Barry Newman's Blog

March 3, 2013

The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep (part II)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 8:33 pm

The Settings

The differences between the two accounts of the parable are enough to suggest that Jesus may have told similar though somewhat different stories on at least two different occasions.  Indeed, perhaps of greater significance is that the settings in the Gospels for the parable are very different. However we cannot dismiss the possibility that Matthew and Luke simply inserted the one parable, whether it was told only once or more times, into their literary structures, giving it different twists for their own literary and theological purposes, and given their different readerships. None the less we will proceed as though the parables are different and see where that tactic leads us.


Chapter 18 of Matthew begins with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He then focuses on a child and remarks upon becoming like children as a necessary qualification for entry into the kingdom of heaven and identifies who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. After equating reception of one such child with reception of himself he warns of the terrible seriousness of causing one of these little ones to sin. Then follows his remedy for those by whom stumbling blocks arise in the world – cutting off of a limb, plucking out an eye. This is followed by his warning not to despise “one of these little ones and gives a reason for this which focuses on their “angels” “always having an audience with” (?) (literally “their angels continually behold the face of”) his father in heaven. At this point Jesus asks the question that begins his parable of the lost sheep. The parable is then immediately followed with the words, “So it is not the will of (literally “the will before”) your (or “my”) father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”  The phrase uttered before the parable, “behold the face of my father in heaven” seems to be in parallel with the phrase uttered after the parable, “before your (or “my”) father in heaven”.

What follows this statement, namely advice about a brother who sins, does not seem to be intimately associated with the parable, though it is not totally without relevance.  In fact Jeremias is of the view that it is this advice, about how to treat a brother who sins, that indicates, how for Matthew, in the way he uses it, the parable is mainly hortatory in character – “addressed to the disciples, a call to the leader of the community to exercise faithful pastorship toward apostates.”[1]

The setting for the parable in Matthew then, is predominantly that of the “little ones”.  While it is clear that to begin with Jesus is referring to “children”, (“paidion” or a cognate occurs four times in the first few verses of the chapter – vv. 2, 3, 4 and 5), he later refers only to little ones (“mikron touton” in vv. 6, 10 and 14), which many agree seems to be a reference to his disciples.  The cross over from “children” as “children” to “little ones” meaning something like “young, precious but vulnerable disciples” is not a clearly defined one but begins perhaps as early as verse 4 if not verse 3.

It might appear, at first glance, a little odd, to have this “tender” parable preceded by the reference to: the terrible judgement that will fall upon him who causes one of the little ones to stumble, the dire procedures to be adopted to avoid creating a stumbling block and the warning not to despise one of the little ones. However, these matters may be considered to be consistent with the reference in the parable to the lost sheep having wandered away rather than having been lost by the carelessness of the shepherd. In fact to refer to the parable as told in Matthew as “the parable of the lost sheep” may be considered misleading.  The implication could be that the sheep has gone astray because someone else has placed an obstacle, in its path, causing it to stumble.

 [1] Jeremias, J., The Parables of Jesus, Study Edition, SCM press, London, 1963, p. 40


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