Lost and Found 5 / The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Lost and Found stories abound in our culture: they characterize our books, paintings, movies, jails, furniture/vehicle restorations, counseling sessions, thrift stores, internet searches, posters of this wayward dog or that cat, and of course, our various religions and their varying definitions of Lost and Found.

My favorite Lost and Found story is from the New Testament, Jesus and the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12–14) and Luke (Luke 15:3–7). In light of my recent personal circumstances, it has taken on a whole new meaning for me—I am living it.

For those unfamiliar with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, it goes like this: Jesus had an audience of tax collectors, and sinners and a couple of his detractors said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responded to the criticism with a parable. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?”

Once the shepherd finds the lost sheep, he rejoices and asks his neighbors to rejoice with him. Jesus concluded the parable, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

I have a special connection to the Parable of the Lost Sheep because for almost two decades of teaching creative writing and English, I used it as a prompt, often for a semester in-class final. Students typically had 30 minutes to write a 150-word response in longhand explaining their decision in the shepherd scenario: should he leave the 99 and look for the one?

I always wrote on it, too. Toward the end of the period, we would each read aloud a representative passage from our response. The classes were usually split 50/50 on having the shepherd search for the lost sheep, with an occasional clever politician wanting it both ways, such as having the shepherd build a fence around the flock before leaving or taking them with him. In my mind, there is no having it both ways in the Parable of the Lost Sheep: the shepherd assumes risk and goes searching—or he does not.

In all those years, I never had a single student who didn’t complete the assignment or share a passage. The prompt invariably produced the most interesting writing of any given class, and I saved many of the best pieces for reasons I can’t explain. I also saved many of my responses.

One time, back in 2009 or 2010, I opened with: “Who in this world has not gone astray and found themselves lost? Lost in addiction? Lost in depression? Lost in delusion? Lost in poverty? Lost in love?”

When I have become lost during my ordeal, several shepherds left the safety and surety of their 99 and came looking for me. My older sister was one. Another was a prominent citizen of Astoria with perhaps a lot to lose by associating with me. I had my neighbor across the street and her kooky dog. There were six or seven inmates of the Clatsop County Jail who sought me out with aid during my wandering in the wilderness of incarceration. A reader of my rain book came forward out of the clouds and gray and erected a beacon.

I am lucky to have had multiple shepherds, and more may appear. It might take only one. I have learned that the shepherd has to go out and search, on foot, traversing unknown or inhospitable terrain, seeking a face-to-face encounter. It’s damn hard work and sometimes, unlike in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, shepherds fail. I am lucky mine have not and we have rejoiced together.

“Wouldn’t everyone in this class want someone to come looking for them if they became lost in body or spirit? It’s what most of you write about every day in your journal.” I wrote that ending paragraph for another response, in 2004 or 2005. Recently, it occurred to me that I have been writing on the Lost Sheep prompt for a long, long time. Today, I’m writing on it with a new perspective, urgency, understanding and desire to go after the lost people in a culture that seems to produce so many of them.

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