Luke 15:3-7; Matthew 18:12-14
George Lyons


For Joachim Jeremias, the setting of the Lost Sheep presents serious problems since it is held that the parable was given on only one occasion and applied differently by the two Evangelists that preserve it. Matthew has reaudienced the parable. His application is secondary. He appeals to Greek translation variants of an Aramaic original to account for minor verbal differences (Jeremias 38ff, 132ff; and Hunter 18). Rudolf Bultmann, however, believes that Matthew's setting is essentially more original than Luke's (Bultmann 171). Such disagreements between two equally competent form critics reveal how subjective their art really is.

It is not at all implausible that Jesus used similar parables on different occasions with different applications (Jeremias 41, 108). The form-critical position emphasizes the status of the parables as free-floating traditions with few if any contextual markers. To say that Matthew's or Luke's setting is more or less original is to move from form-critical analysis to historical speculation. To do is not to challenge the integrity of the Evangelists. They may have been guilty of no more than excusable ignorance, not deliberate misrepresentation. The literary-critical approach, preferred here, gives both Gospels' applications a fair hearing. It makes no historical claims or assumptions. Nevertheless, it is not implausible that both applications could go back to Jesus, not only to the Evangelists.

Matthew. It is true that few modern scholars consider the "Church" passages in Matthew 16 and 18 to be genuine in their present form. But it is not unlikely that Jesus did intend to found a community (ejkklhsiva = "church") of his disciples as the new people of God (qahal Yahweh). If in the apostolic band, the Church in miniature, Jesus sensed the immanent danger of apostasy as opposition to him grew more fierce (Mt 26:31-35), would he not instruct the faithful regarding the attitude of God toward the erring brothers and sisters, and, therefore, of their responsibility to them?

Luke. In Luke Jesus uses the parable as a vindication of his association with sinners — a justification of he Gospel against its critics (Jeremias 39). The concern of Jesus for tax collectors and sinners "is solidly documented in all strands of the tradition" (McArthur 140). Luke implies, by referring to "all the tax collectors and sinners . . . drawing near," that this was not an isolated incident, but characteristic of Jesus' ministry. In the parable Jesus justifies his conduct by claiming that he is acting as God's representative. "Jesus claims that in his actions the love of God to the repentant sinner is made effectual" (Jeremias 132).

Jesus. The parables in both Gospels are associated with forgiveness, human and divine (Mt 18:14-35 and Luke 15). It is always God's good pleasure to forgive sinners (Mt 18:14; Lk 15:7) and the responsibility of those who profess to serve him to forgive and rejoice in God's forgiveness (Mt 18:15, 21-22, 35; Lk 15:6, 9, 32). The urgent necessity of forgiveness — by the Phariasees in Luke and by the disciples in Matthew — might on numerous occasions have called forth a parable emphasizing God's forgiving love (see Jn 10:10-11, 17-18) and the privilege of sharing in Jesus' mission to find the lost, recover the straying, and celebrate salvation.

Exegetical Analysis

"Sheep" had a long history as a common metaphor for God's people in the Old Testament before Jesus gave this parable. "The Lord is my shepherd . . ." (Ps 23:1). "We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps 100:3). "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Is 53:6). As the Lord is the Great Shepherd, the spiritual leaders were called to be shepherds (Ezek 34) In spite of this, shepherds were a despised lot in first century Palestine (Jeremias 133).

The scene in Matthew is the "hills" of Judea, whereas in Luke it is in the "wilderness" (e[rhmo" — uninhabited, uncultivated pasture land — Arndt 347; Geldenhuys 403). The differences may result from variant translations of the Aramaic betura which has both significations (Jeremias 133).

Matthew pictures the sheep in the act of deliberate wandering (tov planwvmenon) while Luke emphasizes the lost condition (tov ajpolwlo") of the sheep. If the lost sheep is in danger, it is implied that the safety of the ninety-nine is not sacrificed for the sake of one (M'Neille 165).

There is an added degree of certainty in the shepherd's search for the lost (Lk 15:4 — "until he finds it") that is absent in his search for the straying brother (Mt 18:13 — "if he finds it").

No special significance should be placed on the number of sheep. "Souls are not digits" (Buttrick 181).

In Luke is the added note of the shepherd's carrying the sheep on his shoulders (15:5). The note of rejoicing is present in both instances (Mt 18:13; Lk 15:5), but in Luke the shepherd also calls his friends and neighbors together (sugkalei' — in preparation for a feast — Jeremias 134) to rejoice with him (15:6).

Unqualified identification of the mikroiv — "little ones" (Mt 18:14) is impossible. Jesus has used the term in referring to children (Mt 18:1-6) and to the erring brother or sister (Mt 18:10, 14-21). "Conversion, and thus also becoming a disciple, means 'becoming like a child' (18:3) . . . mikroiv has thus become a designation for Christians" (Bornkamm 121-122).

To whom divkaioi — "righteous persons" (Lk 15:7) refers is equally difficult. Jesus probably uses the expression ironically (Tinsley 157) as in Luke 5:31-32: "Those who [imagine they] are well have no need of a physician, but those who [know they] are sick [do]; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The scribes and Pharisees divided the Jewish population into two groups: sinners and righteous. As they (mistakenly) considered themselves to be righteous, Jesus borrowed their terminology to answer their criticisms of his conduct (Childers 556-557). It certainly need not imply that some are naturally righteous and need not repent (see Lk 3:3ff; 18:18-19; Rom 3:10). Elsewhere Jesus presumes that all people are naturally evil and only God, good.

Statement of Teaching

In Matthew the prophesy of Ezekiel 34 is undoubtedly in the mind of Jesus as he relates this extended similitude to his disciples. There, because of laxness on the part of the leaders of the community, God is compelled to search for his sheep: "I will bring back the strayed . . . and I will strengthen the weak. . . ." (Ez 34:16). Jesus gently warns his disciples not to be that kind of leader, but to follow his example as he follows the Father's. No effort should be spared to restore the backsliding brother to the Christian fellowship (18:15-17, 21-35). The disciples are entrusted with the special care of Jesus' flock (see Jn 21:15-19; Lk 22:32; 1 Pet 2:25, 5:1-4).

Since God takes so much trouble to recover a lost one, they must carefully guard against causing one to stray (Mt 18:5-10). "The sheep that so foolishly and willfully strayed is not only recovered and restored to the flock; but rejoiced over, as if the recovery were a great gain" (Plummer 252). This example of unconditional forgiveness must also characterize the disciples (Mt 18:21-35), aware that they owe their salvation to the Lord's seeking and pursuing, and in recognition of their own emptiness before God (Bornkamm 121, 125).

The teaching in Luke conveys a different nuance of emphasis. In chapter 15, it is the redemptive joy of God, of which Jesus speaks, the joy (term used 10 times in forgiving.  This is Jesus' defense of the gospel: since God's mercy is so infinite that his supreme joy is in forgiving, my mission as saviour is to wrest his prey from satan and to bring home the lost (term used 7 times) Jeremias 136).


In Luke's Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus implies that God is like a Good Shepherd and that surely lost persons are more precious than lost sheep. Their lost condition demands a more urgent seeking and their recovery brings a fuller joy (Buttrick 178). Jesus reminds the critical Pharisees that God is less concerned with the sinfulness than the lostness of persons (Mt 10:6; 15:24; Lk 19:10; Jn 17:12). How could they say to their Father who has a lost child: "Don't worry! You still have me" (Buttrick 181-182)? Why should they criticize his efforts to restore the lost tax gatherers and sinners (Lk 15:1-2)? Instead, he urges them to join him: "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost" (Lk 15:6).


Like sheep, we humans follow the transitory thrills of sin, finally reaching the brink of the dark precipice — lost (Buttrick 180). But "the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk 19:10). None is too lost or too insignificant to be sought. If the distinctiveness of Christianity is in the seeking love of God, should the Christian not say with Paul: So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20)


Jesus reminded his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn 20:21). As Christians our highest motive is to continue the mission of Jesus, and our greatest joy should be to see the lost — whether the unchurched sinner or the backslidden church member — found.

Perhaps the ninety-and-nine — we church members safely in the fold — should be a bit less demanding of the shepherd-like care of our pastors, and instead encouraged them — even join them — in the pursuit of the lost. Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the returned straying lambs, injured by their wandering far from the fold. Perhaps, if we did, we would not be guilty of driving away sheep for which the Great Shepherd gave his life. What novel ideas!