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The parable of the lost sheep

Luke 15,4-7 and Matthew 18,12-14

What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missiong one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbours?

"Rejoice with me", he would say "I have found my sheep that was lost".

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First Observation

Jesus taught in a prophetic manner

The first three Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - called the Synoptics are quite different from the Gospel of John. John is the end product of theological reflection on Jesus in the Churches of Asia Minor. We will focus on the Synoptics because they incorporate the oldest traditions in a recognisable form. These three Gospels are really very unusual writings. They are not treatises dictated by a master. They are not life stories in the way we normally understand biographies to function. They are rather collections of short teachings and episodes strung together in an overall pattern.

Perhaps, I can explain this through an example. Apprentices in the building construction will nowadays receive systematic instruction on many aspects of, say, masonry. They will study the strengths and weaknesses of materials (stone, brick, concrete, steel, wood). They will consider the functions of walls, supports, beams, trusses, and so on. They will learn a wide choice of laying bricks. The information will be available in methodical manuals that present the subject matter in an orderly fashion.

Years ago that was not the way apprentices learned their skill. They would assist a master builder who would teach them from moment to moment as suggested by the job in hand. Now suppose there had been an excellent master whose teachings were so much appreciated that they led to the formation of a whole new school of masonry. Now suppose again that some early disciples who had known the master had, on the master's advice, taken snapshots of the work while the master was teaching. These snapshots might have recorded some striking samples of work: an unusual way of fixing a beam, perhaps; an intriguing combination of wood and concrete blocks; an eye-catching patterning of bricks; and so on. If various disciples had preserved albums with such snapshots, we would have a good idea of what the master had been teaching. And by comparing various photographs we could somehow reconstruct his original genius.

The Synoptic Gospels are somewhat like that. They contain collections of 'snapshots' of Jesus' actions and words. The 'snapshots' have been arranged in a coherent presentation, as we shall see later, but they are still recognisable as originally separate units. To obtain a good idea of Jesus'way of teaching, we have to look at these original 'snapshots'.

We can see from the snapshots how Jesus taught. He did not follow a syllabus. He did not present a systematic course of lectures. No, he preached the Kingdom of his Father as the moment demanded. He might draw examples from people's everyday life and use them to formulate parables. He would show his Father's love in action by healing the sick. He would explain, argue or question in response to whatever situation arose. We call this kind of teaching 'prophetic'; to distinguish it from the systematic disciplines we are used to in our schools.

See this video on the parable of the lost sheep again. Note the distinctive prophetic features of (a) occasion, (b) prophetic word and (c) lesson.



Second Observation

Matthew's Gospel inserts the parable of the lost sheep within a larger section of teachings on taking care of weaker members of the community, the 'little ones'.

Matthew probably knew a traditional instruction on pastoral care in the community in which various words of Jesus with the same theme had been put together. Matthew inserts the string into a sermon of Jesus addressed to the disciples:

  1. Who is the greatest? - Matthew 18,1-4
  2. Not giving scandal to weak members - Matthew 18,5-9
  3. Refrain: "See that you never despise any of these little ones for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven - Matthew 18,10
  4. The parable of the lost sheep - Matthew 18,12-13
  5. Refrain: "In the same way it is never the will of your Father in heaven that any of these little ones should be lost" - Matthew 18,14

Now see this video on how Matthew uses the parable of the lost sheep in his Gospel.




traditional instruction
an instructional text handed on by the early Christians


oral catechesis
instructions about Christian faith & practice learned by heart and handed on by preachers and teachers


string of traditions
a collection of traditional texts held together by a common theme and probably learned by heart by catechumens

Third Observation

Luke's Gospel preserves the parable of the lost sheep within a larger section of teachings on God's mercy towards repentant sinners.

Luke wrote his Gospel for communities of Christians in the Hellenistic world of Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. No doubt one of the pastoral concerns of preachers was to urge their audiences to repent for their sins, pointing out that God welcomes sinners with open arms.

Against this background, Luke or a source Luke depends on, strung together three of Jesus' prophetic teachings:

  1. the parable of the lost sheep - refrain: "In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous people who need no repentance" - Luke 15,4-7
  2. the parable of the lost coin - refrain: "In the same way I tell you there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner" - Luke 15,8-10
  3. the parable of the lost son - refrain: "It was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life, was lost and is found" - Luke 15,11-32

Now see this video on how Luke uses the parable of the lost sheep in his Gospel.




Hellenistic = under the influence of Greek culture

Asia Minor = present-day Turkey


a phrase that captures the theme and that helps people remember texts as part of one instruction


I will formulate the conclusions in the form of Question & Answer

Why could the parable of the lost sheep be given such divergent lessons?

The answer lies in the literary form of the parable.

In Hebrew and Aramaic a parable is calleda mashal, that is: a riddle. A parable is by nature open-ended. That means: reflecting on the main narrative point of the parable, we can legitimately see various applications.

In Matthew's tradition, care for the lost sheep was rightly seen as implying responsibility for those in authority. It is the shepherd's job not to abandon the lost sheep but to seek it out and care for it.

Luke's tradition rightly saw care for the lost sheep as implying hope for converts and sinners. For God, like a caring shepherd, is happy to welcome the sheep back.

Did Jesus himself not formulate the main lesson of each parable?

It would seem that usually he taught a parable and left people to 'puzzle' it out fror themselves. Then, at times, he would explain the lesson in some detail. We find an example of this regarding the parable of the sower. Jesus first presents the parable to the crowd (Mark 4,1-9). Then, when his disciples insist on an explanation, he reluctantly provides one (Mark 4,13-20).

Jesus' way of teaching through parables and images is fascinating. He treats us as adults. He forces to think the issue through and see the logic of the parable for ourselves. When the Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus of consorting with sinners, Jesus simply told them the parable of the lost sheep, leaving them to work out its implications on their own.

If Jesus had added an explanation each time, the parable would be reduced to being a simple illustration to the lesson. The parable is much more powerful than that. It is like a mirror in which, somehow, our own reality can be seen in a new light.

In the catechesis of the early Christian communities various implications of Jesus' words would be worked out. This led to the explicit 'lessons' added to the parable as we find with Matthew and Luke.

Parables are open-ended, however, and remain so. We too should meditate of the narrative image contained in the parable and see how it applies to our own life.

Could we then find any kind of lesson in a parable?

The answer is: no. Earlier on I mentioned 'the main point of the story'. A true parable drives home one principal point which may have a number of applications.

The golden rule for parables is that they have one main point.

The mistake would be to see separate lessons in all the details. In the parable of the lost sheep this might happen if we attach great value to the number 'one hundred', or to the sheep being lost 'in the wilderness', and so on. One cannot tell a story without pictorial and narrative detail. They are used to drive home the main point but contain no separate lesson on their own.

Note. There are one or two parables in which the story contains more elaborate details. The parable of the sower mentioned above is one of them. This parable borders on becoming an allegory, because allegories are extended metaphors with separate 'points'. This is exceptional, however. By nature the parable has a single main focus, which main focus - like a diamond - can be applied in a number of ways.

© John Wijngaards



The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10