He didn’t need to recount them. There were only 99, and he only had to quickly scan back over them to know which one wasn’t there. He knew each one by name and he held each one in his heart, far more precious to him than any market value a stranger would assign. And it was the little one who had gone astray the jaunty, skittish one with one black leg and a black patch on his face that always gave him a cock-eyed look. The shepherd’s heart ached for his missing lamb. He knew just how much trouble waited out there for someone so small and defenceless: wild beasts that would lust for the taste of his flesh, treacherous paths where small feet could slip and stray in the uncertain moonlight, the perils of fear and loneliness pressing in upon him and overwhelming him with terror. There were steep hillsides and strongly flowing streams and an all-devouring wilderness to swallow up the tiny bleating of his despair.
Steeling himself to go out and face the bitter night that was fast closing in, and gazing anxiously at the storm clouds that were gathering even faster, the shepherd made his preparations. He made sure that the rest of the flock were secure, huddled together, wool against wool for warmth, with a strong stout fence around them that no predator could breach, then he left the ninety nine safely penned against his return, girded his loins, took up his crook, tightly fastened his cloak, and went forth into the darkness.
It was a terrible night. Humanly he thought of the warmth of a fire, and the comfort of having other men nearby. He knew how they would laugh at him, their scorn blunted only by a hint of awe at his stubbornness. None of them would do this. Why would a man who had 99 others put his life on the line for a mere sheep? It made no sense, it wore no logic; for love will always transcend logic, and make chaos of the heart’s account books. It is such a debt that the whole world’s wealth counts as nothing in the balance; and no hireling shepherd could ever understand. And holding such love up before him, like a lantern to mark his path, he turned away from all the temptations of warmth and laughter, and set his face towards the icy wind that raked its talons across him.
He never told the story of that night’s suffering: the stones that bruised his feet, the steep paths that mocked his exhaustion, the sharp coldness of the rising streams he crossed. Nor did he speak of the haunting fear that he might already be too late, or that even his keen hearing might miss the sound of cries while the storm beat its fury down upon him. But as the storms eventually blew over, and the first paleness before dawn touched the sky, he found his missing lamb, caught in a thornbush that leant over a terrible chasm. With infinite gentleness he soothed its struggles, for how do you explain to a feckless lamb that the very thorns that are hurting it are its only protection from a dreadful fall? There was blood on his hands and feet, and a gash upon his side by the time his lamb was safe. But there was no pain in his eyes as he lifted it tenderly to his shoulders, only a joy too bright too look upon, for the lost had been found, and his own was restored to him. And none who saw the gladness on his face as he returned had any need to ask if it was worth what it had cost. They only marvelled at his love!