), or being devoured by hungry wolves? Won’t the shepherd return with the one stray sheep only to find a dozen or more missing or dead? That’s hardly cause for celebration! Did that shepherd abandon his flock like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s prophecy?
If this was a true story, before heading off into the wilderness, the good shepherd would have entrusted his flock to another shepherd. Biblical scholars, however, remind us that Jesus’s parables weren’t meant to portray real-life situations any more than were Aesop’s fables. We know a tortoise won’t challenge a hare to a race, geese don’t lay golden eggs, and a fox can’t talk to a crow. Yet, in spite of their inconsistencies, both Jesus’s and Aesop’s stories make their points.
Nevertheless, Jesus always seemed to be very concise in His choice of words and I wonder if he deliberately omitted a second shepherd or caretaker for a reason. Perhaps there is only one shepherd because there is only one God. He is not about to share us with another god so the shepherd won’t entrust the care of his beloved flock to anyone else. God is omnipresent, unlimited by time or space, and can be in all places at the same time. When the good shepherd rashly goes into the wilderness for the one lost sheep, he hasn’t abandoned the other ninety-nine. Ever-present, while he’s off saving the stray, he also is there tending the rest of the flock.
The Pharisees never questioned Jesus about those abandoned sheep. Like their predecessors, they’d abandoned their flock and failed to seek the lost; Jesus’s parable made it clear that a new shepherd was in town. Perhaps the parable also helped prepare the disciples for a time when they would feel abandoned. Jesus soon would be leaving them but, like the good shepherd, He would return. His disciples, like the sheep left behind, would remain safe in His care. I’m no longer troubled by those abandoned sheep because I know God will never desert us. Indeed, the Lord is our shepherd and we will not be afraid. Whether or not we are aware of His presence, He is close beside us.