From The Rambles of a Wandering Priest
Some time ago, as I was pulling one-ton pallets though the crowded aisles of the “big box store” I worked at, I got this image in my head from the Lord.
There was a rancher who owned a lot of sheep, and shepherds were hired to watch over different flocks. Some flocks were larger, some were smaller, but all the sheep belonged ultimately to the rancher, not the individual shepherd in charge of them.
Some of the shepherds were doing their job well and faithfully. The sheep were well cared for, and the shepherds had the exhaustion and bags under their eyes to prove it. Other shepherds however were not. Some beat the sheep under their care. Some didn’t feed them properly. Others overfed them but then didn’t exercise them. Some were abused in other ways, or poisoned because the shepherd didn’t seem to know the difference between good feed and bad. Some shepherds were fleecing the sheep far too often, and as such they were sick and ill prepared for the winter.
As a result, some sheep broke from their flocks and stalls and ran for the hills, terrified of the shepherds that were over them. Out in the hills, some of them were able to survive on their own and were doing okay for the most part. Others however got into poisonous plants. Some couldn’t traverse the terrain and were injured, many of them quite seriously. Others ate themselves over cliffs, as sheep are quite capable of doing.
And as I saw this in my head, I could sense the concern the Rancher had for his sheep that had fled. I could also sense the anger that he had towards the shepherds in question, to whom he had entrusted his livestock. And I sensed from him that someone needed to go get them and look after them.
I have since wrestled with this question. How? If we were talking literal sheep, one could take a tranquilizer gun and some rope and go collect them. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy with the Lord’s sheep. It would be nice if it was, but it isn’t. Often, those who have been hurt or abused tend to run from anyone who looks or smells like a shepherd. And honestly, I would too if I had been abused like that. Come to think of it, I have run once or twice myself.
One thought which has run through my mind lately is that these are the people for whom Jesus targeted his ministry. He didn’t target the unbeliever (read Gentile), and he didn’t target those who were professedly religious (read Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other). He said instead, “I was not sent except to the lost (literally, ruined) sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matthew 15:24), and also, “When Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” (Matthew 9:12-13)
So what do we do about these brothers and sisters in Christ, many who are baptized, who believe in Jesus Christ, yet do not trust the church or its shepherds? Do we just write them off? Do we let them just go elsewhere? Do we let them fall off of cliffs? After talking with some pastors (several of whom I respect highly), it seems like that is the general attitude. It’s their fault for not accepting the authority of the church or the local churches’ pastors.
Another thing about these lost sheep, is that many of them seem to be my generation and younger. I was talking to an old friend of mine recently who happens to be a youth pastor. The church he serves at has lost a lot of the people (including myself) who had been in the youth group over a decade ago and now are in their late twenties or early thirties. I could sense from him that he had a real heart for them, but he, too, seems to be at a loss as to how to bring them back into a regular church attendance of some, or any, kind. After putting out an inquiry to various churches in the area, he said that the general response he got was “good luck with that.”
These are the people who are most on the heart of Jesus Christ: the members of the family who have somehow been ruined and written off by the church either intentionally or unintentionally. These are the people he went after himself while on Earth, and I believe these are the people we need to go after and take care of. But the question remains, “How?”