Parable of the Lost Sheep

As a disclaimer, or perhaps a warning, this is my first sermon since graduating from seminary, so I’m going to download 4.5 years’ worth of education to you in the next 25 minutes.

No, seriously, I did learn a ton in my studies the last five years and I’d like to share some of it with you, and the study I did diving deep into this parable kind of brought together so much of what I gained from seminary, and why I wanted to go to seminary in the first place. I grew up in the church, I feel very fortunate to have had wonderful parents who raised me in the faith, who are great examples to me and my brother about how to live Christianly and to have an intelligent faith that takes scripture seriously and puts feet to that faith with compassion toward others.

But I also realized that I have a pretty narrow worldview. Sure, I spent a year studying abroad in London, and I’ve had the opportunity to do some international travel, and I’ve gone on a half dozen short-term mission trips to extremely poor areas in Mexico. But relatively speaking I still have a narrow, limited worldview and therefore a narrow and limited view of God. My hope, when I enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary was to broaden my understanding of God by gaining a more global and historical perspective of God. I wanted to learn to see God from different perspectives and to interpret scripture from different perspectives. And I feel like I did grow in this way tremendously.

I learned that there’s not ONE RIGHT WAY to interpret scripture – especially when you’re dealing with a parable. And this is so important. If you hear nothing else from me this morning, I hope I can convince you to take a humble approach to interpreting scripture. I hope you’ll hear and understand that how you and I interpret scripture is not THE ONE RIGHT WAY. When Jesus spoke, he was not only speaking to a single culture, he knew that his words would be carried across the globe and enter into the hearts of people across thousands of years, and each culture that encountered his words would have a different perspective and would naturally interpret his words differently. Everyone interprets scripture through their own cultural lens, there is no way around that.

My favorite example of this is from Biblical scholar, author, and professor Mark Allan Powell who tells of a study he did with his American seminary students in Ohio about their interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son. His findings surprised him, so he did the same study with seminary students in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then again in Tanzania. It’s a very interesting study, and if you want to read more about it just send me an email and I’ll share it with you. To greatly summarize the story, he asked these students to answer the question, “why did the prodigal son find himself in the desolate situation in the pigpen, craving to eat the pig food.” He found that his American students overwhelmingly had a similar response…what do you think they said? What would you say?

The American students said, “because he squandered his wealth with wild living.” That’s true, right? Nailed it. Score one point for the Americans.
The Russian students from St. Petersburg said, “His plight was due to the famine in the land.” Wait, what? Famine in the land? Sure enough…it’s right there in verse 14. If you forgot about that, don’t worry. It turns out 94% of the American students didn’t even notice the mention of a famine in the land! How can you blame a person for starving when there’s a famine in the land that affects every single person in the country?

In Tanzania, the seminary students said he was in such a terrible state because “no one gave him anything to eat.” What? Sure enough, right there in verse 16: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”

Each culture focused in on something totally different and forgot or paid no attention to what was important in another culture. In America, our Western worldview teaches us to make something of ourselves. To pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Powell says, “In a capitalist country, it is a very bad thing to squander one’s inheritance. But in a socialist state, the sin is self-sufficiency.”

And in Tanzania, the great sin belonged not to the prodigal son at all, but to the people of the far-off land. They saw that the parable is essentially about the Kingdom of Heaven (as so many of Jesus’ Parables are), and in the parable the Father’s house is contrasted with the far away country where there is no honor – where society lets a stranger starve and would not give him anything to eat. To the Tanzanians, “the central point of the parable is that the scribes and the Pharisees are like that. Jesus tells the parable as a response to the scribes and Pharisees, who are grumbling that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. The parable teaches that the kingdom of God is a society that welcomes the undeserving, and it puts the scribes and Pharisees to shame by showing them that they are like a society with no honor, which shows no hospitality to the stranger in its midst.”

Three very different cultures, and three very different interpretations of the same story. So which interpretation is right? They all are. They are all thoroughly accurate interpretations. The scripture says “he squandered his wealth,” and it says “there was a famine in the land,” and it says, “no one gave him anything to eat.” It’s all right there in the text. But our cultural lens impacts what we see and what we miss and how we interpret what we do see.

So let me repeat. There is no one single correct interpretation of scripture, especially when you’re looking at a parable. My perspective is limited. But I will know God better and understand his Kingdom better the more I allow myself to see God from others’ perspectives.

So what can we do to reduce our own cultural bias when reading and interpreting scripture? I’ll mention three methods right now: Historical Criticism, Narrative Criticism, and Redactional Criticism. (the word criticism does not infer a negative attack on the Bible, it just means to analyze closely)

Historical criticism examines the social and historical situation of the time and place in which the passage was written and tries to decipher how Jesus’ original audience would have heard his words. This is very difficult though because even when realize Jesus was speaking to a very particular audience of Jewish people in Galilee during the 1st century, you also realize that his audience included men and women, rich tax collectors as well as poor fishermen, Pharisees as well as prostitutes, old men, young women, even children. Each of these people will hear Jesus’ words with their own lens. And yet it is still super helpful in interpreting scripture because it brings to light the cultural biases we tend to read into scripture by contrasting it with the culture of Jesus’ day.

Another method is Narrative Criticism, which examines how exactly the author tells the story: the ordering of events, the length of certain events and how frequently certain things occur within the story. Scripture is dominated with narrative. This is not an accident. While expository passages like the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s letters are valuable for teaching, the narrative passages teach in a different, and likely more effective, way. A story “leaves the hearers to do more of the work if they are to learn from it.” This invites the reader to be drawn into the story’s world and lets the story work more covertly.

When interpreting scripture, we must not reduce its meaning by trying to fit it into a tidy, pithy set of easily communicated 3-point sermons; we must let the stories tell themselves as stories, rather than as doctrine or rules. N.T. Wright says it so well:

“Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head[s], or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view.’” (N.T. Wright)

Redactional criticism compares and contrasts two different accounts of a story and infers meaning based on what is similar and what is different between the two accounts.

So with this in mind, let’s dive into the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and examine how we can study scripture in a way that reduces our own cultural bias. Listen closely, or follow along in your Bible, or on the screens: Let’s read Matthew’s account first. I’m reading from the NIV translation. Matthew 18:12-14:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Let’s see how that compares with Luke’s account. Luke 15:1-7:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”


What’s different between these two accounts? What’s the same? That’s not really a fair question to ask you because I didn’t read the context surrounding these passages. But the first thing that’s different is the audience. In Luke, we saw that Jesus is talking to tax collectors and sinners who were gathered around to hear him. We see the Pharisees and the teachers of the law grumbling about how Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, so Jesus responds to the Pharisees by telling this parable. But Matthew places his version of the parable in the middle of instructions that he’s giving to his disciples concerning issues of community life. How to be the church; how they as the church should handle certain issues.

So which is it? Did Jesus tell this parable to the Pharisees, or to his disciples? Were the Pharisees and disciples there at the same time listening to Jesus? Or did Jesus tell the same parable two different times to two different groups of people? I think it’s probably all of the above. There’s no reason to think that Jesus only told this parable one time, and no reason to exclude the possibility that he used the same parable for two different purposes?
You couldn’t really get two more different audiences or contexts for a parable. These two demographics needed to hear different things, right? And certainly, each one is going to interpret the parable differently? Doesn’t this just make you wish Jesus used plain words with simple meanings and would just tell us straight what exactly it was he was trying to communicate? Why does he have to speak in riddles and stories that could be interpreted a million different ways? All the church’s problems could be avoided, and all the disunity and anger between Christians could be avoided if Jesus would just tell us exactly what he wants us to do about all these social issues…

I certainly used to feel that way. But I’ve come to really appreciate the beauty of a parable. I believe Jesus spoke in parables because he designed humans to be people of story. We are built to live by story, not by facts. Facts can motivate us, but stories move us. I can even get excited about facts. But it’s the story behind the facts that really create the excitement. I love baseball, and baseball statistics. If you’re a baseball nut and I were to throw at some statistics, even just certain numbers like 56, or 73, or 762 you know what those numbers represent, and you might start to get excited. Or if I asked you to compare the number 762 with the number 755, your blood might heat up a bit as you start to think about asterisks and how Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens got shafted by the Hall of Fame committee two weeks ago. We are designed to resonate with story.

Jesus used parables because stories move us. He could have said, “God loves you. A lot.” But he chose to tell the story of a lost sheep, and shepherd, and a rescue mission. And I believe he used parables because a story can be seen from different perspectives. The Bible says, “the word of God is living and active.” It’s meant to be interacted with continually, like a story, not just a fact that you read once and store away.

So, our first step in interpretation is to consider how did Jesus’ original audience hear the story? How would they have most likely interpreted this particular parable? What did Jesus want THEM to get out of this? As we’ve seen, this is a difficult, even impossible question to answer with absolute certainty. Jesus was speaking to an audience of mostly poor Jewish people living in an agrarian society in Israel two thousand years ago. A very specific audience. But even among that group of people, there was diversity. There were Pharisees and followers, men and women, old people and young people, fishermen and tax collectors, blue-collar and white collar – actually I’m not sure any of them had collars at all, but you know what I mean. Even among Jesus’ original audience, not everyone would interpret every part of a parable the same way.

But let’s see what we can learn from at least considering the original audience’s general culture. I think they would hear a story about a lost sheep and immediately think of another parable from their scriptures in which the prophet Nathan confronts the former shepherd and current King David. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan tells David the story of a poor man who raised a particular lamb almost like his own child – “It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.” A rich man who lived nearby and had a large number of his own sheep has a visitor and he wants to serve his guest a nice meal, but instead of taking one of his own sheep, he steals the poor man’s beloved lamb and cooks it and serves it for dinner. David burned with anger at the rich man – why? Not because he stole something that wasn’t his. Not because it was the poor man’s only sheep, but because of the relational love that the man had with his sheep.

Jesus’ original audience would have an instant compassion for the lost lamb in Jesus’ new parable. And so would most anyone, I think. Nobody hears Jesus’ parable and says, ahn forget about the lost sheep, let it die, it’s not important, it’s just one sheep out of a hundred. A very acceptable loss. Jesus chose a lamb for this parable because we are supposed to feel compassion for the lamb. Jesus didn’t tell the parable of the lost lizard, or the wayward beetle. He chose an animal for which all audiences should feel some compassion. And we are to expect a relational love between the shepherd and the sheep. Shepherds care for their sheep – it’s not just a transactional relationship.

I believe one of Jesus’ main purposes for telling this parable is to simply communicate the Father’s relational love for his people. God is not a disengaged overseer, or a watchmaker who built the watch, wound it up, and set it in motion just to walk away and let it run its course. Our heavenly Father cares deeply and passionately for you. A few chapters after this parable, in Luke 19 verse 10 Jesus tells us that his purpose for coming to earth was “to seek and to save the lost.” In fact, some ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel actually quote Luke 19:10 right here at the beginning of his account of the lost sheep. However, most modern translations don’t include those words here because they don’t appear in every extant copy of Matthew, so they decided to err on the conservative side and only include it as a footnote. But even if it wasn’t part of Matthew’s original writing, there is clearly a connection between this parable of the lost sheep and the idea that God loves us so much that he came to seek out and to rescue those who are lost.

So who exactly are the lost that Jesus is talking about? Who does this lost sheep represent? Is it supposed to be anyone who is far from God? Or is it specifically those who once followed God but have turned away? Those who’ve rejected God? Or those who’ve never even heard of God?
Matthew describes the sheep as “wandering away,” whereas Luke’s sheep is “lost.” Matthew’s sheep appears to have some culpability in its predicament, while Luke’s seems to have arrived in its plight through no fault of its own. If we combine the fact that Jesus is specifically addressing his disciples in Matthew, and he’s telling this parable as part of a discourse on how they are to handle difficult situations within the church, then it would seem that Matthew’s sheep represents a person who was at one point part of the church but has wandered away from the faith. But Luke describes the shepherd as the one doing the losing of the sheep, so Luke’s sheep could represent any who are lost, not just those who’ve wandered away. In my opinion, you can interpret it either way, we just know that the sheep is far from God and that God pursues the lost.

God pursues the lost. In both accounts, the sheep plays no part in its own recovery; all the work is done by the shepherd alone (the searching, finding, and recovery). This is in line with one of the major themes of Luke’s gospel, that “Jesus takes the initiative in seeking out lost people.” This is clearly a significant aspect of the parable: God does the seeking and the saving.
Repentance is not the purpose of this parable. Jesus does not tell this parable as a warning or as an instruction to repent. The parable itself (verses 4-6) makes no mention of repentance – the sheep does not turn around and find its way back to the shepherd or the flock. It is only Jesus’ summary statement after the parable that brings repentance into the picture when he says, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven, over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” The parable is not a warning to repent, but rather a beautiful depiction of God’s initiative in savlation…AND the rejoicing that results from God’s action! The climax of this passage is not only the return of the sheep but the triumphant rejoicing in its rescue.”

But let me get to the heart of the parable for me. I imagine that some of you are like me, when you first read this parable you thought, “wait a minute…why is the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine unprotected on the mountain, or in the wilderness?” That seems foolish. If I were a shepherd and discovered one of my sheep missing, I would absolutely secure the other 99 before going to look for the one. As one author said, “the seeker who leaves 99 sheep to find one will have, at the end of the day, only one sheep.” Sheep stray. They wander. They do not map out a path toward a goal. They don’t keep track of where they are. It IS foolishness to abandon 99 sheep to track down 1. Some people have tried to argue that anyone who has 100 sheep obviously has more than one shepherd, so the one shepherd who went searching clearly left the 99 in the care of another shepherd. But that’s…ridiculous. It defeats the purpose of the parable, and it requires you to read a whole lot into the story that’s just not there. It also destroys the metaphor of God as the shepherd.

The fact is, both Matthew and Luke go out of their way to indicate the 99 sheep are left in a precarious position. Matthew says, “will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills.” The word for hills here is “oros”, which is a pretty straightforward word for “mountain.” Luke says, “doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country.” The word here is “eremos” which others translate as “desert, wilderness, desolate, or solitary.” The word carries a sense of being deserted by others, deprived of the aid and protection of others. The fact that both Matthew and Luke add these words to their description is significant.

And thinking back to our original audience perspective, those words “on the mountain” or “in the wilderness or desert” would have struck a chord with Jesus’ Jewish listeners. They would have resonated with the idea of sheep being left out in the desert wilderness, as they had heard over and over and over again the stories of how their ancestors had wandered the desert for 40 years.

Matthew and Luke could have simply said, “doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in search of the one lost sheep” and not mentioned anything about the wilderness. Matthew and Luke could have even said, “doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the care of another shepherd,” or “doesn’t he search for the one lost sheep…after having properly secured the other ninety-nine sheep back in their pen.” No, both authors add specific verbiage that clearly indicates that the shepherd consciously chooses to abandon ninety-nine sheep who are not lost in order to rescue one lost sheep. This is reckless behavior. Foolish behavior. Even wasteful, because the shepherd will very likely lose more sheep. This is not good stewardship.

So…what are we supposed to think of this? Perhaps you are now questioning whether the shepherd is supposed to represent God after all, because God is not reckless, he’s certainly not foolish, and I can’t picture God as being wasteful or irresponsible. But doesn’t the Bible say God uses the foolish to confound the wise? Isn’t the whole concept of the cross foolish, reckless, even perhaps wasteful? At least from a human perspective.

The poignancy of the passage is in the radical response of the shepherd, who emphasizes the great value of the singular lost sheep and the Shepherd’s great love for it by forgoing the security of the ninety-nine in favor of retrieving the one.

So what is the purpose of this parable? Historically, some have interpreted the parable of the lost sheep as an assignment. They focus on Matthew’s account, talking to the disciples, giving instruction to Christians to go after other Christians who’ve wandered from the faith. Should we do that? Yes! If you know someone who has wandered away from God, go get them! Search until you find them, throw them over your shoulder and bring them back home, just like the parable says.

Others have interpreted the parable as instruction to lost sheep to repent. Should we do that? Yes! If you’ve wandered away from God, repent! Cry out for help, bleet with all your might, and the good shepherd will come to your rescue.

Still, others have interpreted this passage as simply a beautiful depiction of the love of the Father for his children, how he takes the initiative, and how he rejoices over the lost when they are found.
How will you interpret this passage? What is God saying to you through this parable?

Part of the genius of parables is their potential for wide application. David Growler says “the application is left imprecise to tease the hearers into making their own applications,” thus rendering the parable meaningful to essentially any audience, no matter their worldview or cultural lens. One of the distinctive characteristics of a parable is that they have surplus of meaning; that there are multiple ways to interpret it and apply it to your life.

But I believe Jesus intended every audience, every person who hears this story, to internalize the image of being recklessly pursued, rescued, and lifted onto the shoulders of a loving shepherd and being the cause of a heavenly celebration. The heart of this parable is an incredible expression of the greatness and depth of God’s love for lost and wayward people, and the initiative he took to recklessly pursue those who are far from him.

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