14th August 2023

Of the parables that Jesus told, the story of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) is one of the most well-known and well-loved. We picture the shepherd, late in the evening, going off up the lonely hillside looking for the one sheep that has strayed, perhaps now lying injured in a deep ditch, or tangled in a brambly thicket. There is however an interesting and rather different take on the story which I once heard from Freddie Temple, well-known in the Bristol area in the 1970s when he was the suffragan Bishop of Malmesbury. Perhaps, he said, this sheep hadn’t wandered away from the flock and got lost. It could simply be that the shepherd had led the flock off to look for pastures new, and this sheep had stayed where it was, contentedly nibbling what was left of the grass in its favourite spot, and seeing no need to up-hooves and move on. Not straying, but staying.

Freddie Temple (grandson, incidentally, of the famous Archbishop William Temple) was speaking at a time when big changes were afoot (or at least being mooted) in the churches, notably the call to Christian unity and the need for Christian mission to engage with society as it really is, not as it had been (or imagined to have been) generations before. His word was a warning, as timely now as it was then. Yes, change for change’s sake is unacceptable, and the shepherd does care for the one that stayed behind as much as those who keep up with the rest of the flock. But our question must always be, ‘Where is Jesus leading us, now?’

Keith Clements