The three parables of Luke 15 are actually one parable telling the same story emphasizing slightly different themes. The first two stories in the parable are of the good shepherd and the good woman. The story of the good woman is essentially a reiteration (with some important nuances) of the good shepherd story using imagery from the world of women. The use of this shepherd imagery is not something Jesus selected on the fly. We miss the significance of Luke 15 if do not see that Jesus was taking powerful images of the Old Testament, images the Pharisees and scribes would be very familiar with, to break down the illusions the religious leaders were living under.
There are three Old Testament passages that use the shepherd and sheep imagery: Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-8, and Ezekiel 34. Each succeeding passage adds something to the image of God as shepherd. I will look at what Kenneth Bailey has to say about each of these passages and then revisit the parable of the “Lost Sheep” as we bring them back together.
Here is Psalm 23:
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff --
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The good shepherd is one who takes care of his sheep. He protects them and makes sure they are fed. But anyone who has been around sheep knows that sheep have a tendency to wonder off. The shepherd has to keep close watch and if a sheep should wonder off it is incumbent upon the shepherd to restore the lost sheep to the fold.
Verse three is often thought of as God “uplifts us” or “makes us happy.” Bailey writes that the Hebrew means he restores “myself/person/soul/life.” In other words, God “brings me back” or “causes me to repent.” Bailey says that in Arabic versions, verse three begins with “he brings me back.” Clearly the restoring is of a lost sheep that has wandered away. What has the sheep wondered away from? That is answered by the rest of the verse. The NRSV say “right paths” but the old King James Version refers to “paths of righteousness.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 66)
The last phrase of verse three also tells us something we often overlook. If you will remember, I pointed out that the shepherd and the woman in Luke 15 searched out the lost partly because what was lost was valuable to them but also because their reputation was on the line. Why does the Psalm 23 shepherd restore the sheep? For the benefit of the sheep? Clearly that is implied as part of the story but the explicit reason is “for his name’s sake.” The shepherd (God) is doing it because of what it says about him and no what it says about us!
Verse four further exalts the good shepherd. The “rod and staff” symbolizes both the tools of the shepherd in protecting the sheep from enemies and in keeping them from wandering away from the flock. Verse four also hints that the shepherd will do these things in spite of potential great suffering and loss to himself.
The Hebrew word for “table” in verse five is synonymous with “feast.” God is throwing a banquet or celebration. Verse five ends with the “anointing the head with oil” which was done at festive occasions and great celebrations. It indicated divine favor. (It should also be known that food preparation was the duty of a woman and David is ascribing feminine duties to God.) (Finding the Lost, 94.)
The meal is also offered in the presence of enemies. The shepherd does this while protecting from predatory threats. So the shepherd restores the sheep who has wandered into perilous circumstances (like going into a far country and living recklessly) and he protects the sheep from predators (like an angry older brother). Also, remember what prompted the Luke 15 parable. Who is it that sits with “lost sheep” sinners and eats with them while protecting them from their enemies?
The story ends in verse six with the psalmist/sheep in the house enjoying the presence of God.