Like a lot of men, I resist asking for directions. I have been known to drive around befuddled for hours (though I wouldn’t admit it), thinking I would eventually sort it out. In life, people are not truly docile until they are desperate. If you have ever been lost in a foreign county you know what it means to humbly seek someone who can communicate meaningful directions.
Western culture prizes arrogance. It’s the bluster of politicians, prizefighters, and pop stars. The irony runs deep here because it usually means the self-promoter is no longer teachable. Docile means pliable, or more specifically – teachable. Its etymology is connected to “doctor” and “doctrine.” The doctor (teacher) instructs the docile in doctrine. Learning happens. Growth results.
We are living through times of global desperation when the world seems bereft of wisdom and leadership. We’ve been driving around lost for a while now and should come to realize that, as Lin Yutang (林語堂) wrote: “When small men cast big shadows, it means that the sun is setting.” It’s time to humbly ask for directions.
Antique maps, with curlicues of ink
As borders, framing what we know, like pages
From a book of travelers’ tales: look,
Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.
No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state
Traced out in color-coded numbered highways,
A web of roads with labeled city-dots
Punctuating the route and its slow stories.
Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.
Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So He spoke this parable to them, saying:
4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he 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? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, 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 which was lost!’ 7 I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.
Dig Deeper: The Lost Sheep
Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep is recorded in two different forms in Matt. 18:12–14 and Luke 15:4–7. J. Jeremias sees Matthew’s version as secondary, reflecting a change of emphasis from Jesus’ original apologia for his association with sinners to an exhortation to Christian leaders to seek out apostates. In both forms the parable derives its power from the basic human experience of being lost and found, especially as this is symbolized by the plight of a gregarious animal cut off from the herd which gives it identity and life.
Matthew 18 as a whole concerns the community’s care for its members, who are not to be offended against in their weakness (18:1–9) and should be corrected and forgiven when they have erred (18:15–35). The parable of the lost sheep serves as conclusion and example of the former theme as well as introduction to the latter. The value of “little ones,” already stated in the introduction (v. 10), is exemplified by the actions of the shepherd seeking the lost and forcefully reiterated as the “lesson” of the parable: “It is not the will of your Father … that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14).
In Luke’s version the author does not “introduce” the meaning of the parable but allows readers to discover it in their own experience. The Pharisees complain about Jesus’ practice of receiving and eating with sinners. Abruptly Jesus confronts them with a parable which traps them in their own expectations. The parable’s power resides in the imaginative shock of a shepherd abandoning his whole flock in the steppes to seek out the one lost sheep “until he finds it” (v. 4). (A Palestinian shepherd would ordinarily drive his remaining flock into a pen or natural enclosure, or turn it over to a neighboring shepherd lest it scatter or be ravaged.) This figure, then, illustrates the extravagant action of God himself, who rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance (v. 7). Jesus not only reveals the value of sinners but challenges his hearers to re-evaluate their conception of their own “righteousness.” This two-pronged truth is repeated in the three subsequent parables of the lost coin (15:8–10), the prodigal son (15:11–32), and the unjust steward (16:1–13).
According to St. Irenaeus the gnostics connected the straying of the sheep with the enfleshment of the aeons. Within the Church the parable was used sparingly, to vindicate reconciliation of Christians who had sinned (Apostolic Constitutions, 2.13-14) and reception of those lapsed in the Decian persecution (St. Cyprian, Ep. 46, 51). Tertullian, in his De poenitentia (chap. 8), uses Luke 15:4–7 to vindicate the Church’s practice of a second repentance for Christians; later, however, in his Montanist treatise De pudicitia (chap. 7), he denies this practice, there taking the wandering sheep to represent the heathen.
St. John Chrysostom, the first to treat the parable exegetically, notes (with reference to Luke 15:7) that the righteous are imperiled for the sake of the lost (Hom. 59, on Matthew). St. Augustine interprets the parable as manifesting the Lord’s extravagant zeal in seeking the lost, whom he identifies as all of humanity implicated in original sin (De peccatorum meritis et remissione, 1.40). For St. Thomas Aquinas (following St. egory, Hom. 34 on the Gospels), the flock represents all rational creatures and (following St. Hilary’s commentary on Matthew) the lost sheep the human race, strayed through Adam and redeemed by Christ, the Good Shepherd (Super Evangelium Sancti Mattaei Lectura, 1509-13).
The Reformers also used the parable rarely (Luther refers to it only twice). Calvin explains the angels’ eater joy as caused by God’s mercy shining more brightly in the liberation of a sinner (Harmony of the Gospels).
An extended literary parody occurs in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Speed and Proteus trade witticisms about Speed’s relationship with his absent master Valentine. Speed responds to Proteus’s calling him a sheep by countering: “The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the shepherd; but I seek my master, and my master seeks not me. Therefore I am no sheep.” Proteus replies: “The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep. Thou for wages followest thy master; thy master for wages follows not thee. Therefore thou art a sheep.” “Such another proof will make me cry ‘baa’,” exclaims Speed, who then identifies himself as “a lost mutton” (1.1.69-110).
Byron, who makes a comic allusion to Luke 15:7 in the dedication to Don Juan (41-43), elsewhere refers to the same passage straightforwardly, observing: “He who repents … occasions more rejoicing in the skies / Than ninety-nine of the celestial list” (Morgante Maggiore, 466-67). Ira D. Sankey, while touring Scotland with American evangelist Dwight L. Moody, composed a musical setting for an obscure, posthumously published poem by Elizabeth Clephane, “The Ninety and Nine” (1874). In this well-known hymn the shepherd’s suffering in seeking the lost is implicitly connected to the Passion:
“Lord, whence are those blood drops all the way
That mark out the mountain’s track?”
“They were shed for one who had gone astray
Ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
“Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?”
“They are pierced tonight by many a thorn,
They are pierced tonight by many a thorn.”
George Eliot, in her Scenes from Clerical Life, observes that for one who “has learned pity through suffering,”
the old, old saying about the joy of angels over the repentant sinner outweighing their joy over the ninety-nine just, has a meaning which does not jar with the language of his own heart. It only tells him … that for angels too the misery of one casts so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of ninety-nine. (“Janet’s Repentance”)
In Galsworthy’s Flowering Wilderness, the misery of the penitent somewhat outweighs any attendant joy: “There was no rejoicing as over a sinner that repenteth. All were too sorry for her, with a sorrow nigh unto dismay” (chap. 31). Allusion to the parable takes a sinister twist in Shaw’s Saint Joan when Ladvenue, handing Joan’s recantation to Cauchon, exults: “Praise be to God, my brothers, the lamb has returned to the flock; and the shepherd rejoices in her more than in ninety and nine just persons.” Luke 15:7 provides the title for Morley Callaghan’s novel More Joy in Heaven (1937).
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).