In recalling the comforting words of Jesus, where he says, "I am the good shepherd," we find familiar words, knowing that we are counted by God and that God knows our names. We take heart in knowing that not only do we seek God, but also that God seeks us, as a shepherd seeks scattered sheep. We can read those words with the highest hope and in the darkest despair. A "good shepherd" is trustworthy and faithful, committed and dependable.
This assurance lingers throughout the pages of scripture, where God is a trusted shepherd. In Ezekiel, God recuses the false shepherds from their work, for they feed themselves, but not the sheep. They have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound the wounded, or brought back the scattered. They have used harsh force, rather than committed love in tending to the sheep, so God, as the true shepherd, speaks on behalf of the flock.
Gathered around graves, we often remember that God is a trusted shepherd when we recite Psalm 23, assured that we not only seek God, but also that God seeks us, going with us to green pastures and leading us to still waters. God walks with us through the darkest valleys. We trust the shepherd because we receive more than mere instruction. God walks with, around, and through the despair of life, so we find solace in hearing Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd."
The only problem is that shepherds use an odd sort of math. We might assume that math is unimportant out in the fields on cool nights or during the long hours of hot days, but math is quite essential. The math of the shepherd is peculiar. The basic numbers are the same because shepherds definitely count one by one, keeping up with the entire flock. No one sheep is ever overlooked. Shepherds are exact; they do not estimate or work with percentages.
Beyond basic counting, though, the math is odd. In elementary school, I remember learning the difference between the "greater than" symbol and the "less than" symbol, which is where shepherds are atypical. In the gospel of Luke, a shepherd notices one sheep missing from the flock, counting in total only ninety-nine. Instead of placing a "less than" symbol after the one sheep, the shepherd puts a "greater than" symbol. The shepherd determines that the value of one is greater than the value of the whole.
We would be hard pressed to find a math teacher anywhere who would agree with this equation. The value of one is usually less than the value of the whole, but then again, shepherds have an odd sort of math. They are trustworthy in the eyes of the one sheep, but what about the rest of the flock that is left without guidance or supervision? The shepherd is bound to return from searching for the one missing sheep to find more than one sheep missing from the ninety-nine who were left.
When the value of one is more than the value of the whole, what happens to the ninety-nine? We can envision the rest of the flock wandering near and far without supervision, searching for water and pasture by themselves. The sheep would cower certainly in fear of the night and face unmitigated danger. However, if the shepherds are right about their math, and the value of one is greater than the value of the whole, we see the picture differently. If this math is true, the ninety-nine might be transformed because the shepherd goes to seek the one. When the value of one is more than the value of the whole, the ninety-nine are not left behind; they are leavened by the value of one.
Only when the value of one is greater than the value of the whole does this make sense. When this does add up, when one is more valuable than many, the good of the whole is not reduced; it is increased, for the value of the whole is tied to the needs of the few. The whole is less because one is in need, and the whole is greater when the one is treasured. The shepherd is good because the weak are strengthened, the sick are comforted, the injured are bound, and the scattered are collected.