“What do you think?” Remember this means sit down and hold on because the illustration is going to be different than human standards.
God is like a shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep on the hillside to look for the lost sheep. (Matthew 18:12-14, John 15, 4-7) Wrong answer. I am sure many of you have thought about how the shepherd was so concerned and went and looked for the lost sheep. Stupid shepherd. God is like a stupid shepherd. He left ninety-nine sheep on the hillside. Let’s look at this from a financial perspective. Female sheep are worth about $300 each. A male sheep is worth $100. The female sheep, of course, produces milk, cheese, and the new flock. Let’s just say that the average value of each sheep in a flock of 100 is $200. So the entire flock is worth $20,000. God is like a stupid shepherd who left $19,800 worth of sheep on a hillside to look for a lousy $200 sheep. “What do you think?” It does not say in the parable that the shepherd took the ninety-nine back to the encampment, which may have been a journey of hours, and left them safely with the other shepherds. The shepherd left them on the hillside. Let’s say the encampment is just three hours away. Most shepherds would say, “Tough luck, a sheep is gone. By the time I get back, the sheep will be six hours ‘further lost.'” The kingdom values every individual sheep so much that you want to look for it immediately before it gets ‘more lost.’ This is why Jesus has the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine on the hillside and looks for the lost sheep before it gets too far off.
This picture is a mural in the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth. It shows a young smiling Christ. The artist has the sheep looking the shepherd in the eye with a look that seems to be saying, “Thanks, I needed that.” In the Kingdom of God and individual is important. By human standards, the bottom line is more valued. It is not as if the ninety-nine were not important, but it was important for the shepherd to begin searching immediately before the lost sheep strayed too far. We can see this illustrated in the life of Jesus.
In the story of the blind man who was kicked out of the synagogue in Jerusalem, Jesus found him first when he was blind (John 9). God through Jesus healed the man. Jesus then heard that the man had been excommunicated and Jesus searched for him. The use of the Greek word for search meant that Jesus searched for him with great diligence and finally found him. We need to be found when we are blind and when we can see. The Good Shepherd searhed for the formerly poor blind beggar who had just begun a new life. He is valued. Archaeologically we have found a sign for the Sanhedrin at the entrance/exit to the temple. The men who kicked the man out of the synagogue were Sanhedrin members. When these bad shepherds heard that God healed a man through the ministry of someone not trained in one of their “seminaries,” they called him to testify. They doubted that the man had been healed so they called his friends and neighbors and asked, “Is this the man who was blind?” These bad shepherds did not even know the man who had been begging outside their front door. You would think they would have known all the blind people in their community. Theologically, the importance of the parable is that a small insignificant sheep has great vlaue in the Kingdom of God.
What is Jesus trying to do with this imagery of large and small, valued and not valued? These things influence time and money. The smallest coin was a mite. Jesus enjoyed going to the temple and watching people as they put money in the offering box. You would enter through the Beautiful Gate into the Court of Women. Men and women worshipped together in the Court of Women where there were seven receptacles for giving offerings to the Lord. Sources say the receptacles were “trumpet” shaped, which I imagine means they were wide at the top and then became narrow. Many people could not reach the top part of the receptacle. Due to the laws and customs of the day, many widows could be destitute and in need of alms from others. A widow came into the Court of Women and gave a penny, a mite. Jesus tells his disciples that the widow gave more than anyone else. So it is not bottom line finances that are important. Purity of motive is very important in the Kingdom of God. Giving out of sincerity and out of choice is what is important. We should be sensitive to the value of little gifts. Our organization sometimes receives a donation for $10,000 and sometimes for $5. We should never set an amount for which a “thank you” will be sent.
Another good story to illustrate this is the story of the five barley loaves and two small fish, which are dried, salted sardines. What are they among so many? The little boy was so genuine in his offer of his little pocket sized lunch. The theology here is that in the presence of God a little can be more than enough. No gift, financial or time, is too small. The value that the Kingdom is looking for is quality rather than quantity, and a generous spirit rather than large amounts given grudgingly. Money is given out of gratitude. A congregation where there is overflowing gratitude can do much more with their budget than a congregation that has all the right techniques. There has to be a special emphasis on the spirit of giving.
In rabbinic thought there are levels of gifts, not related to financial amount.
A small gift is when you give something to someone and they know that you gave it to them and you know they received it.
A greater gift is when you know who received your gift but the recipient does not know you gave it.
The greatest gift is an anonymous gift when neither the giver nor the receiver needs to know who gave or who received the gift.
The spirit and attitude of giving is what is important.