Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? – Luke 15:3-4
I have concerns about the 99%.
I’m not taking up Occupy’s banner here. Frankly, I don’t understand economics well enough[i] to speak to income inequality in terms any more sophisticated than wondering why, on average, most preachers, teachers, and social workers at the height of their earning power make about the same amount of money in a year that Peyton Manning makes in the time it takes to shake Gold Bond into his shorts.[ii]
No, the 99% I’m talking about are the sheep the good shepherd leaves behind in order to drag the one back into the fold.
Being a common sinner and having spent my fair share of time as the one ornery sheep, I appreciate Jesus’ parable as a description of God’s character and commitment. As a metaphor of relationship between flawed human beings and the God of second chances, the story of the good shepherd provides enormous comfort to those of us who are, as the old hymn says, “prone to wander.”[iii]
But recently, I’ve found the story inadequate to inform the profoundly difficult ethical question of “the needs of the many” versus “the needs of the one.” During the last ten weeks of full-time internship at a Catholic charities hospital, I’ve seen more than one “million dollar baby” receive intensive – and exorbitantly expensive – health care for which they will never be able to pay. Among these are the homeless hospice patient who, because she is dying in a hospital, has access to far more medical resources than any home hospice patient ever would; and the twenty-one year old meth addict who has spent much of the summer in and out of ICU, about whom the hospital staff are under no misapprehensions that his near-death experiences will compel him to stop abusing drugs.
I do not question the compassion of individual staff toward these patients or the Catholic Church’s commitment to serve the poorest of the poor. But I am also not alone in wondering how long the lamentably limited resources of a charity hospital can continue to provide astronomically expensive care to particular patients when so many others have needs as well.
The story of the good shepherd doesn’t help much in outlining how a compassionate system should work, because the story presupposes that the ninety-nine sheep left on the hillside are going to just keep on doing their sheepy things in peace and safety while the shepherd focuses all of his energies on the one. But if we apply the real-life examples I’ve just described to the good shepherd story, it winds up looking more like this:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country at the mercy of slavering wolves and poachers, lightning storms and hail, and the very real possibility that the dumb gits will decide to dine on poison ivy, and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”
What happens if so much time and so many resources are spent on the lost sheep, other sheep fall into a crevasse? How does that setup honor the compassionate spirit Jesus emphasized in the good shepherd story?
A compassionate system, like healthcare, needs a story that clearly defines our responsibility to one another at a community level. In this respect, I think the story of the sheep and goats is more helpful:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:31-40
In the story of the sheep and goats, our responsibility is not to rescue one another. Our responsibility is mindfulness of and compassion toward the “least of these.” We are told that “the least of these” are those who are too poor to feed and clothe themselves, those who stand at the outskirts of our communities (which, to my mind, would include immigrants, people with disabilities, people of minority ethnicities, and people who are mentally ill), and anyone cut off from society due to hospitalization, institutionalization, or imprisonment. God calls us to care for one another, not to save one another. To do otherwise, not only means that we miss opportunities to spread wide our nets to serve as many people as possible, we also hijack God’s job.
By leaving the business of redemption and salvation to God, we free ourselves for sustainable service.
[i] And neither, I suspect, do most people involved in Occupy.
[ii] Granted, even in my most extreme career iteration as a jail librarian, I was in no danger of friction burn.
[iii] Per “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
© Marian the Seminarian, 2012