Parable of the Lost Sheep: Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:4-7
The parable of the lost sheep is told by Jesus to illustrate redemption by using a situation his listeners could relate to and would understand.
In an agrarian society, where wealth is often determined by the amount of livestock and land a person owns, sheep would be considered very valuable. Those who owned sheep would have a shepherd take care of them.
A shepherd's job is to protect their employer's sheep from being stolen, eaten, or lost. Losing livestock would be like burning money. No shepherd wants to have to tell their boss that they lost one of the sheep.
In order to protect the sheep, the shepherd lives with them in order to defend them from predators.
When Jesus tells this parable of the lost sheep, he phrases it as a rhetorical question because the answer is obvious to his listeners.
"What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?" (Matthew 18:12)
"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?" (Luke 15:4)
Generally, 99 sheep would be safe in
the wilderness on their own for awhile, because predators are more likely to attack an individual instead of a group of livestock. Predators like to have an easy meal, having a sense of risk versus reward.
this same reason, if a person were confronted by a predator, they should try to make themselves appear as large as possible, such as by stretching out clothing or placing an item above their head to cause the predator to
decide it is not worth the risk. Also recommended is appearing aggressive by waving their arms and raising their voice.
When predators do attack a group of livestock, they attempt to cause panic in order to separate one. Often, a shepherd can keep sheep safe by simply keeping them together, which means the 99 sheep would be fine on their own for awhile.
The context of this lost sheep parable is very different in Matthew and Luke, indicating that Jesus told this parable at least two separate times.
Jesus telling this parable numerous times is very reasonable. How often might we tell the same story to make the same point more than once in different situations?
Generally, we use the same stories we are familiar with, which we have used many times. The only time someone might use a new analogy is if the situation requires an illustration that our common illustrations cannot effectively explain.
In Matthew 18, Jesus is talking to his disciples, who have asked him "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matthew 18:1) Jesus then calls a child to stand among his disciples and says, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4)
From verse 6 and onward, Jesus begins talking about these "little ones" (people who are humble like the child, and therefore great in the kingdom of God), and Jesus speaks of their relationship to the subjects of: stumbling, sinning, falling away, going astray, etc. It is within this section that Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.
After telling the parable, Jesus concludes by saying the shepherd rejoices if he finds the lost sheep and Jesus says that, therefore, "So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost." (Matthew 18:14)
Jesus is making the point that God does not want the humble to be lost from salvation by sinning (stumbling).
Jesus then continues in Matthew 18:15, by talking about the subject of pointing out a believer's sin (first to them), so they might stop sinning and repent. Jesus concludes by teaching about forgiveness.
Therefore, in Matthew 18, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in order to discuss the subject of those who are saved (or at least appear to be saved) becoming lost. The focus is on "little ones" becoming lost.
However, in Luke, Jesus tells this parable to illustrate the redemption of those already lost.
In Luke 15, Jesus is telling this parable of the lost sheep to the Pharisees and scribes, who have been grumbling about the fact that Jesus has been eating with "sinners." Jesus says, "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7)
Jesus is eating with sinners because they are the ones who need to repent. Like the sheep, there is no reason to be concerned about the 99 sheep who are not lost. The sheep we worry about is the one who is lost, and who will die if not found.
Jesus then immediately continues his point in Luke 15:8 with the Parable of the Lost Coin which is very similar to this lost sheep parable (no one worries about the money that is not lost), as well as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
For every sinner who repents (stops sinning and obeys God), there is great rejoicing in heaven because what was lost is now found.
A song related to this parable of the lost sheep is Leaving 99 by Audio Adrenaline (opens in new window)
Study the parables of Jesus in this easy-to-read 40 day devotional.
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understanding Jesus' parables by examining the genre, scriptural
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