“Tell me, suppose
a man had a hundred sheep
and one of them went astray…” –Matthew 18:12
Matthew 18 contains that brief and strange parable about the shepherd who walks away from his 99 sheep in search of a single stray. I have heard preachers preach about this parable in multiple ways. Often trying to tie it to actual shepherding practices. But it has never made sense to me (at least not an economic or mathematical sense). Why would a shepherd abandon (and leave vulnerable) an entire flock, in order to go search for a single lost sheep. How would you explain it to the owner if something happened to the others? What if a wolf came along while you were gone and ate the rest of them? But, of course, Jesus isn’t probably intending to teach a lesson about shepherding here. Looking at the context, the totality of chapter 18 --a chapter filled with images of extravagance-- it is pretty obvious that the ridiculousness of the shepherd leaving the 99 to go in search of the one is supposed to show us something. Probably something about the extravagance of God's love. And recently, I had an experience that opened my eyes to the lesson of this parable in a way I hadn't expected.
During the recent flooding rains our backyard became a swamp. Water standing ankle deep in places; even in the path were we have the concrete pavers, as I stood on the steps water covered my shoes. But, when I went out in the early morning to cover part of the turtle’s pen with a tarp, I didn’t pay any attention to the standing water inside their pen. I assured myself that they were used to this kind of thing—heck, their turtles! And—if I am honest-- I didn’t want to be bothered with trying to collect them in boxes or finding the dog kennel and setting it up as a turtle sanctuary. I guess you could say, I wasn’t really committed to their care. I was willing to make a little effort—to go to just enough discomfort so that I wouldn’t feel badly. I could justify myself by saying: I tried. At least I got out the tarp! But, clearly there was no extravagance in my efforts. At best, it was somewhat reserved.
But when Lucia awoke and saw the yard filling with water, everything changed. Immediately, sans umbrella or shoes, she was out in the rain and the ankle-deep water with a Sterlite container, reaching into the mud and leaves, turning over bricks and bits of nature, gathering her beloved turtles. Of course –out of guilt—I quickly got my wet shoes back on and rushed out to help her (and Lynne—who was already out there). The three of us becoming a turtle transport, carrying plastic bins of curious creatures into the garage where the kennel was already set up to receive them.
What seemed remarkable to me was that Lucia knew each of them by name, and after a couple of trips, knew that one was missing. It was one who often gets into trouble, gets into awkward situations: trapped under a rock, or flipped on its back in the middle of the water dish and unable to right itself. She was aware of its habits and rightly worried for its safety. Because she knew it. And she loved it—with a love that seems beyond reason to me. An extravagant love.
Immediately, she was back out there, and we were back with her; she was turning over rocks and lifting up anything a turtle might hide under until finally she found it. The joy in her voice, the excitement, reminded me of someone-- a shepherd who lost a sheep…a single sheep.
On top of finding her one lost sheep, she also found three or four new babies. They are now living with the other babies in what used to be our “office.” I had dreams of writing several novels and crafting my Nobel Prize refusal speech from that room. But instead it is a turtle nursery (or neo-natal unit) and I am writing from the dinner table (or the front porch).
As I write this morning –windows open, sunlight streaming in-- the rains have subsided, the yard is drying out and Houston has been graced with a week or so of lovely weather (according to channel 13). The grown-up turtles are back in their pen, happily wandering about, hiding under rocks and flipping themselves over.
This may sound frivolous, but I am sitting here contemplating the love of God, the weirdly, wonderfully extravagant love of God, and I am thinking –yes! I get it now. It is like the love of a young woman for her turtles—especially for that one awkward turtle who tends to get lost. Like a wandering sheep.
And I am glad for that.
And I hope the next time it rains, I will have a little bit of that extravagance, too.
God open my eyes, that I may read Your Word,
Open my ears, that I may hear Your message in it,
And open my heart that I will always be filled
with the Love that is found there.