The Little Flock

The Greek for “little flock” is mikron poimnion, and while both “little” and “flock” are important in this phrase, poimnion, “flock,” is evocative, since a poimēn is a shepherd. The “little flock” of Jesus’ disciples is like a flock of sheep who are shepherded by God. The image of the people of God as a flock of sheep does not begin with Jesus but is found in Zec 10:3 (“the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah”) and Jer 13:17 (“the Lord’s flock”).

By qualifying “flock” with “little,” Jesus is saying something about the unassuming nature of his disciples, who might be little in number, little in power, little in social standing or some combination of all of them. Jesus says, however, that the “little flock” should not fear because “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The unassuming, insignificant flock, who elsewhere in the Gospels are called little ones or even infants, cannot rely on their power, strength or wealth to create a kingdom but must depend only on their faith in God.

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Dependence upon God is a potential source of fear, as Jesus’ exhortation not to fear makes clear, but also one of the advantages of being “little,” since faith creates reliance on God and trust in God’s promises. The strength of the “little flock” becomes its willingness to live out its faith, not primarily as an intellectual assent to theological claims or grasping a list of dogmatic propositions but as a way of following Jesus wherever the Good Shepherd leads.

Faith is following Jesus by attending to all the “little” things that seem unimportant or insignificant, as well as paying attention to all the “little” people we are tempted to forget or overlook. The faith of the “little flock” is a rejection of a sense of entitlement about what we deserve or have earned, replaced by a robust sense of God’s grace and mercy for those who trust in God, as the Psalmist sings: “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” Faith is this mixture of gladness, trust and hope as we allow God’s steadfast love to transform us.

This faith manifests itself in a way of life that leads to a proper relationship to earthly possessions, which Jesus encourages his “little flock” to sell in order to give alms to those in need. A proper relationship to things reflects that one’s hopes are not just earthly but heavenly, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Yet detachment from possessions, especially seen in giving alms and other acts of generosity, transforms us by creating greater attachment to God and other people.

Jesus’ use of slave imagery can be startling to modern readers, but when he speaks in Luke of how the faithful and prudent manager has care of the master’s “slaves” and is put “in charge of all his possessions,” it is important to understand that the manager’s most important task is the care of other people. The faithless manager is the one who treats other people with cruelty and disdain. When “he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women,” the manager is placed “with the unfaithful.” To be a member of the “little flock,” especially to have authority within the flock, is to be faithful with material possessions but even more significantly with the precious lives of other people.

Hebrews offers us a definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but all those faithful ancestors who trusted in God, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, while not perfect, were people who persevered in following the ways of God. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises,” but they were able to perceive “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Faith in the promise of God’s kingdom has always sustained the “little flock,” and it is this faith that sustains us in our relationships with God and other people even today.

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