"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?”
These words of Our Lord, drawn from the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, reveal both profound truths about God’s heart — the Sacred Heart — and deeply practical wisdom for our daily life and work.
Human and Divine Assumptions
What Jesus assumes in this parable is fascinating. He is obviously speaking to a group of shepherds, and he takes for granted that they take assiduous care of their flocks, which are their livelihoods.
He is using a commercial example, an analogy drawn from his hearer’s professional lives. And Jesus assumes that his audience, in the conduct of their worldly affairs, will attend first of all to what is “lost,” i.e., to that which is “out of place,” “out of sync,” “disordered,” “not where it ought to be.”
All of us, upon reflection about our own professional lives, know that this is true. We put the fires out first, and then attend to what is routine — or at least we ought to. But what is so fascinating is that Our Lord uses this very mundane fact to make a profound spiritual point.
What’s the point? At face value Jesus seems to be teaching us that God — the Creator and Sustainer of Being — also acts in this way; or rather that we, created in His image and likeness, act like God! Just as it is perfectly natural for us to seek out what is “lost” and bring it back into alignment with our purposes, so God also attends what is disordered to bring it back into harmony with his divine plan.
The whole history of salvation can be read as God acting as a good shepherd, seeking out His lost sheep. Throughout the Old Testament we see Israel repeatedly going astray, and Yahweh repeatedly, and very mercifully, drawing her back into communion with him. Israel’s history is culminated and consummated in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, incarnates the parable in his very telling of it, drawing us back to his own Sacred Heart.
God’s Handiwork and Ours
Another implication of the story is this: We are God’s handiwork. He is “working” on us, “pasturing” us, “shepherding” us, throughout our lives. When we go astray — and we all know how frequently we do that! — he comes looking for us. We are his sheep.
This reveals a great deal about God’s heart, and it also has direct and very practical implications for us in our daily life and work. It is a theme and message of Sacred Scripture that we ought to “be like God.” Hence, we ought to imitate the Good Shepherd by attending carefully to our own professional lives, and in a particular manner to those aspects which are disordered, and focus on that first of all. Put out the fires. Fix what is broken. Then attend to the rest, when what was lost has been found and properly restored.
This principle applies throughout life, regardless of one’s moral or religious convictions. The popular Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has made famous the dictum “clean up your room!” This is more secular way of saying “go find your lost sheep.” In his lectures he often emphasizes that the most practical method of getting one’s life in order is to “stop doing what you know you shouldn’t be doing.”
We are all painfully aware of our mistakes, our inadequacies, our faults and shortcomings, and we often exert great energy to hide these facts from others. Dr. Peterson suggests that a better way forward is to humbly acknowledge our faults, and then do something about them. His internationally bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos provides valuable advice on how.
Rather than brooding resentfully about our innumerable faults and failings, we can take concrete steps to set our house in order. A good place to start is the simple act of cleaning up our bedroom, imposing order on what may be a chaotic physical environment. Then we can clean up the rest of our home. Beyond ordering our residence, we can improve the quality of our professional work, our relationships, our health, and every other dimension of our lives. Our individual efforts will invariably spill over into our society. As Dr. Peterson notes, “If we each live properly, we will collectively flourish.”
Jesus the Good Shepherd teaches us by example to go in search of the lost sheep in our lives. Our “sheep” are everything and everyone we are responsible for, starting with our own selves, and then extending outward to our family, our work, our friends, the broader community we are a part of, and even the political society that we find ourselves in. We take ownership of all of these in a hierarchically ordered progression of responsibility, and we lovingly order what is chaotic. We can start today, with the tasks immediately at hand.
The Liturgy of Life
All of these themes — taking responsibility for ourselves and others, ordering our lives individually and collectively — are present in the Catholic spiritual tradition. St. Josemaría Escrivá, a popular saint of modern times and the founder of Opus Dei, articulated all of these points under the rubric of sanctifying one’s daily life and work.
In his most famous book, The Way, St. Josemaría wrote: “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: do what you ought and concentrate on what you are doing.” This is the wonderfully simple application of the parable of the Good Shepherd, a maxim which has the power to radically transform our lives — both individually and collectively — when consistently practiced.
The popular theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, commenting on St. Josemaría’s message in his book Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace, notes that the sanctification of our daily life and work has genuinely cosmic significance. As all baptized Christians share in Christ’s priestly office, we offer our life and work back to God in the liturgy of our lives, drawing strength to do so from the Church’s liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Hahn writes:
Our altar is our desktop, our workstation, the row we hoe, the ditch we dig, the diaper we change, the pot we stir, the bed we share with our spouse. All of it is sanctified by our offering hands, which are Christ's own.
It’s all so simple in the end. Do what you know you ought to be doing, at the appointed time and in the appointed manner. Do your work well, take care of your family and those whom you have responsibility for, and take care of yourself. These are the practical manifestations of Our Lord’s command to seek the Kingdom of Heaven.
David A. Smither writes from Texas.