New Thought Editorials > The Ninety-Nine and the One


Winter 2009

The Ninety-Nine and the One

Do you recognize the source of this title? If so, congratulations; you know your Bible. When Alan and I were team-teaching a course at Curry College some years ago, very few of our students–mostly bright student nurses–had any idea what it referred to. Our principal text was Stephen Covey’s perennial best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey was writing about the importance of manifesting integrity through loyalty to the absent. He commented,

As a teacher, as well as a parent, I have found that the key to the ninety-nine is the one—particularly the one that is testing the patience and the good humor of the many. It is the love and the discipline of the one student, the one child, that communicates love for the others. It’s how you treat the one that reveals how you regard the ninety-nine, because everyone is ultimately a one.

The source of Covey’s reference is, of course, Jesus’s parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Its point is that any good shepherd would leave his ninety-nine sheep safe in the fold and search for the one that is missing, regardless of which one it is. Then, having located it, he would tenderly bear it home on his shoulders, rejoicing. The other ninety-nine sheep know that if one of them went missing, the shepherd would go looking for it in the same way. There would be no consideration of whether the sheep was male or female, black or white, old or young; the good shepherd would drop everything and begin the rescue operation.

Jesus intended to illustrate how a loving God can rejoice when someone who has strayed from the path and fallen among the brambles is located and restored, rejoice more than over the ninety-nine well-behaved individuals who "need no repentance." As was so often the case, there were additional lessons to be learned, including Covey’s point about loyalty to the absent. The integrity comes in treating everyone by the same set of principles, thereby demonstrating to people that they can trust you. This is particularly important for group leaders of any sort, for if they make unkind comments about someone who is not present, the other group members have reason to believe that they, too, would be treated unkindly if they were absent. Such comments often come when the leader lacks the courage to confront someone directly and so resorts to belittling, criticizing, betraying confidences, or gossiping. Leaders are often—wisely—counseled to praise in public and criticize in private, face to face with the one in need of discipline.

Non-profit organizations, including churches, are infamous for violating this rule. They give lip service to how much they care for people, then figuratively stab them in the back with unfair treatment. The shepherd in Jesus’s tale did not ridicule the lost sheep in front of the others, nor did he wreak revenge on it for straying. Any needed discipline—"thy rod and thy staff"—would be meted out evenhandedly.

Integrity demonstrated by loyalty to the absent is not just for group leaders; it is for us all. As in all Bible stories, we are all the characters: in this case, we are both the shepherd and the individual sheep. We are to show integrity in our dealings with our peers, our leaders, and those for whom we are responsible. And we can expect mercy when we are the one who has strayed in some fashion. Recently our society has shown an increasing lack of civility and integrity, especially in connection with politics. Although we have every right to criticize a candidate’s positions, even public figures should be treated with integrity, not with belittling or gossip. Humor can be wonderful, but political humor can easily turn into mean-spirited ad-hominem attacks. There is often hypocrisy in this, as the very people crying for fairness are themselves unfair, frequently demonstrating double standards.

This is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the values that he advocated, the light that he brought into the world at the darkest time of year. It is also a time of new beginnings, new resolutions and visions. Let us renew our resolve to raise our own standards of good character, of integrity, kindness, fairness, and loyalty.