My brothers and sisters, so much of the world's attention and resources are focused upon those who are considered to be the best and the brightest among us. The dominant cultural mindset of today says that everyone ought to be able to keep up; and if someone falls behind, it is because they have failed to take proper responsibility for themselves. Those left behind should have tried more strenuously, prayed more earnestly, studied more diligently, worked more consistently, and perhaps even lived more righteously. The present and the future belong to the victors, not the victims.
This is the current mindset of our contemporary culture, and this is the reason why the nation's resources and the tension have shifted away from the needs of the marginalized and is now almost exclusively focused upon the priorities and interests of the majority. But, thank God that the kingdom of Jesus Christ does not conform to the cultural and political mindset of America. Instead of an exclusive focus on the priorities and privileges of the majority, Jesus shifts our attention to the care and concern of the minorities and the marginalized rather than keeping pace exclusively with those who are living large and doing well. Jesus in the text focuses our attention upon those who have been left back, left out, and left behind.
In a group of people who have status and significance in society, Jesus lifts up one of the have-nots and then says to the haves, according to Matthew 18 and 10, "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones." Specifically, Jesus is referring here to a child who, according to the social norms of the day, did not have equal standing and equal significance to an adult. Figuratively or symbolically, Jesus is referring to any individual who is considered to be less than the standard set by the status quo. Jesus says to the dominant majority take care or be careful that you do not despise one of these little ones or one of the least among you.
True Christian community is not just concerned with the will of the majority. True Christian community is also attentive to the care for the least among us. Those who comprise the majority in any given church or community have a tendency to tolerate the minorities rather than embrace the minorities on equal footing. Those of us who represent majority thought, majority perspective, and majority lifestyles always have the tendency to look down upon or despise those whom we consider to be beneath our standards of acceptability. But the very people that we only tolerate are embraced by Jesus. The very people that we look down upon are lifted up by Jesus.
Then, to emphasize his truth concerning the value of the least among us, Jesus gives this powerful illustration: If a shepherd has 100 sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray; and if he finds it, truly, I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. This illustration teaches us at least four things about Christian life and the life of the Christian community.
First, the illustration lifts up the need for every Christian disciple to take close and constant inventory of his or her life. In the illustration, how would the shepherd have known that one of his sheep had gone astray if he had not taken constant inventory of his flock? Notice that the shepherd does not assume that all of the sheep are safely in the flock. Ninety-nine sheep can easily look like 100 sheep from a distance. The only way to detect the deficiency was for the shepherd to conduct a close inspection and to take a careful inventory. At a general cursory glance, our lives may look to be in order and may look to be OK, but take a closer look at the details of our daily lives. Take a closer look at our work performance and our behind-the-scenes behavior. Take a closer look at what really motivates and moves us to do the things that we do and to say the things that we say. We all know how to make a good presentation from a distance. We all know how to make it seem like everything is fine from a distance. We all know how to look good from a distance, but take a closer look. Close inspection and constant inventory helps to avoid the pitfalls of self-deception. Most people only tell us what they think we want to hear because they really don't want to upset us or make us mad, but every child of God has got to be aware of his or her own deficiencies and weaknesses. And we should not always have to depend upon someone else to tell us where we are weak and wanting. We should be honest enough and candid enough with ourselves that we can admit and address our own fallacies and flaws without getting defensive, making excuses, and always trying to lay the blame for our shortcomings on someone else. The best evaluation is a self-evaluation. Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true and thou canst be false to no one."
The shepherd in this illustration of Jesus does not need anyone to tell him that he is missing a sheep. This shepherd conducts his own inventory, inspects his own work, and determines for himself that he is deficient by one sheep. If more of us would stop perpetrating for the public and start concentrating on our own character and performance, we, too, would discover that no matter how good we look from a distance, all of us have something in some area of our lives to work on.
Secondly, this illustration teaches us about the need to always strive for excellence. It's one thing to recognize our shortcomings; it's another thing to do something about our shortcomings. Too many of us are content to live with pretty good rather than strive for excellence. Upon discovering his one deficiency, the shepherd could have said, "Ninety-nine is okay. I can let one deficiency ride. I'm all right." But that which distinguishes the pretty good among us from the truly great among us is the desire to not just get by or do OK, it's the desire to be and do the very best. Good. Better. Best. Never let it rest till good is better and better is best.
What made Michael Jordan not just one of the greatest NBA players of all time but one of the greatest athletes of all times was his willingness to constantly work on himself and constantly work to improve his own game. Michael Jordan stopped trying to compete against other players and started focusing on improving his own game. Michael Jordan played to be better than Michael Jordan. And this is a lesson for all of us who take the call to be excellent seriously. The shepherd in the text was not motivated by mediocrity but by excellence to work on his one deficiency.
Thirdly, the illustration teaches us that everyone has value and everyone counts in God's kingdom. The majority rules, but the members of the majority are not the only ones that matter in God's eyesight. In God's kingdom, value is not defined by great numbers. If Jesus defined values by the greater numbers, the shepherd in the illustration never would have left 99 sheep to go after just one. God's value system defies our mathematical assumptions. Why would the shepherd leave 99 to go after just one? Why would the shepherd step away from the majority to go after a minority? Why would the shepherd risk the security of the greater number to attend to the needs of just one? Most of us would not have done that because we are impressed and moved by large numbers. But God is concerned with each and every individual. In God's economy sometimes one requires more energy and more effort than the 99, for it is not God's will that any one of us, even among the least of us, should be lost. While we constantly cater to the masses of the majority, Jesus underscores the value of one. God does not always have to move through a majority. God can move through just one.
Legend has it that in a rural region of the state of Kentucky during the early 1800s, a young school teacher showed up at a wooden-framed school house ready to teach her class of students. After the first few days of school, she was disappointed that only one student showed up for class consistently. After a while, the teacher got over her disappointment, and the teacher determined to just make the best of her one student. So she prepared to teach her one student like she was preparing to teach 50 students. She poured into that one student all of the knowledge and wisdom she had. She gave that one student the best that she could give. When the school year was complete and it was time for her one consistent student to move on, she thought that she had only helped one student. She thought that she had only taught one student, but that one student's name was Abraham Lincoln.
Never underestimate the power of one. Don't overlook anyone. Don't take anyone for granted. Don't ever assume that God cannot use and God cannot bless anyone.
Fourthly, this illustration teaches us that we should never give up on anybody or anything God has given us without a valiant effort. When the shepherd discovered that he was missing one sheep, he could have thought to himself, "Well, I'll just let that one go and chalk that one up as a loss." But in spite of all the negative odds against that one sheep's survival, this shepherd refused to let go and refused to give up on any one of the sheep placed in his care. And, so, the shepherd got his rod and his staff, the rod to drive away ferocious predators and the staff to guide his lost sheep. He got his rod and his staff, looked over the 99 sheep grazing peacefully on the side of the mountain and made his trek back out into the wilderness searching for his one lost sheep. We do not know how far he searched, and we do not know how long he searched, but he kept on searching. He would not give up on his one lost sheep. I see him walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but he would not give up on his one lost sheep. He kept on searching. I see him climbing up some steep mountains, but he would not give up on his one lost sheep. He kept on searching. I see him wading through some rough waters, but he would not give up on his one lost sheep. He kept on searching. I can see him looking over some steep cliffs, but he would not give up on his one lost sheep. He kept on searching. I can see the sun fading fast behind the shaggy shoulders of the western horizon, the temperature is dropping, the chilling winds of the night are beginning to blow. In the distance, night-time predators howl to announce that they are on their prowl, but still the shepherd would not give up on his one lost sheep. He kept on searching. He searches through the night and calls his lost sheep by name until, finally, he sees something moving rapidly in his direction through the dark shadows of the night. Then, just before danger can strike and wild predators can pounce, the shepherd takes his sheep up into his arms, hugs it gently, and carries it back to the safety of the fold with joy in his heart and praises on his lips.
Well, you know, in this life we can lose that which God gives us. In this life, sometimes we can get separated from that which God gives us. Marriages can turn sour. Our relationships can get rocky. Our career plans can go belly-up. Our money can run out. Our friends can disappear. Our families can fall apart, but before we throw in the towel and chalk it all up as a loss and completely give up on our loved ones and on our dreams and on our hopes, we should pray and ask God for strength to keep on searching and keep on praying and keep on trying. We should never easily give up on any relationship without giving it all we've got. We should never let go of anything good, anything of value, without doing everything we can to hold on. We may have to go out of our way in order to retrieve it. We may have to leave our comfort zones in order to get back that which God has given us. We may have to go sometimes the extra mile to accomplish our mission, but we will never know what God has in store for us unless we try.
Would you join me in prayer?
Gracious God, we praise you and we thank you for coming to see about each one of us in our times and in our contexts of distress and despair. Now give us the desire, give us the compassion to leave the comforts and conveniences of our majorities and go after those who have been left out, left back, and left behind. This is our calling and this is our Christian mission. In the name of the Christ who came to see and who came to rescue all of us, we pray. Amen.