"Which of you," Jesus said,"having one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn't leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?" - Luke 15:4
The answer to the above question seems obvious enough to me: No self-respecting shepherd in their right mind would put the whole flock at risk to chase after one wayward sheep. A lost sheep or two is the expected cost of the sheep business. It might be better to keep that insubordinate wanderer away from the fold's genepool anyway.
As with most parables, the element that is out of step with the world points to something wonderful about God. Humans would consider one sheep an acceptable loss, but not God. For God, no loss is acceptable.
That's because God is too busy loving and searching to condemn us to the land of the lost forever. There's not a hint of blame or judgement in this parable. Sure Jesus talks about repentance, a word that means "turn around." That's not to excoriate and upbraid, but to encourage the wanderer to make a U-turn and surrender to the relentlessly seeking arms of the good shepherd.
You know what it is to feel lost and/or distanced from God. If you are not in the land of the lost now, you've been there before and will likely find yourself there again. Here's the good news, quite possibly the best news possible: God is right there with you and all of heaven is waiting to celebrate your return.
Shepherding God, I praise you that the hymn is true:
And all through the mountains, thunder-riven, and up from the rocky steep,
There arose a cry to the gate of heaven, "Rejoice! I have found my sheep!"
And the angels echoed around the throne, "Rejoice, for the Lord brings back God's own!"
("There Were Ninety and Nine that Safely Lay" by Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane, 1868)
Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.