Matthew 18: 12-14 The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Lamb By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1377638

Matthew 18: 12-14

Parallel Luke 15: 3-7

12 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? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

This short little parable is placed here in the midst of the discussion of the community Christ is imagining for those who will follow him and it demonstrates the continuing concern for the little ones who may be ‘scandalized’ and lost to the community. Both Matthew and Luke use this brief illustration of a flock of sheep with one missing whom the master of the sheep seeks out and rejoices over, but their placement of this parable within the context of the gospel and the structure of the surrounding text are used to illustrate different points. In Luke’s gospel, this parable is the first of three familiar parables which answer the accusation that Jesus, “eats with sinners and tax collectors” and through stories of a lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son Jesus points to the joy in heaven over a sinner repenting and a child returning home. In Matthew’s gospel the primary issue is the finding of one lost to the community and it is set within parables and teaching about reconciliation and it is paired with two different parables about unforgiving servants and ungrateful workers.[1]  For Luke this parable is used to explain to outsiders the inclusive nature of the community of Christ, in Matthew the parable reminds insiders of their continual need to seek out those led astray and to welcome them home with forgiveness and rejoicing.

In the parable a person has a hundred sheep. It is important that the person is not labeled as a shepherd in the original Greek but is ‘a certain person’ having 100 sheep. The person is not merely the ‘caretaker’ of someone else’s flock but they both own and are present with the flock.  Most translations tidy up the parable to indicate that the missing sheep has ‘gone astray’ but the Greek plano has the primary meaning of being led astray or deceived, this is language unique but important to Matthew’s narration of this parable, especially sandwiched between a discussion of those who ‘scandalize’ the little ones by their actions and the upcoming discussions on forgiveness and reconciliation. The sheep has not merely wandered off, but has actively been deceived or mislead to be away from the remainder of the 99. Likewise the action of the owner of the flock is not merely leaving the ninety nine on the mountain, but the Greek aphimi has the connotation of abandoning and the act of leaving behind the majority of one’s sheep to search for the lost one who might be found would not be a normal action for a person caring for a flock but this again demonstrates the point of the parable, that the one rejoiced over in the kingdom of heaven is the little one who was lost and regained.

Even though the owner of the sheep in the parable values the restoration of the lost one, in Matthew’s relation of this parable there is no guarantee that the lost one is regained. While Luke’s parables states ‘when’ the owner finds the sheep, Matthew says ‘if’ leaving the possibility that even with the owner’s search the led astray sheep may not be recovered, just as an corrected member may not accept correction in the following section. Matthew’s placement of this parable within a discussion of relations between members in the church and the continual emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness can realistically acknowledge the danger that a little one can be led astray by the actions of those inside or beyond the community, but the hope is always for restoration. The lost little one restored is the source of joy of the owner and the will of the heavenly Father.

Amy-Jill Levine points to a midrashic text which has an interesting resonance to this parable. In Exodus Rabbah, Moses is shown as a paradigm of what it means to care for a flock. The story in Exodus Rabbah states:

The Holy One tested Moses by means of the flock, as our rabbis explained: when Moses rabbenu (Moses our teacher) was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off, and Moses followed it, until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up with it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulders and started walking back with it. The Holy One then said, “Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is mine.” (Levine, 2014, pp. 43-44)

Matthew’s placement of this parable in the context of discussions of the community that will be shaped by the message of Jesus, the ekklesia (often translated church) indicates the stance of compassion that God has for those who have been led astray. This also should is to shape the response of those called to participation in this community and the compassion they are to have for the little ones who are led astray. When possible they are to be restored and that restoration is to be greeted with joy. Restoration may not always be possible, but the owner of the flock is willing to leave behind the majority to seek the sheep who is missing. Leaders in this ekklesia are to model the compassion of Moses in the parable above and the compassion for the little ones who trust in him that Jesus shows throughout his teaching. If the owner of the flock will abandon the herd to search for the lost one, those who shepherd the flock are called to practice this type of care for those they guide. Throughout Matthew’s gospel and throughout most of scripture there is always an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. Sometimes the led astray little one may need to repent and sometimes the individual or community that allowed a stumbling block to be placed before the little one will need to repent so they can participate in the joy over the reconciliation between the lost little one and the remainder of the flock.

[1] As mentioned in the previous sections I view Matthew 18: 1-20:28 as a unit structurally. Many scholars end this unit at 19:1 with “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” but I view the section beginning and ending with questions of ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ and it also includes Matthew’s (and Mark’s and Luke’s) normal pattern of groups of three parables which center around a common theme.

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1 Response to Matthew 18: 12-14 The Parable of the Lost Sheep

  1. Pingback: Matthew 19: 13-15 Infants of the Kingdom of Heaven | Sign of the Rose

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