Barry Newman's Blog

March 25, 2013

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

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 10:01 pm

What was involved in looking for, finding and bringing to safety a lost sheep?

Naturally we do need to have some background knowledge to appreciate the stories even as stories.  Sheep were in fact looked after by shepherds.  That shepherds would often count the number of sheep and by so doing would discover if one or more were missing helps us appreciate the story however that knowledge  is not essentially for coming to grips with the story. One would expect that a sheep that had gone missing would normally be looked for. What is interesting is that in neither account is there any mention of “shepherd”.

Depending upon the terrain in which a sheep was lost, the task of finding a sheep could vary from being relatively easy to extremely difficult. However, to what extent would a man engage in searching for a missing sheep, leaving 99 behind, without care or even with care?  For how long would he search? How valuable would he consider the one sheep to be and thus, how important would it be to find that one sheep? Perhaps the idea that a man is looking after someone else’s sheep or in some other way sees himself as having a significant duty to care for each sheep or the idea that the loss of one sheep no matter what the circumstances is a serious matter for any such man, is part and parcel of the background assumed by the hearers.  Alternatively, we might assume that if one has 100 sheep to start with, the loss of one is not an extremely serious matter, though serious enough for the man to spend a little time trying to find it.  Probably we are simply meant to focus on the fact that in each story the man is intent on finding the missing sheep.  We can imagine that once having decided to try to find that sheep, the man becomes obsessed with finding that one sheep and so his finding the sheep then becomes a matter of considerable relief. But again, we must not read too much into the stories.  They do not go into such possibilities.

Though it might be tempting to see the possibility of the shepherd in searching for the sheep, putting his own life in danger as some sort of reference to the actual death of Jesus, that is not part of the story. In fact there is no hint of such in the story and besides Jesus did not put his life in danger, he gave up his life!

It is understandable that a shepherd upon finding a sheep that had been lost and perhaps it being exhausted and bewildered, might carry it on his shoulders and presumably no one would consider that part of the story in Luke to be odd.

However, although Bailey does not see a problem in the following matter, it is questionable, as to whether a shepherd would be pasturing sheep in a wilderness area, but even if so, a further question could be asked as to the likelihood of the proximity of a village to such an area, as seemingly indicated in the story as recounted in Luke.  None the less, such features are part of the story.

It could be that in a real life situation one or more shepherds having taken over caring for sheep under the care of another shepherd who has gone to look for a lost sheep, return to their dwellings to report that one of them is still “out there” looking for one that has gone missing.  But such a feature is not a part of the story in Luke.


What we have in Matthew and Luke are only stories.  They have been made up.  Their artificiality is highlighted, in each case, by their being 100 sheep to begin with.  Is there any evidence that Palestinian shepherds tried to have flocks consisting of a “nice” round number like 100?!  It certainly sounds like a “nice” round number to us and surely to the hearers of Jesus also.  If Jesus had begun his stories with, “A man had 83 sheep” we would be tempted to search for the significance of that number.  By using the number “100” Jesus indicates that there is no significance to be attached to the number and that he is simply telling stories of his own creation.

Both stories are stark and perhaps the starkness has to be recognised for what it is, in order for us not to miss the truths that Jesus is portraying.  To embellish much at all beyond what is given in the stories may well hinder us as we try to understand the point or points Jesus is making. The hearers at the time may have seen the stories as they developed to have more or less certain background features and perhaps different hearers having had different experiences, created different images in their minds as the stories unfolded.  But as far as we know, all they heard, all they had fundamentally to apprehend, in the end, was something like the stories as we are given them in the two Gospels.


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