5 min. to read.
Today is the 8th day of Lent, and this continues my series of lent reflections. Matthew 18:10-14 is the scripture today. This is Matthew’s telling of the parable of the lost sheep.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in church, you’ve heard the parable of the lost sheep. At first glance this may seem like nothing new, but hold on a moment.
Chances are high that you’ve only ever heard it presented in the context offered by Luke. In Luke’s gospel the Lost Sheep is part of the trilogy of lost parables—Lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. The focus is on finding something important that got lost. The overwhelming presence of that word “lost” resonates with meaning because of the weight that word carries in Evangelical culture. In that context, “Lost” means “not saved,” as in “someone who hasn’t received Jesus as their Lord and Savior and thus won’t be going to heaven when they die.” But none of that is in view here in Matthew.
In Matthew’s version, the little lost sheep is offered as an example Jesus uses in a completely different conversation, a conversation about the “little ones.” Matthew 18 starts out with the disciples asking Jesus about greatness. Isn’t that the question of our age? Who is the greatest? America is the greatest! Our military is the greatest. Our presidential candidate is the greatest. Who is the greatest Youtuber or Twitch Streamer? Who is the best in my field? Which college is the best? Our eyes are drawn to greatness, bigness, wealth, celebrity, influence, and notoriety.
Even if we don’t think of ourselves as obsessed with these things, we still are drawn to “greatness” in other ways. We want our church to be seen as influential in the community. We want to be a part of important causes. We may think about who is the best in our field, or who is widely respected, or who is making the most money, and take those people as examples to follow. We can’t seem to tear our eyes away from bigness or greatness. In our culture those qualities are seen as self-validating proof of success, maybe even evidence of God’s blessing.
The parable of the lost sheep in Matthew’s gospel stands in opposition to all of this. The passage opens with Jesus admonishing, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Why would we despise a “little one?” Because they are not big! A little child isn’t fully grown. What do they know? What power or influence do they have? We transpose this same prejudice into other areas of life. A little church must not be blessed by God. A small-time writer must not have anything worthwhile to say. A little-known non-profit probably won’t make much of a difference in the world. We despise the little ones precisely because they are not big.
Jesus uses the image of a shepherd going off in search of one lost little sheep to shift our vision. The large flock is safe, but the shepherd’s attention is on the one little lamb that went astray. Writing on this passage, pastor Brian Zahnd says, ‘The good shepherd seeks out the lamb, not because it’s big and important, but precisely because it’s little, overlooked, and lost.”
It’s easy to miss, but here in Matthew, this little parable is presented as the answer to the disciple’s question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The greatest, according to Jesus, is the one who will step away from the big flock in order to go and find the little wanderer. The greatest is the one who notices the small details, like a single missing sheep in a crowd of a hundred. The greatest is the one who isn’t willing to let someone fall through the cracks–whether from poverty, or mental health, or racial inequity, or religious exclusion, or any kind of bigotry. The greatest is the one who “doesn’t despise the little ones.”
We live in a culture absolutely centered on success, and bigness is its chief proof. I hope it’s not too jarring to say, but success and bigness are not in themselves evidence of God’s presence. There’s nothing in the way of Jesus that tells us to seek these things. In fact, just the opposite. Lent is an opportunity to let go of those things that get in the way of our spiritual growth, and an obsession with success, or growth, or profit, or followers, or any of those metrics can be that stumbling block for us.
Lent invites us to stop pursuing bigness. This way is life.