The Parable of the Lost Sheep

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

The Parable of the Lost Sheep.

“Many dishonest tax collectors and other notorious sinners often gathered around to listen as Jesus taught the people. This raised concerns with the Jewish religious leaders and experts of the law. Indignant, they grumbled and complained, saying, ‘Look at how this man associates with all these notorious sinners, eats with them, and welcomes them all to come to him!” (Luke 15:1-2).

Please read the story of how Jesus responded to the complaints of the Pharisees with a story. (Luke 15: 1-7).

CONTEXT. The Pharisees wouldn’t let up. They continued harping on Jesus because He welcomed sinners to listen to Him teach. He befriended them, and even ate with them! This particular time, they noticed that tax collectors and other sinners are flocking around Jesus to listen to Him teach and tell stories. And Jesus does nothing to discourage them. The Pharisees are indignant, and they muttered once again that Jesus shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing if He was a self-respecting rabbi. They complained to Jesus that He is associating with the unclean riffraff. Isn’t He worried about defiling Himself, they wonder?

A MEAL. What’s wrong with eating with sinners, anyway? In the eyes of pious Jews, table fellowship was a serious business. Eating with someone was  special sign of acceptance. It was evident that Jesus didn’t merely eat with sinners. It was clear that He actually hosted sinners, that these outcasts were invited by Jesus to His table. NT scholar Jeremias noted that “to invite someone to a meal was an honor, an offer of peace, trust, forgiveness, and brotherhood.” Merely rubbing shoulders with the unclean sinner was bad enough, but to go out of your way to invite them, to choose to be with them, was scandalous. Kenneth Bailey noted that a respected homeowner may offer a meal to the needy as a sign of generosity, but that man certainly wouldn’t lower himself and actually eat with those people. But Jesus did just that. The issue of impurity was so central that a rabbinic instruction of that time included, “The wise say, ‘Let not a man associate with sinners even to bring them to the Torah!” The Pharisees were obsessed with their purity laws. They were so afraid of being made unclean that they wouldn’t even associate with sinners in order to bring them to the Scriptures! Table fellowship with sinners was thus absolutely forbidden for pious Jews, and the religious leaders were dumfounded that Jesus would take this part of their law so lightly.

JESUS. How did Jesus defend Himself from these pious complaints? He didn’t respond to their criticism with a three-point sermon about the art of evangelism. Instead, Jesus tells them three stories, three parables about the lost… The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. These “lost” stories narrow in focus from one out of 100 (sheep), to one out of 10 (coins), to one out of two (sons). These parables were Jesus’ defense for His being the friend of sinners, and He wants to make sure the Pharisees don’t miss the point. The final lost item in the three stories, the elder son, is the point of this group of stories. Jesus wants them to see that the elder son is a picture of the Pharisees themselves, who were ultimately left out of the fellowship because of their self-righteousness.

PRIDE. In His first parable, Jesus put the Pharisees on their heels right away. His first line in the lost sheep story was, “Which of you…” This would have offended the Pharisees, because they were being compared to a lowly and impure shepherd. Jesus was asking the Pharisees in His clever way to identify with the shepherds, to take the place of the shepherd in the story. That would have put the Pharisees off-balance, because the Pharisaic law considered shepherds to be ritually unclean. The shepherd profession was seen as beneath the dignity and purity of the religious elite. So right away, the Pharisees have been indirectly rebuked for their spiritual pride. But Jesus is just getting started.

BLAME. Jesus then talks about the shepherd in his story losing his sheep. It was the shepherd’s fault. The shepherd should not have let that happen. Soon the Pharisees will see the point of the story, and they will find that Jesus is rebuking them for letting some of their sheep get lost. It’s their fault. They never should have let that happen to some of these lost souls.

HELPLESS. Evidently a lost sheep is easy to lose, but not that particularly hard to locate. Sheep are stupid, and they just wander off without being aware of becoming lost. A lost sheep then becomes frightened, just lies down helplessly on the ground and refuses to budge. That lost sheep then will bleat, constantly and loudly, out of panic and fear. The lost sheep is unable to help itself and depends on the shepherd to find it. But now comes the hard part for the shepherd. Because the sheep is immobile, the shepherd has no choice but to put the sheep on his shoulder and trudge back to the sheepfold in order to restore the sheep to the flock.

JUST NEED ONE. But before that can happen, the shepherd has to leave the 99 other sheep in the flock with his assistant shepherd. The chief shepherd will then be freed up to search diligently for that lost sheep. There is never just one solitary shepherd caring for the flock, especially one that large. It’s a job that requires at least two or more other shepherds, because of the many tasks involved in shepherding the flock. So, in the story, it was assumed that the shepherd left the fold with another shepherd and struck out on his own in his search. Jesus is asking the Pharisees, there are plenty of you around to care for the sheep that are safely in the fold. Why isn’t there at least one of you who will lovingly seek the lost who have wandered outside the fold?

REJOICE. Joy is the centerpiece of this parable. The shepherd rejoices when he has found the sheep. And he rejoices again when he shared the good news with the community back home, his friends and neighbors. Then joy is once again brought to the center of the story when Jesus told the Pharisees of the great joy in heaven whenever one sinner repents! C’mon you religious leaders, wouldn’t you  want to share in that joy, Jesus is asking? Instead of grumbling, you should be rejoicing when a sinner turns to God and returns to the fold! Why can’t you seem to do that? Do you see what you’re missing out on when you complain about sinners rather than reach out to them?

OWNERSHIP. Jesus is saying, I want you to know, Pharisees, that I still claim ownership of these sheep, whether lost or not. These sinners are my sheep, and I love them. I want them all to know of God’s love for them. I will continue to seek out the lost and take them home. I will continue to welcome the sinners and eat with them. And I will share in the joy of heaven as I lovingly take each lost sheep onto my shoulders and carry them home to the Father. In fact, I will search for my lost ones even before they repent! That’s how much I love my sheep.

SUBMIT. Pharisees, in your self-righteousness, you believe that you are clean and don’t need to repent. Well, okay, fine, but I will befriend those who do see the need. But don’t forget the words of our great prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one of us, to his own way.” And like the lost sheep, we are helpless to find the way back to the flock on our own. We are spiritually immobile until the shepherd finds us. Being a lost sheep is a hopeless situation. Lost sheep depend on the Good Shepherd to find them. Please accept your lost condition, and submit to the Shepherd as He puts you on His shoulders for the long walk back to safety, to salvation, to the Father.


  1. Have you ever been responsible for a group of people, and you notice that one or more are wandering away from the group, away from what’s best for them? Perhaps a parent with children? A teacher with students? A boss with employees? A pastor with church members?
  2. After you notice a sheep becoming lost, what does a good shepherd do?
  3. How does someone develop the ability to seek out lost sheep even before the sheep realize they are lost? Before the sheep repents of his predicament?
  4. Are we ever more worried about our reputation than our ministry?
  5. Are we ever guilty of living by our own purity law, more concerned that another’s sinfulness might rub off on us somehow? More worried about getting dirty than spreading love?
  6. What qualities must a shepherd have to notice the absence of a sheep?
  7. When were you a lost sheep? How did you get back to the fold?
  8. The Pharisees were offended by the “lost” stories. What needs to happen to them before they are humbled and repentant?
  9. The Table of Fellowship is loaded with meaning and blessing. So why don’t families have more meals together? What is given priority over eating together in an atmosphere of trust, acceptance and kinship?