The Lost Sheep Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 July 2022

Matthew 18.12-14.

Since I was already discussing parables where Jesus compares his followers to sheep, and portrays himself as the good shepherd, I figured I’d do the Lost Sheep Story. I kinda did already, but I bunched Luke’s version together with the Lost Coin Story, and focused on God seeking and saving the lost. Matthew’s version is a bit different, ’cause it has a different punchline.

Jesus begins this parable with a question which is typically translated like the KJV’s, “What think ye?” Except the verb is singular and third-person, not plural and second-person: Ye is not the subject, but the Greek word τί/ti is. It can be translated “what” or “who,” so that’s what I went with. He’s not really asking for his audience’s thoughts; he wants to see who among them has the sense to realize what he means. If Jesus were only fishing for consensus, his parables wouldn’t mean anything. He’s got a point to them—now see if you can spot it.

Even if he already totally spells out his own point. Hey, sometimes the crowd is just that dense—as you’ll see in a moment.

Matthew 18.12-14 KWL
12 “Who among you thinks?
When a hundred sheep belong to a certain person,
and one of them might wander off,
won’t the person leave the 99 on the hills,
and go to seek the wanderer?
13 When he happens to find it,
amen, I promise you, he rejoices over it—
more so than the 99 who hadn’t wandered.
14 Likewise it’s not the will
laid out by your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be destroyed.”

In Jesus’s day, people didn’t keep their wealth in money, which was harder to come by; but in land and livestock. So how wealthy does that make a person with 100 sheep? Well… not poor. Certainly not rich. Think of an individual lamb like 100 dollars. That’d make his flock worth 10,000 dollars. It’s a decent pile, but it’s not disposable income: You can’t just trade all your sheep for luxuries and comforts. You need to keep those sheep, and keep ’em well-fed and in good health so they’ll make more sheep, and produce good milk and good wool, and you can sell that… if you’re patient and work hard.

And with only 100 sheep, you can’t really afford to lose a lamb or two. A rich person could lose a lamb here and there easily. This guy was gonna have to go look for it himself.

The struggle to get that sheep.

So our lowly shepherd leaves his 99 accounted-for sheep on the hills, and goes to seek his wayward sheep. Some bibles are gonna translate ὄρη/óri as “mountains,” because the word can mean that too, but if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll notice their mountains aren’t all that mountainous. And who climbs a mountain to find pasture? You want plains and valleys… with the occasional hill.

Most translations say the 99 sheep are on the hills, but the King James Version mixes up which clause ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη/epí ta óri, “on the hills,” belongs to. The way it puts it, the shepherd “goeth into the mountains.” I did a little investigating; the KJV’s translators got this error from the Geneva Bible. ’Cause it’s not found in Wycliffe, nor the Textus Receptus nor Vulgate. Somebody was trying to hastily finish his translation of Matthew and figured nobody’d notice if he cribbed from another bible. As for the Geneva Bible translator who made the error first: Shouldn’t have been napping in your Greek classes.

But you can see why they’d like the error. Doesn’t climbing the mountains make this parable sound way more dramatic? How many mountains do you imagine this shepherd climbs in search of his poor, scared, cold, bleating lamb? Now imagine it’s dark. Now imagine it’s raining. Now imagine it’s raining arrows, ’cause for some reason there’s a war on, and this moron decided he’d pasture his sheep near a battle. Escalate the situation in your mind as much as possible. You know King James-loving pastors surely will.

Meanwhile there are 99 sheep left behind, with no shepherd to stop wolves and bears and cougars from attacking. Properly, the shepherd also left them on the hills—on multiple hills, so they’re all spread out, all the easier for predators to pluck. It’s dramatic in its own way. But the shepherd figures it was worth the risk while he went off to chase the one.

Still, let’s not stretch this parable too far. I know; it’s fun to add words to what Jesus said, and blow this into a full-length VeggieTales plot, with Larry and Bob getting into a fistfight over whether to follow the 99 or the one. (Oh wait… they did this parable. Well of course they did. With all the usual clichés.)

But remember, it’s just an analogy. Our Father is like this shepherd. But human shepherds have limitations, and our Father does not. He already knows the 99 sheep aren’t going anywhere. He already knows where the lost sheep is. He won’t have to do any mountain-climbing. The only actual challenge our Father faces, is convincing that stubborn wayward sheep to come back, and convincing it through love. Instead of whacking the sheep with his staff like we’d want him to do.

And when it comes back, he rejoices. What was lost has been found!

Not that he doesn’t care about his other sheep! If any of them had wandered off, he’d put the very same effort and love into getting them back too. Comparing the shepherd’s emotions, and God’s love, for one sheep over another, misses the point. I’ve heard various Christians claim this story proves God cares more about converts than people who grew up Christian; I should point out the Christians who love to say this, tend to be converts. I agree God certainly loves them… but God loves everybody, and doesn’t love the 99 any less because he rejoices over finding one. And I don’t think these folks’ self-esteem oughta come at the expense of native Christians.

Besides, some of these native Christians can still get lost. I know a number of them who grew up Christian, and even though they should totally know better, they’re wandering off into nationalism. So our Shepherd has to go get ’em before they do something dumb… or something dumber than they’ve already done. Hope they listen! Most of Jesus’s sheep wander around in one way or another, and God’s love becomes a lot more obvious when he actively does stuff to help and fix us. But don’t get the idea that he loves any of his kids any less. This parable wasn’t composed to give us that idea. Jesus only says the shepherd rejoices at finding the lost sheep—because of course he does.

Losing “these little ones.”

The greater context of Luke’s Lost Sheep Story is when Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus eating with taxmen and sinners. Lk 15.1-2 Jesus had two parables which he generally used to talk about how great it is to find lost things, and Luke has Jesus retell them, then point out that’s why he eats with sinners: They’re getting found!

The greater context of Matthew’s Lost Sheep Story is coming to God like little children.

Matthew 18.1 NRSV
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Then he said it’s better to drown kids than trip them up, Mt 18.6 that it’s better to cut off limbs than enter eternal fire, Mt 18.7-9 that kids’ angels always see his Father’s face, Mt 18.10 and then the Lost Sheep Story. The Textus Receptus also inserts verse 11, which was swiped from Luke 19.10 and isn’t found in copies of Matthew till the 300s: “For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.” Mt 18.11 KJV

So in Matthew, the point of this story is to point out how important children, and childlike faith and obedience, is to our heavenly Father. Not naïve like children; not willfully ignorant like certain stupid Christians. Jesus says exactly what he means by this in verse 4: He wants us to be humble like children, recognizing we don’t know it all and need to follow Jesus. As for the rest of us know-it-all Christians, he warns us against messing with children and similarly humble Christians; he wants ’em saved!

There are determinists who are pretty sure once God saves you, he absolutely has you. He’s so mighty, so sovereign, that if he wants any person saved, ain’t nothing they can do to stop him. For them, salvation is irresistible. It makes God sound super creepy, like an obsessed hunter who can’t stop chasing his prey till he finally bagged it, but they insist no, God’s not creepy. Really he’s not. You’ll see… once you come to him and he makes you love him. (I don’t know how they’re not seeing it. I’m guessing lots of denial is involved.)

To determinists, this parable proves their point. If you’re one of the Good Shepherd’s sheep, and you’ve wandered off, he’s coming to get you. Like Jesus said, “It’s not the will laid out by your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be destroyed.” Mt 18.14 These are the lambs he’s predestined to inherit his kingdom, and they will achieve this destiny. It’s certain. He’s making sure of it, even if he has to climb a dozen mountains to find us.

Thing is, this worldview violates most of the passages which came before it in Matthew 18. You know, where Jesus orders his students to not make his children stumble. Where he says it’d be better if they lop off hands and feet, and pluck out eyes. He resorts to hyperbole because it is just that bad; he doesn’t want his little ones to abandon faith and ruin themselves, and he definitely doesn’t want their fellow Christians to drive them there! If they could never fall away, there’d be no point in any such warnings. Yet there they are: Warnings Jesus himself makes, and similar warnings elsewhere in the scriptures.

But while we might drive ’em off, Jesus makes it clear in this parable it’s never his intent to drive ’em off. God has no secret evil plan to save some and destroy others. He wants to save everybody. If you wander off, he’s coming to rescue you. If you refuse his help… well that’s a whole other story, one Jesus doesn’t tell. But God’s stated will—the only will he has—is to save everyone he can. 1Ti 2.4 Everyone.