Barry Newman's Blog

March 28, 2013

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

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 2:19 am

Understanding the Parables – What was Jesus really saying?

If only one could be certain of the answer to that question! In spite of our uncertainty, we must still try to understand why Jesus told the stories – what he was “getting at”.  In making this attempt it should now be reasonably obvious that we will have to consider the parables separately.  There is very likely to be two separate answers to the question, one for each of the parables as reported in Matthew and Luke. Almost certainly Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, but we can only gauge what Jesus said by examining the Greek documents.  Though here and there we might detect a Semitic feature underlying the Greek, the Greek is all we have.

The parable in Matthew

The story that Jesus told as recorded by Matthew has the notion of “suppose” written into it. It seems to flow as follows: “What do you think about the following? Suppose a man has 100 sheep and suppose one goes astray, would not the man leave the 99 on the mountains and look for the one that went astray?  And suppose he finds it. He would be ever so glad, compared to his feelings for the 99 that had not gone astray.”

There is an emphasis not so much on the shepherd and his searching for the sheep but upon the shepherd finding it and being so “joyful” (utterly relieved?).  And what would bring about this joy or “immense relief”? That the sheep was found? Yes, but only because the sheep would be very precious. The story actually focuses upon how precious the sheep would be, how valuable it would be, to the man.  If it were not valued, there would not be this joy or immense relief.

That the reference is to a “man” rather than a “shepherd” may have been a way of avoiding focussing on shepherds and the way they were viewed at the time of Jesus.  Consequently the attention of the hearer of this “suppose” story would more likely be directed towards the sheep that was lost and its needing to be found.

In fact that the 99 are left behind on the mountains suggests that the man would deliberately focus on the one sheep.  That there is no mention of any care being exercised towards the 99 adds weight to this notion.  It is this focus on the one sheep that results in his leaving the 99 behind.  And why “on the mountains”?  In the story Jesus could have said “in the countryside” but chose not to.  Unless one argues that the translation should simply refer to “hills” then the reference to “mountains” and the lack of reference to any care for the 99 is presumably meant to imply that in his search for the one sheep the man would be prepared to basically abandon his 99 for the sake of that one sheep.  The focus is on finding that one sheep and the joy that would result from finding that one sheep.

It is at the end of the parable that one would not have been surprised to have read that Jesus said, “There is more joy in heaven before the angels over one sinner who repents than over …”, as recorded in Luke.  Instead of which we find, “So, it is not the will of (literally “before”) your (or “my”) father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”  As discussed earlier, it is the idea of “these little ones” which surround the parable.  “These little ones”, his disciples, are very precious to the Father. Being described as, “little ones” we recognise their vulnerability, their fragility.  They can easily be led away from their allegiance to their Lord.  They need protection. Perhaps, we are reminded of the words of Jesus elsewhere – “When I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name.  I guarded those whom you gave to me and none of them perished except the son of perdition that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17: 12)  Their “angels” always behold the face of the Father of Jesus in heaven. If my understanding is correct, that is, their “angels” always have an audience with the Father. Or to put it another way, Jesus is saying, “My (their) Father, who is in heaven, is fully aware of what happens to his little ones on earth.” Given its setting is the parable then not one of considerable warning to any who would cause one of these little ones to sin?  The Father will know what has happened.  And it is not his will that any of these little ones should perish. Woe to those who have caused them to perish!

Better for a person to have a great millstone fastened to his neck and be cast into the sea and drowned than to cause one of the little ones who believe in Jesus to sin.  Woe to those by whom temptations come.  Better to cut off a foot or a hand or pluck out an eye, if that will prevent the temptation arising, than to be cast, whole into hell. Do not look down on, do not despise one of these little ones. Beware because “their angels” have a continual audience with my Father.

Who were those who did indeed look down on the little ones of Jesus?  As a group it was the Pharisees and the scribes.  The disciples were not trained as the scribes were. Many were commercial fishermen.  One was an ex tax collector.  They had no fame, nothing really to commend them to the learned and the very religious.  I remember being contacted by a man in a retirement village, whom I thought was interested in finding out about Jesus.  However I soon realised that he was simply looking for some purely stimulating conversation.  I was horrified (Oh that I should have shown my horror!) when I soon learnt how he was an arrogant unbeliever boasting about how he had  seduced an elderly christian widow away from her Lord and had bonded her to himself.  Better that he had never been born.  He had enticed one of “these little ones” away.  I only hope that she was not irretrievably lost.

It seems to me that the parable is essentially about how precious the little ones that Jesus had are to God, his father.  These humble ones, these little ones are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and whoever receives one of these little ones in the name of Jesus receives him.

It is possible that we are meant to see the shepherd, only ever called “the man”, as portraying God, recognising that God is portrayed as the shepherd in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, God as father is mentioned either side of the parable. Additionally, we note that the man does not lose the sheep. The sheep of its own volition wanders away just as God is not at fault when his sheep wander away.  However, to see the man as representing God, I suspect, is going too far.

It could be that we are to see the 99 abandoned on the mountains as representing those who “look down upon” or “despise” the little ones – the Pharisees and the scribes, looking down, from their perspective, from their lofty heights.  After all, Jesus could have simply referred to their being left in the countryside, but he chose to speak of “the mountains”.  But perhaps the 99 being left in the mountains bespeaks of the man’s relative disinterest in them compared to his concern for the one that had wandered away. Perhaps the reference to the mountains indicates how dangerous the situation was for that sheep and consequently the considerable urgency in finding that “lost” sheep if at all possible.

Whether or not any in the crowd who listened would have thought of any of the above possibilities we will never know. But hopefully, some at that time, would have understood the essential aspects of the story and recognised how Jesus condemned the attitude of the Pharisees and the scribes towards his followers.  Surely some of the Pharisees and scribes themselves recognised essentially what Jesus was saying. Perhaps some of those who heard the story in the course of time better understood who Jesus was and better appreciated the love the Father has for his Son and his followers.

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