The Parable of the Lost Sheep: Context is Crucial

Jesus uses the same parable in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 to teach parallel truths: that God pursues his disobedient elect, and that he also pursues his disobedient elect. Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so different when I write it out…

Maybe a quick run-through will illustrate the difference.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14 ESV)
 
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that 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.
(Luke 15:3-7 ESV)

Let’s nail down the similarities first. Both are written in the second person, and are basically extended rhetorical questions – “Who doesn’t do this?” The logic is: if you will do these things (though you are evil), how much more will God do them? Both end up with the shepherd rejoicing.

Now, the differences. Matthew’s sheep “wanders,” Luke’s sheep is “lost.” Matthew’s sheep are left “on the mountains,” Luke’s “in the open country.” Matthew’s shepherd rejoices “more” over the one than the ninety-nine, but Luke breaks the parable to give us this information, which takes place in heaven. Matthew gives us the will of the Father. Luke tells us that the shepherd puts the sheep on his shoulders, takes it home and throws a party with his friends and neighbors.

Oh, and the big difference: the C word, context. Context, context, context. Matthew’s parable is in the middle of Jesus’ 4th discourse, given to his disciples. Luke’s takes place amidst a gathering of tax collectors, prostitutes and Pharisees. As often happens with Jesus’ words, two different messages go forth from the same set of words. When Jesus speaks to his own, these are words of comfort; when he speaks to those he never knew, they are words of condemnation.

Notice the little differences, and their impact on meaning. The sheep who “wanders” is the wayward disciple. Active, willful disobedience. The “lost” sheep is the ignorant sinner, without knowledge of the shepherd. It is the lost sheep of John 10:16 – “I must bring them also.” Matthew keeps the comparative rejoicing within the parable. He’s going for a different conclusion. It would be easy to read Luke’s conclusion into Matthew here, but don’t be tempted: this isn’t about ignorant sinners, but hardened disciples. In 18:3, 6, 7, 8, 9, and maybe 10, Jesus threatens his disciples with the consequences of sin. This is no denial of eternal security, but a warning against apostasy, a prediction of the coming heresy of the Judaizers. Even among the disciples now, Judas was becoming Judas. In order to comfort them (comfort them through warning? Isn’t the fear of God our comfort and strength?), Jesus reminds them that when they stray, he will come and get them, and in this way none of the “little ones” (the elect) will be lost.

Luke continues his theme of out-rejoicing Matthew (Matt 5:12 v. Luke 6:23), by mentioning rejoicing three times, as opposed to Matthew’s one. Joy is, indeed, the point of Luke’s parable, as the Lost Coin and Prodigal Son illustrate – the Pharisees had none of it, and Jesus wanted to make the point that if they had rejoiced at the tax collectors and prostitutes coming to him, they would have joined in the rejoicing in heaven, so to speak. There is a direct link from earth to heaven in regards to loving repentance, is the point.

The “lost sheep” of Luke’s parable is the wayward sinner who sinned in ignorance and must be rescued. The emphasis is on the lostness rather than the wandering of Matthew’s sheep, which shifts perspective from the actions of the individual sinner to the state of all sinners, which in turn shifts the focus to the Savior. Characteristic to Matthew, he emphasizes the correct behavior of the elect man, especially in binary contrast to the incorrect behavior of the non-elect man: a Hebrew line of thought. Luke’s gospel is much more unilateral: here is the Son of Man come to save the world, look to him all you ends of the earth, and be saved.

A final note: is the “do not need to repent” of Luke 15:7 ironic? Consider Luke 5:32 – “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The gate to life is narrow; make every effort.

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~ by bradybush on December 1, 2011.

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