The typical Sunday liturgy for the Catholic Church has three readings from the Bible: An Old (or Jewish) Testament selection, a selection from the letters of Paul or other, non-Gospel writers and a selection from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
Today's selection from the Luke is one of the very longest selections outside of the Christmas and Easter narratives. It is from Luke 15:1-32. It contains the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Missing Coin and the Prodigal Son.
It is unfortunate that the parable of the Lost Sheep is so close to the story of the Prodigal Son because it leads to a superficial examination of the story and some persistent myths, and I believe inaccurate, myths about God.
I make no claims about being a Biblical scholar but I did raise sheep for a decade and hiked and camped in climates similar to the Holy Land. I also have a smattering of history in my background. So please understand that I am not presenting this as FACT, but rather my own understanding of the story.
Jesus Milquetoast Christ
Let's look this story through the eyes of somebody who knows about sheep, the minds' eyes of the people who heard the parable for the first time.
"What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?"
The only logical time that a shepherd would notice he was missing one out of a hundred sheep would be when he counted them. Note that the text says "sheep", not "lamb" as is usually rendered in art.
That would typically be when he ran them into a sheep-fold, often a rude corral to contain the sheep and provide a modicum of protection against night-time predators. It also made them easy to milk.
Shepherds counted knots-on-a-cord. Big knots might be ten and smaller knots singles. Small knots could be added as lambs were born.
So here we have the shepherd counting the sheep as they filed into the sheep-fold when he finds he is one short.
Night is falling because that is when he ran them into the fold. Duh!
The Holy Land, at the time of Christ had lions, leopards, bears, wolves, hyenas and venomous serpents. If not as indigenous populations then as transients. Most of these predators are active near dusk.
Our hero picks up his short spear...maybe with a six-foot long shaft tipped with a relatively small, bronze point...and walked out into the gathering darkness and hunting predators to find his lost sheep.
But wait...there is more
The most likely reason for the one sheep to becoming separated from the flock is that she gave birth in a secluded place and having bonded with the lamb(s) cannot leave them until they are able to move. Ewes and lambs bond and navigate by vocalizing.
Predators are hardwired to home in on the vocalizations of very young animals. It is an easy meal.
So our hero is not only going out into the dark without a flashlight and with low-tech weapons, he is knowingly going out and looking for a situation where it is highly likely that he will encounter apex predators vectoring into a meal.
Many of those predators will defer to him. They know humans are dangerous even in the dark.
Some will not defer to him. They might be hungry. They might have cubs of their own. Maybe they are just stupid.
So the shepherd eagerly thrust himself into harms' way because that is how HE is wired. He must have clanged when he walked.
Just like the first-responders did on 9/11/2001.
Just like God throws angels between us and dark forces.
This is not a cozy story to put children to sleep by.