Sheepherding was common in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Shepherds were regarded with disdain and suspicion. They roamed the countryside, sometimes grazing their sheep on other people’s land. The occupation brought dishonor because of contact with the animals. Still, in the Bible a shepherd – like Moses of David – is a protector. More than one shepherd would likely have tended a flock of 100 sheep. A flock of that size would have belonged to a family, rather than an individual. Jesus’ use of “little ones” (18:14) refers to his disciples, whom he also calls children.
Jesus warns his listeners not to despise “these little ones” (18:10). They were perhaps those disciples who were newer or weaker in their development as his followers. God cares about “these little ones” as a shepherd who will leave 99 sheep to go looking for one lost sheep. Perhaps the shepherd is risking the 99, unless there are other shepherds left behind to care for them. Whether or not the shepherd is risking the 99, the one lost sheep is of great value to him and his family. The value of the 99 does not diminish the shepherd’s concern for and commitment to rescuing the one that is lost. In saying “if he finds it” (18:13), Jesus acknowledges that not all lost sheep will be found.
Jesus teaches an inclusive, forgiving, and accountable community of believers. In the story of the lost sheep, he teaches that each member, however humble, is of concern to God. By using the image of the sheep, Jesus assures us that some of us are bound to lose our way and become separated from the community. The community bears responsibility for seeking out, forgiving, and including members who are “lost.” Not only is it God’s will that members not be lost, but finding them is a source of joy to God and the community.