One of the most beloved and most ancient images of Jesus is the "Good Shepherd". In various places throughout the Gospels, the image of the disciples of Jesus Christ as "sheep" is used in different contexts. It is my intention here to focus upon the parable of the Lost Sheep, as found in Matthew 18:10-14 and uncover the possible origins of this parable as well as show how this particular passage was reflected upon and referenced in the early Church. The lectionary of the Catholic Church does not reference this passage in its entirety. Instead it is presented as Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14 for Tuesday of the Nineteenth Week of the Year for both Years I and II. I chose to keep the passage in its entirety in order to be able to reflect upon the whole passage.
What is the context for this particular passage? Chapter Eighteen of the Gospel according to St. Matthew begins with disciples asking Jesus the question, "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus instructs the disciples that if they are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven they must become like little children (Mt. 18:1-5). In verses six through nine, He speaks to the disciples about the temptations to sin and how they must not become a stumbling block to others. This message is reinforced by His teaching that if your hand, foot, or eye causes you to be tempted to sin it is better that it be cast from your body than to remain whole and be denied entry into Heaven. Here again, he makes reference to not being a stumbling block to these "little ones" (vs. 6). In verses ten through fourteen Jesus begins by referring to these "little ones" again. Here he refers to these little ones as sheep who have strayed from the fold and that it is his mission to bring these lost sheep back so that none of them will be lost. In verses fifteen through twenty the theme of "fraternal correction" is discussed, as well as the importance of reconciliation between the disciples. This entire chapter follows immediately after the account of the Transfiguration on Mount Sinai, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah appear to Peter, James, and John in Chapter Seventeen.
The Gospel according to St. Luke also contains a similar parable (Lk. 15:3-7). However, there are some variations in the story. For example, verses six and seven state, "And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." The passage in St. Matthew's Gospel makes no reference to any such party and the topic of repentance is never directly expressed anywhere in the parable. Why this difference between the two passages? One way to account for it is to keep in mind the communities that these two evangelists were writing to. Tradition has it that the community which followed the Gospel according to St. Matthew was of Jewish origin. The references to the "kingdom of Heaven" and the angels who behold the face of God (Mt. 18:10) would reflect a very Jewish understanding of who Jesus is and his direct connection to the salvation history of the People of Israel. Tradition also has it that those who followed the Gospel according to St. Luke were of pagan Greek origin. Therefore, it would seem likely that the author who refrain from using uniquely Jewish themes; but, would instead present the message in a way that his audience would understand. Throwing a party as a way of rejoicing over the finding of the lost sheep would have easily been understood by this community. Also, the concept of righteousness is very much in keeping with Greek philosophical and cultural thought, so the author appears to be relying upon this theme in order to keep Jesus' message across as well.
Contextually, the parable in St. Luke's Gospel follows the parable of the "Great Dinner" in Lk. 14:15-24 which presents Jesus' teaching on who will be received into the Kingdom. In verses twenty-five through thirty four the "cost of discipleship" is the topic discussed. Here Jesus is presenting his disciples with the teaching that if one wishes to truly be his follower it requires that he or she give up everything in order to follow Him. From there we turn to the beginning of chapter 15 and Jesus' teaching that this discipleship does not involve only a chosen few, but everyone. He will even go out search for one sheep who strayed from the ninety-nine, so that none of those who have been called to be His disciples will be lost.
Even though it appears to be much earlier in St. Luke's Gospel than it appears in St. Matthew's Gospel, the fact is that the Transfiguration account appears in Luke 9:28-36. Therefore, these parables appear in relatively the same place in both synoptic Gospels. There is no "Lost Sheep" parable in either the St. Mark's or St. John's Gospel.
What was the source of this parable? It is my contention that this parable was likely found in the Q source which borrowed it from Ezekiel 34:11-16 and slightly reworded it in order to continue with the themes present in St. Matthew's Gospel and St. Luke's Gospel. The most original form of the parable (Q?) may have looked more or less as follows:
What man of you, who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, truly, I tell you, he rejoices over it more, than over the ninety-nine which did not get lost.1
It is true that the reconstruction of a form of the parable order than the versions which occur in the gospels does not necessarily take us back to Jesus himself. However, in the present case there are no grounds for attributing this parable to the creativity of the early Christian community. Besides, the interpretation given to it by the community indicates rather that we are dealing here with a parable which can be traced to Jesus himself.2 In addition to the passage in Ezekiel 34, there are also additional Old Testament references to the theme of "lost sheep". Two of these references include: Psalm 119:176 and Isaiah 53:6. In Ezekiel, beginning with verse 15, there is a very strong connection between this prophetic message by Ezekiel and the "Lost Sheep" parable in Mt. 18:10-14. Given Jesus' Jewish background, it is entirely possible that Jesus had this very passage in mind when he proclaimed what came to be known as the parable of the "Lost Sheep". There is also non-canonical evidence that this passage may have actually been said by Jesus Himself.
The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas also makes reference to this same theme. In GThom 107 we read, "Jesus said, The Kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for that one until he found it. When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, 'I care for you more than the ninety-nine.'"3 While this parable is not exactly worded the same way as those present in the two synoptic Gospels, it does follow the same theme. Another non-canonical source which contains the parable of the Lost Sheep is the Gospel of Truth. This 'gospel' presents the account as follows:
He is the shepherd who left behind the ninety-nine sheep that are not lost. He went searching for the one that had gone astray. He rejoiced when he found it, for ninety-nine is a number that is in the left hand that holds it. But when the one is found, the entire number passes to the right (hand) -- draws what was sufficient and takes it from the left-hand side and brings (it) to the right, so too the number becomes one hundred. It is the sign of the one who is their sound; as is the Father.4
Whether the version in the Gospel of Thomas has been derived from either of the Synoptic Gospels, or both, is in dispute. The version in the Gospel of Truth may well have derived from Matthew's.5 There might also be a possible connection with the Qumran document (IQS 2:19-25); however, I have not been able to find a copy of this document in order to make direct reference to its content. While there are several common themes between the four different accounts of this parable, Arland Hultgran makes reference to the fact that there are some important differences as well. Some of the similarities include the fact each account begins with one hundred sheep and one of them becomes lost, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes in search of the lost sheep, the lost sheep is found by the shepherd, and the parable concludes with an account of the shepherd's reaction to having found the one who is lost.6
Some of the important differences include the fact that context varies between these four accounts. St. Matthew's version is set within the context in which Jesus speaks to his disciples (18:1) concerning care for God's "little ones". Luke's is set within a context in which Jesus makes a response to the criticism of the Pharisees and scribes that he receives sinners and eats with them (5:1-2). The text of the Gospel of Thomas begins without a context. The version in the Gospel of Truth is set within a context in which Christ is spoken of as one who "became a way for those who have gone astray"; he leads persons to true "knowledge" (gnosis) of the Father. Another important difference is the place where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the lost sheep. In Matthew's account they are left "on the mountain", in Luke's account "in the wilderness".7 If one accepts the idea, as it comes down to us from the tradition that St. Matthew's Gospel was written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience, the fact that this parable took place "on the mountain", as opposed to "in the wilderness" is significant. Throughout St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the "new Moses". In Chapter 5 of St. Matthew's Gospel, for example, Jesus is presented as the new lawgiver, in the Mosaic tradition, when he offers his followers the "Sermon on the Mount". This very same passage in St. Luke's Gospel is referred to as the "Sermon on the Plain". Therefore, it would seem fitting that St. Matthew's account would take place "on the mountain".
How was this parable presented in the early Church? Various Fathers of the Church made direct reference to these verses in a variety of different homilies. For example, St. Jerome wrote, "The Lord had said, under the type of hand, foot, and eye, that all kin and connection could afford scandal must be cut off. The harshness of this declaration He accordingly tempers with the following precept, saying, Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; i.e. As far as you may avoid despising them, but next to your own salvation seek also to heal them. But if ye see that they hold to their sins, it is better that ye be saved, that that ye perish in much company."8 Following the theme of repentance which is present in the various parables of Chapter 18 of St. Matthew's Gospel, St. Bede the Venerable wrote, "By the ninety-nine sheep, which He left on the mountains, are signified the proud to whom a unit is still wanting for perfection. When then He has found the sinner, He rejoices over him, that is, He makes his own to rejoice over him, rather than over the false righteousness."9 The use of the term "little ones" was also expounded upon by some of the Fathers. In this regard, Origin writes, "The little ones are those that are but lately born in Christ, or those who abide without advance, as though lately born. But Christ judged it needless to give command concerning not despising the more perfect believers, but concerning the little ones, as He said above, If any man shall offend one of these little ones. A man may perhaps say that a little one here means a perfect Christian, according To that He says elsewhere, Who so is least among you, he shall be great."10
This parable, like all Scripture, is a well from which numerous insights can be drawn. The Fathers of the Church and later generations of preachers have made use of these stories and sayings of Jesus in order to admonish their flock and bring them back to the Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
While it is extremely important to keep in mind the context of this parable within St. Matthew's Gospel, it is also essential that one examine the content as well in order understand the message that is being conveyed.
After instructing his disciples that they should not "despise one of those little ones" (Mt. 18:10), Jesus begins the parable of the Lost Sheep with a question, namely, "What do you think?" This teaching moment for Jesus is meant to engage the listener at both the intellectual and affective level. In St. Luke's Gospel he begins with the question, "What man among you?" What he suggests all will do in going after the one lost sheep is actually not what many of us would do, but the attractiveness of this extravagant individual concern makes the listener want to agree. In a split second we are drawn into God's world, seeing and acting as he would. The shepherd's joy is like God's joy; his dedication to the individual sheep, carrying it back to the flock, is a reflection of God's love. Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven might be commentary on this parable. The joy in heaven is over the change of heart (metanoia) of this sinner. "No need of repentance" is both ironic and tragic.11 The theme of conversion or change of heart is likewise a very Jewish theme. The Hebrew word for conversion (shub) means "to turn" which implies a change of direction. The one sheep which was lost left the fold by changing direction (away for God as Shepherd) and must be searched for and returned. The idea of sheep being re-turned involves a change of directionality on the part of this erring sheep. The conversion (shub) theme is also made present to the reader in terms of a turning toward God's understanding of how important we truly are to him and how we must put on the mind of God when dealing with one another. The Hebrew concept of shub is not simply an intellectual exercise, but involves a conversion of both mind and heart. The conversion of mind and heart is at the foundation of the distinction between those who will be saved and those who will perish.
This parable stands in direct contrast to the worldly understanding of success (on the part of the shepherd). A political leader who could retain ninety-nine percent of his constituency would have the most favorable poll ratings in history, reflecting the "Caiaphas principle" of John 11:49-50. It is better to let one person perish than to have the whole institution destroyed. However, Jesus who came to save the lost (Mt. 10:6, 15:24) has different values, which he phrases in an "impractical" directive that catches his eschatological outlook, i.e., to leave the ninety-nine and go in search of the one who is lost.12 On a practical note, it would seem rather difficult for any large institution to be able to leave the vast majority to go and search for one who is lost; however, it is important to keep in mind that many of Jesus' parables are meant to confound worldly wisdom and thereby change the directionality (shub) of our minds so that we see the world around us as God sees it.
This idea of conversion must have a direct effect upon one's life in order to be truly meaningful. In terms of this particular passage, conversion can be made manifest in terms of how one deals with those who may not have the same gifts and talents as we do and are therefore considered to be inferior members of the community. The apparently insignificant members of the church are in reality the most significant, because they have the highest order to angels guarding them. If God takes such direct notice of the supposedly unimportant members of the church, how much more should the church and its leaders be attentive to them? The point is driven home by the parable of the sheep which have strayed.13 St. Hilary of Poitiers makes a similar point when he states, "The Angels offer daily to God the prayers of those that are to be saved by Christ; it is therefore perilous to despise him whose desires and requests are conveyed to the eternal and invisible God, by the service and ministry of Angels.14
The concept of angels mentioned in St. Matthew's Gospel would have been a late development in Jewish thought. In fact, there is a strong possibility that the Jewish people actually acquired a belief in angels as a result of their time in exile in Babylon. Another late development in Judaism was the idea of apocalyptic literature. Earlier in the paper I made the statement that the author of St. Matthew's Gospel borrowed the image of the lost sheep from Ezekiel 34:11-16 and re-worked the account in order to allow it to fit into the overall theme of the gospel.
Ezekiel 34:11-16 is very much a part of the apocalyptic writing tradition. In fact, the first reading for the Eucharistic liturgy on the Solemnity of Christ the King (34th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A) is Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17. The entire "theme" of the liturgy has an apocalyptic tone in terms of the Lord God taking the role of the shepherd himself and finding the lost sheep, healing the injured, and destroying the sleek and strong. This is very much a final judgment idea which explains the fact that it is linked to Matthew 25:31-46 which is the account of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats at the end of time.
The text in St. Matthew's Gospel does not have the apocalyptic tone that is present in the Book of Ezekiel. There is no mention in either Matthew 18:10-14 or Luke 15:3-7 of Jesus destroying the sleek and the strong while at the same time pasturing the flock. While the wording of the Lost Sheep parable in St. Matthew's Gospel is consistent with Ezekiel 34, the imagery which comes to mind while reading either of these accounts of the Lost Sheep is of Jesus as the very mild, gentle shepherd which is actually closer to the shepherd image in Psalm 23 than in the Book of Ezekiel. This is particularly true in terms of Luke 15:3-7 where we read of Jesus actually taking the sheep which had strayed and putting it on His shoulders.
What is left out of a text is sometimes just as interesting as what is put into a text. Why did the author of St. Matthew's Gospel choose to re-work the passage in Ezekiel and thereby leave out the apocalyptic tone? Did the author intend to downplay the idea of God as judge in order to focus on the humanity of Jesus? There is very little evidence in the Gospels of Jesus ever getting angry. In fact, there are very few incidents where Jesus displays any human emotions outside of tranquility. As I stated at beginning of this paper, one of most beloved images of Jesus as well as one of the earliest depictions of Him in Christian art is as the Good Shepherd. Given the fact that shepherding was a much more common trade in First Century Palestine, the impression I have is that the image of a strict shepherd who may have to "thin out" the herd would not have come across as shocking or revolting to the congregation. This would have been a common experience in terms of raising any other farm animal. However, for some reason the author of St. Matthew's Gospel presents us with much more of a "warm and fuzzy" Jesus in this passage.
Like any other written material, the passage of Matthew 18:10-14 was written at a particular period in history and it is that context that the hearer finds meaning in the passage. Throughout the centuries the parables of Jesus have been interpreted in various ways based upon the period of history, the congregation being preached to, or the context within which the Gospel passage is being expounded upon.
A number of homilists throughout the centuries preaching on Matthew 18:10-14 made the distinction between the lost sheep being "man" and the ninety-nine sheep being "the angels". Following on this theme, St. Hilary of Poitiers stated, "But by the one sheep is to be understood one man, and under this one man is comprehended the whole human race. He that seeks man is Christ, and the ninety and nine are the host of the heavenly glory which He left."15 St. Bede the Venerable, following a similar theme, stated, "The Lord found the sheep when He restored man, and over that sheep that is found there is more joy in heaven than over the ninety and nine, because there is a great matter of thanksgiving to God in the restoration of man than in the creation of the angels. Wonderfully are the angels made, but more wonderfully man restored."16 St. Gregory the Great follows a similar vein when he states, "Since a hundred is the perfect number, He possessed a hundred sheep when He created angels and men. But soon after one was lost, when man through sin forsook the pastures of true life. But the Lord left the ninety-nine in the desert; for these supreme angelic choirs remained in heaven. But why is heaven spoken of as a desert, unless it is because we call that place a desert which is abandoned? For when man sinned he abandoned heaven."17
With the exception of St. Bede, the various homilies I have referenced so far not only followed a similar theme, but were all proclaimed by Fathers of the Church, so they were "relatively" close to each other historically so it might not be surprising that they would follow a similar theme in terms of their homilies. Preaching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Most Reverend Jeremias Bonomelli, bishop of Cremona, followed a similar theme to those used by the Fathers of the Church when he wrote, "It is needless to say that the shepherd is Jesus Christ; the ninety-nine sheep that remained about the shepherd and did not go astray, according to some, signify the faithful angels, whom Christ left in heaven, to come on earth later and assist erring man in working out their salvation."18
Throughout the seventy-three chapters of the Holy Rule, St. Benedict of Norcia (480-547) uses an allegorical interpretation of Scripture in order to apply a particular passage to the topic discussed in a given chapter. St. Benedict describes the qualities of the abbot in Chapter two of the Rule. Like Christ, the abbot, according to St. Benedict is a shepherd (RB 2:6-10; 27:8-9). He is a shepherd/pastor of the monastic flock and of the individual monks (both elements are important here). St. Benedict understood the monks to have set out on a common journey in response to God's call. On the journey, the abbot is to show toward the individual monks the solicitude of the Good Shepherd who was anxious to seek out the straying and lost sheep, even carrying them on his shoulders. (RB 27:8-9). In doing so, the abbot has to move the flock forward without driving them so hard that the weak and young fall behind.19
Chapter twenty-seven of the Rule deals with the abbot's concern for those who have been excommunicated. This chapter makes reference both to Ezekiel 34 and well as the Lost Sheep parable in St. Luke's Gospel. It states:
The abbot must take the utmost pains, and strive with all prudence and zeal, that none of the flock entrusted to him perish. For the abbot must know that he has taken upon himself the care of infirmed souls, not a despotism over the strong, and let him fear the threat of the Prophet wherein the Lord says, "What you saw to be fat, you took for yourselves, and what was diseased you threw away." (Ezek. 34:3-4). And let him follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd, who, leaving the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains, went to seek the one that had gone astray, on whose weakness He had such pity, that He was pleased to lay it on His sacred shoulders and thus carry it back to the fold. (Lk. 15: 5)20
St. Benedict's use of the image of shepherd, then, includes the more common idea of the pastoral care of individuals and flocks; but is also includes the important sense of leading a flock on a journey -- fundamentally a spiritual journey.21 However, the role of the abbot does include more temporal qualities as well, such as, steward, father, and physician.
During Israel's nomadic past, the people had developed the image of their nation as the flock of God; the good shepherd (Pss. 23:1; 68:7; 100:3; Isaiah 40:10; 49:9; Jer 23:3; 31:10; 50:19; Ezek 34:1-31; Micah 4:6-8; 7:14). The people of God were called to be holy. The original parable in Jesus' own situation may well have been a response to his critics' accusation that his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinner violated the holiness of the people of God. Even more basically, Jesus' original parable may have been a fundamental critique of all conventional ideas of God and God's rule.22
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also makes reference to the Lost Sheep parable in a variety of places. In Part 1, Chapter 2, Article 3, Paragraph 3 of the catechism entitled "The Mysteries of Jesus' Public Life" there is a reference to this parable. Under the heading of "The proclamation of the Kingdom of God" it states that Jesus invites sinners to the table of the kingdom: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners," (Mk. 2:17) He invites them to that conversion without which one cannot enter the kingdom, but show them in word and deed his Father's boundless mercy for them and the vast "joy in heaven over one sinner who repents" (Lk. 15:7). The supreme proof of his love will be the sacrifice of his own life "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt. 26:28).23
In Part 1, Chapter 2, Article 4, Paragraph 2, under the heading "God takes the initiative of universal redeeming love" it states that at the end of the parable to the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God's love excluded no one: "So it is not the will of your Father who is in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (Mt. 18:14). He affirms that he came "to give life as a ransom for many"; this last term is not restrictive but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: "There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer." (2 Cor 5:15). This statement seems to coincide with the idea that this parable was meant to cast a new light on God and His relationship with mankind.
When discussing the topic of "meaning" in regard to the parables of Jesus, it is important to keep in mind that each one of them have a variety of different meanings at various levels. There are a numerous factors that must be examined prior to discussing the topic of meaning. Some of these factors include: Did Jesus actually say these words? What is the context of this parable within the wider Gospel? Is this parable an original saying or is it borrowed from some earlier source?
It is my contention that "Lost Sheep" parable in St. Matthew's Gospel was borrowed from Ezek. 34:11-16 and was actually spoken by Jesus Himself. I based this contention on non-canonical evidence, such as the Gospel of Thomas as well as the insights of certain Bible scholars who support this idea. Assuming that Jesus did speak these words, it is also important to understand why both the authors of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew chose to place this parable where it is. In St. Matthew's Gospel, this parable appears to be a way of teaching his disciples that Jesus came to save everyone, not just those who are the "chosen", but also those who have strayed and are in need of being found and returned to the fold.
Future generations appropriated this parable to fit the message that they wished to get across to their particular congregation. For example, we saw that several of the Fathers of the Church made the distinction between the angels (the ninety-nine) and sinful man (the lost sheep). St. Benedict appropriated this parable in order to instruct his monks regarding the care that the abbot should have for those who had been excommunicated. The Catechism of the Catholic Church made reference to this parable in regard to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the God's initiative in saving sinners through his universal redeeming love which is best expressed in Jesus offering Himself for all of sinful humanity.
Were these people wrong in terms of interpreting these texts either allegorically or fitting a particular circumstance? Since the parables and other teachings of Jesus have a variety of levels of meaning, it is certainly not wrong to interpret a particular passage in such a way that it speaks to a given community. The Scriptures are "alive" and therefore must have meaning for a community in every generation in order to help bring them to a knowledge of Jesus and inspire them to conform their lives to the example of the Savior. If this is not done, the problem is that these teachings of Jesus can quickly become dead letters on a page and simply the words of an itinerant preacher who lived two thousand years ago, instead of the transforming and life giving words of God Himself which transcends time and space.
Those future generations may very well interpret this parable in a way that have not yet been discussed; however, this interpretation may be quite meaningful to the church at that point in its history. Making sure that a particular passage is meaningful and relevant to a certain community and a given point in history is always challenging. However, if one is to bring the Good News to others, it is essential that the teachings of Jesus speak to the needs of the particular congregation that one is addressing.