Jesus told stories. A lot. We think about them as parables, looking at all the angles, trying to squeeze as much as we can out of the story. I think, sometimes, that we may work too hard to tie every part of the story to some deep lesson.
I am guilty, too.
I bring it up because Jesus uses the image of a shepherd several times in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And the image shifts a bit. Sometimes the sheep are adults. Sometimes they are Israel and not Israel. And sometimes they are children. Like here.
Children wander off, they get lost, they don’t understand implications and boundaries and danger. Often, it is not intentional. They get distracted. Often it is not their fault, they get mislead. Sometimes, it is their fault. They have been warned. Sometimes it is their fault. They think they can figure it out.
Whatever the cause, there are times that sheep get separated from the flock.
The shepherd has a number of possible responses.
He can call them idiots. He can be relieved that he doesn’t have to take care of that one that obviously was “extra care required.” He can decide spend time explaining or declaiming or condemning. He can even make big speeches to the other sheep about the irresponsibility of the one that wondered off.
Or the shepherd can go find the lost sheep and bring it back and be thrilled about the lost sheep.
We could read much into the text about why the shepherd was happier with the one than with the 99. But it would be reading in. What we do know is that the Father has the same attitude toward wandering sheep that are found and returned as the shepherd.
Maybe helping lost sheep would make him happy, too.