It’s all too easy, you know, to let the Parables of Jesus flow over us without really allowing them to speak to us – to say (On Today’s Gospel “Luke 15:1-10) “Ok, we are the sheep and God is the Shepherd, and that’s it.” But if we look a bit deeper, this parable. like all the others, leaves us with more questions than answers – and that’s just what Jesus intended. So we might ask “What kind of sheep am I? Was I ever lost and then found? Did I ever stray like that?” Or we might say “Why does God allow us to stray? Surely he ought to be a better shepherd than that?”
I think it might best to start with that question about God. The point is, and it needs to be repeated again and again, that when we speak about God, we’re never describing what he is really like. We talk about God as if he were a human being – a shepherd caring for sheep, or a woman searching for a coin. We do so because we haven’t got any other way of speaking about him. But in doing, so we can sometimes forget that these are merely words – metaphors – expressions to explain the mystery that no words can explain. The danger is that some start thinking that these words literally mean what they say. In the Old Testament, for example, the writers in searching to describe what God is like, often speak of him having emotions – first feeling angry and then deciding to have mercy and forgive – as if he were a human being like us.
But God is not like us, and so when St Paul talks about God, in our Reading today, (1 Timothy 1:12-17) he does not just talk about God having “patience” as we might have – sometimes!! No, he talks about God having “Inexhaustible patience” – patience that never ends. And that is certainly NOT like us at all is it? Indeed, that’s the wonder of Almighty God, that he loves us silly human beings…. Endlessly – Inexhaustibly – God never gets tired of loving us. There is however one word we use for what God is like that is not at all human. We say that God has grace – that God is grace – which means endlessly self-giving – and we sing “Amazing grace” and hopefully have some rough idea what that actually means.
I wonder if you sometimes meet people who say “Why should I bother about God? What has God ever done for me?” Frankly I find it hard to have any kind of patience with people like that, although I try to, and I say. “What has God done for us? Well, we’re alive, we have food and water, sunshine and rain, we have this beautiful planet Earth in the midst of a Universe of stars. And we also have family and friends, and so many modern things like cars and roads and shops and…” Oh I could go on for ever…. but I am losing patience!
This takes us neatly on to the other set of questions on what kind of sheep are we? The point here is that we’re not meant to work this out. At one moment we may mess up and be like that sheep that strayed, needing to be brought back to safety. At another time we may be close to God like a sheep that has never strayed. But Jesus warns us in many places never to just think of ourselves as good sheep, and begin to look at others and think how awful THEY are – to think why can’t they be good like us? Because if we think like that, Jesus says, we are hypocrites, and worse than THEY are.
In one sense however all of us all the time are sheep that have strayed and need saving. What do I mean by that? Well, we humans are all part of one another. Think of the mess we humans make of the world God has given us – the selfishness that makes us ruin our beautiful planet in many ways, both through war and violence and through pollution and lack of care. Individually we may do all we can to be peaceful and loving and to care for our environment, but we’re still helpless in the midst of all this human greed and aggression, as the very rich get even richer and others struggle in poverty and hunger. We’re part of this human world that is very messed up. We are part of it whether we like it or not, and however much we try to do our little bit to improve things, a total solution is beyond us, and it is easy to despair.
All this was in the mind of Jesus as he speaks of us as sheep that have strayed. He was thinking of the prophet Isaiah’s great words “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) The solution does not lie entirely with us, however hard we try to be good and kind. In the end, the solution lies beyond our reach, the solution lies with a God who has endless patience and love, giving us a vision and a purpose that renews us day after day. God’s goodness and glory is always greater than our imagining!