Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 40. The Lost Sheep
Mt 18:12 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?
The context of our present verse above starts right back at the beginning of the chapter when the disciples ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom (v.1). In answer he called a child over and using it as a visual aid he warned them that unless you had childlike, simple faith, you could not enter the kingdom (v.2-4). He then added a strong warning about the consequences of how we should guide our children, either to him or to sin (v.5-7). That led on to the outlandish suggestion that it would be better to cut off a part of your body than sin (v.8,9) and then a warning not to look down on children with their simple faith (implied v.10) and he then goes on to tell this parable to show that each and every one of them was precious to him.
Verses 12 and 13 are the parable and verse 14 the applicatio0n. First the parable: “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, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” (v.12,13) So let’s look at the detail. The owner has a hundred sheep. That is important: the fact is he has a lot of sheep to care about. But then one of the sheep wanders away. What does the owner do? Does he forget the wanderer and blame it for being stupid? Does he consider looking after the other ninety-nine more important? No, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes out looking until he finds that lost wanderer. When he finds that lost one he is very happy. In fact, he is more happy about finding that one lost sheep than about all the others that did not wander off.
Now we have to be sensible and say that this does not mean he does not care for the other ninety-nine, only that because that one was lost he is particularly thankful that it has now been found. Then comes the simple application: “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (v.14) Very simply, Jesus looked out at the number of children that we were there in the crowd and says that God is concerned for every single one of them.
Now let’s get to the heart of this simple story. Let’s be honest, there are times when we look on ‘disreputable’ people and we write them off, people perhaps who are simply different from us, people of a different colour or culture. Jesus’ simple words in this simple parable don’t allow us that option. He says every single wanderer is valuable to him and when they turn back to him, he is overjoyed. Yes, he has focused on children in response to the original question about greatness, but now I would suggest, this parable is bigger than only children.
When Luke records this same teaching (which may have been on another occasion for Jesus would surely have taught these same things many times in many different places) he concludes with, “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.” (Lk 15:7) i.e. he makes the lost sheep an unbelieving sinner who repents and comes into the kingdom. Matthew doesn’t seem to make the distinction; his lost sheep could easily be a believer who has drifted away.
The main point is Jesus’ joy over the returning wanderer. Luke puts this story (the lost sheep) together with the parables of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son. The same message is conveyed in each of them – joy when that which is lost is found. The picture of the lost wanderer is most clearly portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-24) which concludes, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15:23,24).
One of the things that is missing from these stories is recrimination; the owner or the father (in the Lost Son parable) does not chide the lost animal/son. Their folly is obvious enough, Jesus is simply concerned to show how thankful he feels when a prodigal returns.
But there is another important facet of this story –that of the other two parables that Luke adds. Here the owner went out searching for the lost sheep. In the Lost Coin parable, the woman swept and cleaned the houses and kept searching until she had found the lost coin. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is clear than the father was out keeping watch for the returning son: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son.” (Lk 15:20) We may be careless about the lost around us (prodigals who have left the church or simply unbelievers who have never turned to Christ) but Jesus is out on the lookout for those who are lost and who are open to ‘being found’. There is an attitudinal thing here. The Pharisees wanted to condemn all who fell short of their standards; Jesus wants to save and redeem all who will turn to him.
I was recently in a group context where several people were launching off about those in their church who were not so all out for God as they felt they were, I reminded them of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost AND those in the kingdom who are a bit slow of understanding. The truth is that we all fall short in some way or another and none of us have room to point fingers of judgment. I am a redeemed lost sinner. Jesus came and found me and started stirring a hunger in me (which I didn’t recognize at the time) until he eventually convicted me of my need of him and the Father’s will in my life.
As I have often said in these studies, God is the Great Initiator, He is the one who comes looking for us and for that reason, as the apostle Paul might have said, we have no room to boast. It was all of Him. And it if is true of us (and it is!) then it is also true of the prodigals and the lost around us. Can we be his instruments to reach them? Will we be open to them? Do we see them as precious to Him rather than ‘judgment fodder’? His longing is to redeem not to destroy (see and learn Ezek 18:23.32, 33;11). May we have that same longing.