Published May 27, 2004
Mass is over, and we are walking into the narthex when we spot Jude, 3, the beloved son of our neighbors, who is carrying a piece of paper in his hands as if it were a priceless vase.
I lean down to examine the paper and discover it is a sheet from Sunday school, which he has colored with crayons. The sentence at top tells children about God’s love for the lost sheep.
After pointing to two cotton balls glued to the paper, representing, of course, sheep, Jude divulges the deeper meaning to me.
“If a sheep is lost,” he explains, “You look for it and bring it home.”
This is an important truth for a little fellow to learn. Like many of us, he may some day stray from the fold, but if he remembers the parable of the lost sheep, he will also know, somewhere deep in his heart, that he will be found.
Flocks and shepherds were major themes in the time when Jesus lived, and although today folks in developed nations rarely, if ever, encounter shepherds, the words of the one called the Good Shepherd still ring so very true.
For one, Jesus said that the sheep know the voice of the shepherd and will only follow that sound, which makes me think about the voices in my own life that I know by heart.
When I pick up the phone and it is my sister Rosemary, my cousin Julie, my Aunt Rita, my best friend Pam or my mother-in-law Lou, they never have to identify themselves because their voices are familiar, in the deep sense of family, which means linked by blood or love, or both.
And sometimes I wonder what Jesus’ voice sounded like. Was he a tenor or a bass when he burst into song? Did he have a rumbling laugh?
When we someday hear his voice, will we be startled by how familiar it is and how much it sounds like the voices of our loved ones?
Christ also told us that a good shepherd would do anything for his flock, which meant that if just one sheep strayed, the shepherd would drop everything and go look for it.
In our society today, we might run the numbers and conclude that one out of 100 is no big loss. Is it worth the resources and effort to hunt the one that is missing, when we still have 99 more?
How tempting it is to give up on people. Especially in large parishes, where a few missing faces in the pews might easily be overlooked and where it is so hard to even learn people’s names.
God runs the numbers differently, though, since in his eyes, each person is precious.
There are billions of folks living upon the earth today and billions who came before us, but Scripture tells us that God knew each one of us before we existed in the womb and carved our names in the palm of His hand.
Too bad that secular society tries to reduce people to a string of numbers and makes it tough for us to feel we are special. Call the doctor and give him the insurance card number; check out books at the library with another number; get paid at work with a third number; buy your groceries with another series of digits, and on and on.
Life can seem cheap and disposable when we are reduced to numbers. Embryos used in experiments are tossed out, and the cost of keeping prisoners in jail rather than executing them is viewed as an accounting problem.
But God evidently uses a different accounting system, since he will leave the 99 to seek the one that is lost and carry it gently back to the fold.
Another lovely lesson in the story of the Good Shepherd reveals the ways that children first experience God through their earthly shepherds, known as Mom and Dad.
Mom is the one who teaches them about selfless love because the intricate and eternal relationship between mother and child, from the very start, is embroidered with a rich array of sacrifices, which mothers routinely make without any fanfare.
No matter who she is or where she lives, no matter what her skin color is, and no matter what language she speaks, every expectant Mom senses she is going to lose her figure, undergo labor pains and take time to recover from the birth.
Later, the Mom will sacrifice sleep to tend to her lamb, share the food on her plate if necessary and do without a new dress if the child needs shoes.
In a wondrous way, the baby discovers in the womb, on some subliminal level, the meaning of sacrificial love. Even before birth, the little lamb senses that love means being protected in a nice cushiony environment and being nourished by the food the mother eats.
And just as the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, it is very possible that the baby recognizes the mother’s voice while still in the womb, which is part of the bonding experience taking place mysteriously and quietly.
God sends some lambs to their Moms through adoption and the bond that is forged, both spiritually and emotionally, between the twosome is every bit as precious—and as eternal—as the bond sealed in blood.
Children learn another facet of the Good Shepherd’s love through their Dad, who reveals a different face of God.
A baby explores the world through sensations and soon discovers that Mom is soft, with silky skin and a delicate voice, while Dad is bigger with a scratchy face and a voice so deep that it may be a little frightening at times.
Often, Mom’s love is more lenient, while Dad is the rule giver, a truism that has led to the school of childrearing known as “Wait until your father gets home.”
Some children are fortunate enough to be loved by other shepherds, namely grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents, and these children surely get a chance to sample heaven on earth.
Let’s face it. Most grandparents and doting aunts are reluctant to exert punishment on little ones, so the child often gets away with many things that would be considered anathema at home.
All these early experiences of love are imbedded in children’s memories—and perhaps that is why a little child like our neighbor’s son Jude takes so easily to the biblical story about the Good Shepherd.
In a mother’s touch and a father’s embrace, children have already experienced the fierce, protective and selfless love that the shepherd gives to his flock.
No wonder children like Jude have no trouble believing that the one called the Good Shepherd would willingly lay down his life for the flock. After all, if a child is well loved and cherished at home, he knows in his heart of hearts that God would drop everything to bring him home.
Lorraine V. Murray writes a bi-weekly column in the Saturday Faith and Values section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?” she lives in Decatur with her husband, Jef, and works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. You may e-mail her at: email@example.com.