We have just explored the Old Testament Shepherd metaphors. It is time now to back up and review what led up to this parable in Luke 15.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:1-2 (NRSV)
So the primary audience for what follows is the Pharisees and the scribes. Take note of what Luke writes next.
3 So he told them this parable:
The word “parable” is singular, yet Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Compassionate Father as a unit. Kenneth Bailey maintains that these three were to be taken as one interrelated teaching. How? We will start with the Lost Sheep parable.
4 "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?
By saying “Which one of you,” Jesus was implicating the Pharisees and scribes. Shepherding was a job beneath the dignity and status of his audience. It was insulting to compare them to shepherds. Furthermore, Jesus compares them to bad shepherds.
Bailey notes that in Middle Eastern culture one usually states things in a way that circumscribes taking direct blame. I might say “One of my sheep is lost” but I would not say “I lost one of my sheep.” Right from the start Jesus makes clear that the blame is squarely on the back of the shepherd. Bailey says that for hundreds of years in Arabic translations, the translators have consistently translated the language into the passive even though the original clearly is not.
Shepherds were not necessarily the owners of the sheep. Many people in a village would own sheep. The shepherds would take the sheep out of the village to graze them. Sheep tend to wander off but it is the shepherd's responsibility to find them if they do. The shepherd was held responsible for the loss of sheep except in certain well-defined circumstances. He would be shamed and his integrity would be questioned if he lost any. He was highly motivated to find lost sheep.
It is important to note that all one hundred sheep are out in the wilderness. Jesus speaks of leaving the ninety-nine to find the one. What happens to the other sheep? Bailey suggests that with such a large flock the shepherd would almost certainly have had at least one assistant. If not, he would likely have taken his sheep to a neighboring shepherd while he went to search.
When sheep get lost, they become terrified. The often collapse in a thicket and begin bleating. When found, they are too terrified even to rise to their feet. They can not be herded or led on a rope. They must be carried. They way up to 70 pounds. The terrain the listeners likely imagined was rugged and not easily maneuvered. The shepherd would place the sheep around his shoulders and grab his legs in front. This was hard work! Unlike our Western images of this parable, which has Jesus carrying a little lamb under his arm, most Eastern images have sheep that are as big as the shepherd indicating a heavy load that is carried.
Jesus says he returned home “rejoicing.” About what was he rejoicing?
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'
Bailey notes that the shepherd returns home with his lost sheep and calls for a celebration. Why? The Western traditional notion is that it is because he loves the sheep and is happy he found it. That likely would be true but is that the only reason? Note that the shepherd's character is impugned if he loses the sheep. The celebration is not just about the lost sheep. It also about (and maybe primarily so) the exhibition of the shepherd's character.
Bailey quotes Isaiah 43:3-4 (emphasis mine):
3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer. I have handed over Egypt as a ransom price, Ethiopia and Seba in place of you.
4 Since you are precious and special in my sight, and I love you, I will hand over people in place of you, nations in place of your life. (NET)
Why does God deliver the Israelites? Partly because he loves them but also because of his holiness and what it means for Him!
7 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 Celebration is for the shepherd and what he has done, just as the celebration God plans is about what he has done over the lost sinner.
So what happened to the ninety-nine? We aren’t told. There is no implication that they are abandoned. It is possible that there is a “quiet joy,” as Bailey calls it, about the fact that they are safe. They simply have not come home yet! Therefore, a celebration would be premature.
This parable has many parallels with the Parable of the Compassionate Father. Both the one and the ninety-nine are in the wilderness. The main character exhibits costly grace to retrieve the lost. There is celebration by the central character over what his done. I will write more about this after we examine the second parable.
To close this post I would draw your attention to one fascinating aspect of this parable. What does the parable say about repentance? What does the lost sheep do to save himself? At the most, he bleats! Salvation comes only from the shepherd.