You know this story. You’ve heard it so many times, it doesn’t sound fresh anymore:
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
We like this passage, in theory. We like the idea that Jesus will come after us when we are lost. But if we’re familiar enough with scripture to know this story well, we must be honest: Most of the time, we probably identify more with the 99 sheep who aren’t lost. And if we’re really honest, that shepherd comes across as kind of a dupe.
Here are some thoughts we might find creeping around the edges of our consciousness, when we allow ourselves to feel like we’re comfortably within the fold of Catholicism:
What a poor businessman he must be, to neglect his 99 superior sheep and waste the day risking his neck to clamber around searching for the one outlier. How much could one sheep be worth, anyway? Especially if he allowed himself to be separated from the flock – that doesn’t say much about his commitment to being a sheep, does it? Isn’t there a danger a wandering sheep could lead other sheep astray?
Maybe it would be better for the herd in general if we allow natural selection to weed out the inferior sheep who are dragging down the rest of the group. Do we even want sheep like that in our fold? Is this really the best use of the shepherd’s time and resources? Shouldn’t he be focusing on the very real needs and desires of the sheep who went to the trouble of obeying their master’s basic commands?
Not only is it imprudent from a business standpoint, he has his reputation to consider. How does it make him look, if he admits that he allowed the one to go astray? Maybe he’s spent a lot of time assuring his customers (okay, I have no idea how sheep business works. Just cut me some slack) that he’s different from other shepherds, and would never allow one of his sheep to astray. If he goes after the one, he’s admitting to the world that he’s not so perfect after all.
And if he admits to the world that he’s not so perfect, they may lose their confidence in shepherds in general. People may start to think there’s no point in entrusting their sheep to anyone, if even a good shepherd with a strong reputation can’t keep track of the flock in his care.
This sounds a little ridiculous, I know. But people are ridiculous.
And people will eventually work themselves around to saying:
No, for the good of sheep in general, it would be best to let that one sheep go. It’s sad, but we have to think of the rest of the flock.
And the rest of the flock agrees. They may notice someone’s missing, but they will all agree among themselves, that, while it’s very sad someone was lost, well . . . We never had any temptation to stray. We never found ourselves lost. We never felt cold or abandoned or hounded. We never fell and broke our bones.
Sounds to us like the flock is doing just fine, overall. Because we’re fine. So why make a fuss, shepherd?
The reason the shepherd makes a fuss is because he takes his sheep personally.
Because he’s spent so much time caring for these sheep, he’s allowed himself to care about them as individuals, not just as interchangeable flock numbers. He knows that there’s a lot of meat and wool to be gotten from 99 sheep, and almost none to be got from one. But it’s not about what he can get out of them. He knows that sheep. To him, it’s not interchangeable or replaceable. If he simply shrugs and lets the sheep go, he’ll be up all night, feeling torments of guilt and worry as he vividly imagines that poor little one shivering and terrified in the dark, or being run down and torn apart by wolves, or horribly tangled in thorns and slowly starving, or languishing with broken bones and a terrible thirst at the bottom of a cliff.
It’s just one sheep, after all. But a good shepherd knows that sheep. He can’t just shrug off its suffering.
So now, let’s say the sheep is the victim of sexual abuse or assault – a victim at the hands of other Catholics. The sheep hasn’t wandered off; it’s been stolen. The sheep needs someone to put everything else on hold while the shepherd – say, a good priest, or a good bishop, or the principal of a good school, or a journalist, or a mother – goes off after that sheep.
It’s not a great move from a business standpoint, is it, shepherd? There are 99 Catholics who aren’t being abused, and they have needs, too.
It’s not great for Catholics’ reputation. Do we want everyone to know about the Church’s negligence? Wouldn’t it be easier to just let that one sheep go? Do we really need every last one, when there are so many less troublesome sheep who also need tending? It’s unfortunate, but if you measure the harm of the scandal against the good you could do for all the other ninety-nine…
I know the sex abuse scandal is still relatively fresh for Australians. I’m here as a scandal-weary American to tell you that you should keep it fresh. Keep it fresh, no matter how many times you hear the story. As painful as that might be, do not let yourself become jaded with this story. Do not become weary of the victims themselves.
Some American Catholics haven’t learned a damn thing from our ordeal. Some American Catholics, when they hear about new victims of sexual assault and abuse by Catholics, are still dragging out all the old defenses:
Well, but look at all the good fruits.
Well, but look at all the energy we waste if we focus on the tiny minority.
Well, but we have to think of our reputation.
Well, but no one will trust us if we admit there’s a problem.
Well, why would you even dare to criticise us? Is it because you hate shepherding and want anarchy?
Well, but it’s just one sheep. It’s unfortunate, but . . . we’re in the fold, and we’re doing all right.
Meanwhile, the victims are allowed to go un-rescued, shivering and terrified in the dark, broken, abandoned, dying of thirst, because the shepherds only care about the 99.
Damn this kind of thinking to Hell. This is not from the Lord.
Keep the story fresh. Each of those lambs is irreplaceable.