It had been a long, hot day. The Shepherd was tired, the sheep were tired. Now, just as the lowering sun became a giant orange ball hovering above the western hills, they had returned to the sheepfold. Some of the other shepherds had already returned, and, having stowed their sheep safely for the night, and were sitting on the ground, relaxing, bringing out food and drink. The sheep, both in and out of the fold, were making comfortable noises, knowing that darkness and rest were very close.
As he always did, the Shepherd stood in front of his flock and counted them as they went in. He knew every one of his one hundred sheep by name, and the order they normally walked in, so, while he counted, he spoke a word of reassurance and comfort to each one. Every sheep would rest in the fold that night secure in the comfort of the Shepherd’s love. But what was this? ... 97 ...98 ...99 ...? There was a sheep missing! The Shepherd knew exactly who it was: Needgrace, a sheep of poor wool, straggly appearance and, for a sheep, cranky temperament. If any of the Shepherd’s flock were going to wander off on their own, this would be the one. All the shepherds knew Needgrace, and most of them saw him as unattractive and worthless. When the Shepherd said he would go and seek his sheep and bring him back to safety, they laughed at the very idea. “Why would you bother with him?” was their consensus.
But there was one factor they had overlooked – the Shepherd loved his sheep, even one as apparently useless and difficult as Needgrace. He would leave his 99 safe sheep and go forth into the night to find the one that was lost. The others tried to dissuade him. There was lightning flickering on the hills, and a dusty breath in the air that was the first sign of the storm’s rising wind. But the Shepherd would not be dissuaded, he would pursue that one, foolish sheep, whatever it took, until he had found it and carried it home to safety.
The night grew dark and wild. The Shepherd was already painfully weary, but how could he leave his sheep in this? There were wolves in the hills and thunder close at hand; under the fierce roiling of the clouds there was no light of moon or stars, only fitful jags of lightning to confuse the sight. But the Shepherd kept on, his ears constantly alert for the faintest bleat. The rain came in short, sharp torrents, punctuating the icy wind. But the Shepherd kept on. The stones were sharp under his sandals, and he had to prod with his staff to be sure he wasn’t stepping off the edge of the cliff in the dark, but the Shepherd kept on. His heart was overflowing with tears and prayers for his lost, foolish sheep. If he didn’t keep on, he might never find it in time.
Finally, after weary, bitter hours, he heard the faintest sound through the clamour of the storm. It was the voice of Needgrace so faint with misery that only the ears of love could hear it. With deliberate speed the Shepherd pursued that voice across the slippery rocks, calling out reassurance as he came. By the time he reached his needy sheep, the Shepherd was badly bruised and bleeding, but his torn hands reached down and untangled the trapped creature, and with a mighty effort he pulled it free. And just as he hoisted it onto his shoulders, the clouds parted and a watery dawn showed through. The pursuit was over, the sheep had been rescued from his own folly, and as the Shepherd took a direct path back to the sheepfold, he called out in gladness, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep!”