The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, 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.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Luke.

The World of the Text

Text and Textual features

This story of the Lost Sheep is the first in a series of three parables all focused on the themes of Lost and Found. All three are examples of the literary form called a ‘parable’. Jesus used parables to teach about the Kingdom of God.

A parable is a fictitious narrative that invites the listener to use their imagination to enter the world of the parable and, on returning to their own world, will see things differently. Parables deliberately have no ending, they require the listener to work out the message and the resolution: in the ‘world’ of the parable, the beliefs and values of the listeners are challenged and they are invited to make a decision to live differently having heard.

In his parables, Jesus used everyday experiences that the audience could connect to such as farming, shepherding and domestic situations. Jesus did not use theological concepts or ‘God language’ but rather he used common language that the listener could relate to and understand. Jesus used parables to challenge people to change and, through the parables, he introduced new ways of thinking and living. Parables invite the listeners to live out Jesus’ values in their own world.

For more on parables please look at the key understandings on What is a parable.

Characters and Setting

Palestinian boy tending to his goats and sheep

Shepherds – with their sheep, would wander looking for suitable grazing land. Each night, the shepherd would gather the flock together in an enclosure to protect the sheep from predators. In first century Palestine, shepherds were considered outcasts as they lived on the edges of society. The Pharisees looked down on the shepherds as they were considered to be ritually unclean and ethically dubious.

Pharisees – were a lay movement that faithfully followed Jewish Law. Their goal was to renew and extend the observance to Jewish Law and practices within society. The Pharisees avoided contact with sinners and gentiles as they were considered impure.

Tax Collectors – were most likely Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect local tolls and duties. Tax Collectors were considered to be traitors and they were known for their corrupt practices.

Sinners – this term was used to indicate a person’s state of purity. The Pharisees believed that anyone who did not purify themselves were in a constant state of sin.

Ideas/Key Concepts

In Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 15 consists of three parables. They are a) the lost sheep, b) the lost coin and c) the lost sons. All three parables use the terms lost, found and rejoicing. Together these three parables focus on the joy that accompanies that which was lost and is now found. They illustrate that God’s focus is on the sinner and not the sin.  

This parable focuses on two important groups in Jesus’ time. They were:

  1. Tax collectors and sinners who represent the religious outcasts
  2. Pharisees and Scribes who represent the righteous.

Prior to this story, Jesus is criticised by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now he is being criticised by the Pharisees for extending table fellowship with these same people (Lk 15).  Jesus welcomes sinners and delights in eating with them. For the Pharisees and Scribes, eating with sinners was not acceptable and they protested against Jesus’ actions (v. 2).

The Pharisees are angry at Jesus because they saw themselves as the good, obedient, law-abiding, learned faithful. They prided themselves on their obedience to the Law and considered themselves to be the chosen ones. The Pharisees judged others according to one’s faithfulness to the Law and, therefore, considered the tax collectors and sinners to be unclean, faithless and uneducated as they had not kept the Law.

In speaking to the Pharisees concerns, Jesus is addressing their belief that God would only want to associate with the righteous (as the Pharisees saw themselves) and not with sinners. Jesus’ image of God is very different. He presents God as one who does not hide from sinners but rather seeks out the sinner and rejoices in their repentance. In telling this parable, Jesus invites the Pharisees to change their way of relating to the sinner.

The audience listening to this parable would be disbelieving that the shepherd would leave 99 sheep to go and find the one lost sheep as it would be a very irresponsible thing to do. In the stupidity of his act however is the message: the shepherd does not write off the lost sheep but rather he actively searches for the lost one and rejoices when it is found. The audience would also be stunned that the shepherd would let others know of his foolishness and even more so when he invited the community to celebrate with him.

This parable places the emphasis on God’s unconditional love for the sinner and not on the punishment of sin. It illustrates that every sinner is of infinite worth.

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

World in Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

In preaching about this parable, Pope Francis said:

God doesn’t know our current throwaway culture, God throws nobody away. God loves everyone, seeks out everyone, everybody – one by one.

Catholic News Service. “Pope says nothing can stop God from seeking those who stray.” Crux, May 05, 2016.

The contemporary world is quick to scapegoat people and ‘cast out’ those who are considered sinners for causing any undue burden on society. Those ‘cast out’ include asylum seekers who ‘jump the cue,’ the homeless searching for public housing (not in my suburb), people with mental health issues who ‘block up’ public hospitals, the unemployed, the elderly, prisoners, etc. Sometimes, it is too easy to be self-righteous like the pharisees and blame those whom we consider to be ‘sinners’ when things go wrong. This parable challenges the reader to change his/her way of relating to the sinner and adopt a new way of thinking and living. It invites the listener to live Jesus’ values and work for God’s vision for the world.

Liturgical usage

While the Sunday readings are arranged in a three-year cycle, the weekday readings are organised into a two-year cycle – Cycle 1 & 2. This parable of the Lost Sheep is only used in the Weekday Cycle. It is the Gospel reading on the Thursday of the 31st Week of Ordinary Time in both cycles.