Barry Newman's Blog

March 21, 2013

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

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 9:12 pm

                What the parables do and do not say

As well as trying to discern what was meant by the words “oros” and eremos” in the parables, we need to be careful to recognise what the stories do and do not say about such as, “What happened to the 99 sheep”, “What was involved in the rejoicing that took place” and “What was involved in looking for, finding and bringing to safety a lost sheep”. Certainly we need to know as much background as is applicable to the parables, but knowing what is applicable can be a problem. Associated difficulties are recognising anything odd in the stories that Jesus may have purposefully made part of the stories and being aware of anything odd in terms of what we might have expected to be part of the stories, yet not mentioned.

                             What happened to the 99 sheep?

The commentators are often at pains to say that the 99 sheep would not have been left on their own – that there would have been another shepherd or other shepherds into whose care the sheep would have been entrusted, or alternatively that the shepherd would have ensured that the 99 sheep were safely left in an enclosure of some sort. That Jesus was telling stories of his own creation seems to have been forgotten.

I was once looking at a children’s cartoon on television in the company of a four year old grandson.  I pretended to be enthralled with the cartoon and anxiously exclaimed something like, “Oh, I hope she escapes!” He turned to look at me and very seriously said, “Pa, it’s only TV.  It’s not real.”

If you had been present when Jesus told the parable either the one in Matthew or the one in Luke, and asked him, “Are you implying that the shepherd left the 99 sheep in the hands of other shepherds or made sure that they were safely within an enclosure, before he left them?” one could perhaps understand if his reply were along the lines of, “I am telling a story. It’s not a real story.  I have not said in my story that the shepherd did this or did that with the 99 sheep before he left them.  It is not part of my story.  My story is very simple – the shepherd left the 99 sheep and went in search of the one.”  Of course we do not have any such dialogue and in reality I suspect that if such a question were asked of Jesus he would not have been so obliging in his answer!

The hearers of the story would simply have made up their own minds as to whether or not Jesus was implying that the shepherd would not have left the sheep defenceless.  My guess is that most if not all would have thought that in real life a shepherd would not leave 99 sheep unprotected but that most if not all , considered, that in the story, the 99 were left by themselves – that their being left alone and vulnerable was that part of the story indicating how focussed the shepherd was on finding the lost one – that there was a sense in which the 99 became unimportant as the story quickly moved to speak of the shepherd searching and finding the one sheep (as in Luke) or searching with the possibility of finding the one sheep (as in Matthew).  In one sense the 99 are abandoned. Of course we do not actually know what was in the minds of any of his hearers concerning the lack of reference to any care exercised for the 99.  What we do have is a story invented by Jesus that says nothing about such care.

So, with respect to what happened to the 99 sheep, it makes no sense to ask if there was more than one shepherd in charge, or if all, only some, or none of the sheep were the property of the shepherd or if the sheep were left in some sort of enclosure.  Jesus invented a story and the story is what it is.

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