The Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of the most popular stories in the Bible through which Jesus explains God’s love towards those who are lost and repent for their mistakes. SpiritualRay explains the meaning of this parable and provides a short summary of its implication in our lives.
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare.
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
― “The Ninety and Nine” Hymn by Elizabeth C. Clephane
The reason Jesus used parables to put across most of his teachings was because of their allegorical approach, which could help His listeners associate with the characters of the story. The Jewish psyche back then was more centralized towards moral values than the rights and wrongs. Their likes and dislikes were dominated by honor or shame. Their minds functioned more on attitudes and characteristics than technicalities. Hence, our Savior always used characters that they could connect with and create situations that weren’t alien to them, to put forth the answers to the questions/accusations that were directed at Him.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is the first of the three parables that Jesus narrated with an intention to explain loss and redemption, the second being the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the third being the Parable of the Prodigal Son. These three parables are mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Luke, and were used by Jesus to explain or rather give an answer to the accusation directed at Him by the pharisees about Him keeping the company of tax collectors and sinners. This parable appears twice in the New Testament―in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 18:12-14, and the Gospel of Luke in chapter 15:3-7.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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 15:1-7, English Standard Version
“See that you do not despise gone of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man 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? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
― Matthew 18:10-14, English Standard Version
Jesus gives the example of the lost sheep in two instances: (i) when He was with the tax collectors and sinners; and (ii) when His disciples stopped little children to come to Him. In both instances, the implication of this scripture portion is the same. Jesus, through this story, puts forth a message that He is here on a mission, the mission to save God’s children, going after them, allowing them to see His helping hand, so that in His protective shelter, they may come out from the lost path back to a safe haven.
There is a possibility that this parable may be inspired from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 34:11-16, which states, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
Parable of the Lost Sheep Explained
In all the instances, the lost sheep refers to the sinners, the people of God who went astray, leaving the safe land and taking a route that exposes them to a sinful end. The shepherd in the story had hundred sheep, and with such a huge number, he still managed to spot that one is missing. Now, if he were a man driven by greed and not love, he wouldn’t have risked leaving the ninety nine behind in the open and taken a route to dangerous paths―perhaps up a steep hill, or into some lonely track with the threat of wild beasts―to look out for that one lost sheep. However, being the good shepherd who loved and cared for all his sheep, he disregarded his own comfort and safety, and with a troubled and concerned heart, set forth on the quest to find his sheep, and didn’t rest until it was found. And when he actually found it, he picked it up on his shoulders and rejoiced gladly by inviting his friends and neighbors and proclaiming his happiness and content.
From the skeptic point of view, one may say that it was irresponsible of the shepherd to leave the rest of the sheep to go find the lost one. One may also say that it was a major risk, as the others were put in a vulnerable situation by their protector while he abandoned them in search of the one that went astray. However, there is a different side to it. The shepherd was not only driven by heart but logic too. Logically, it was the lost sheep that was alone in the wilderness that was more vulnerable to threat, a beastly attack, or perhaps starvation to death, than the lot of ninety-nine. The ninety-nine were already on safe lands with green pastures, and unlikely to be attacked by a predator because of the large number being together. On the contrary, the lone sheep was on its own, an easy target for the predator, which is why, the shepherd went out to rescue it from danger.
Another point that should be noted in this case is that the lost animal was a sheep, a cattle with no mind of its own. If it were a dog, it would have come back on its own, even a horse for that matter, but it was a sheep. This animal tends to freeze when it feels threatened or intimidated. Hence, the shepherd knew that there is no way that this little soul would survive on its own if he doesn’t rescue it. His endeavor was driven by the simple fact that it wasn’t just a lost sheep, it was his lost sheep, a being that he took care of, nurtured, and protected so far. He was successful in his endeavor, and all that was lost was restored in the end―an achievement worthy of celebration!
Meaning and Implication
What did Christ mean to imply through this parable? When He was accused of welcoming and dining with sinners, He used this story to address the need of sinners being rescued from sin. Invariably, He hinted on His ultimate rescue mission to save the people of the world. He implied that instead of leaving the ones who are astray on their own, there is the need to go after them, to trace them, and help them get back to the safe hands of God. Just because someone lost its way doesn’t mean that they should be zoned out. We all are God’s children, and He values each and every child of His and would never hesitate to go out of the way to bring them back to the right path. He doesn’t rebuke, curse, or humiliate those who took the wrong path, but He constantly worries, cares, and seeks them while they are trapped in the wilderness.
He didn’t only create us, but He loves us to an extent that He misses our presence, He remembers our existence, and when He finds us repenting of our wrongful deeds, He takes us in His arms and carries us to be united with our brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God. The last line of the parable 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”, signifying that each of us have an irreplaceable value in the eyes of God, and there is no greater joy in heaven compared to the one that comes when a lost child finds his/her rightful place in the kingdom of heaven.
While the lost sheep signifies the sinners, the shepherd signifies our Christ Jesus who is “The Good Shepherd” that rescued us from perishing by taking the burden of our sins on Himself and dying on the cross for us. As the parable says, “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders”, implying that not only did Jesus come to guide us sinners through His presence, but He lifted us on His shoulders, ensuring that we shouldn’t fall behind or slip on our way back. The whole act of carrying the sheep on the shoulders emphasizes the fact that when we are saved, we are united with God, and we become a part of Him. He doesn’t act aloof, or refuses to touch us, but He lovingly carries us and nurtures us under His care.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, inspires us all to come close to God, without letting anything come in between us and Him. For He is the merciful Lord who will always be glad to accept your repentance and forgive our sins so that we are free from the burden of our past, and can start a new life where there is no fear, but freedom, joy, and righteousness.