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The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Rusty - March 23, 2006

In Luke 15 Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of eating with publicans and sinners. His reaction was not what I would have said (“yeah, so…?”) but instead he gave three parables, all similar in nature: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. In each of these parables there is something that is lost and found again, however the nature of the losing is perhaps the biggest difference between them:

Lost Sheep = the sheep wandered off, didn’t exactly realize it was getting lost.
Lost Coin = the coin was inert, the owner lost it.
Prodigal Son = the son willfully rebelled.

I want to focus specifically on the parable of the lost sheep.

LUKE 15: 1-7
1- Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2- And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
3- And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
4- What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?
5- And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6- And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7- I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Now, we need to understand that Christ knew his audience, he knew that he was speaking to both the sinners and the Pharisees. To the sinners it was a message of love and hope. To the Pharisees it was one of condemnation. As Christ’s current audience we represent both. I am a sinner and I have the responsibility to help “find” and save other sinners.

As Sinners

I think David O. McKay had a pretty good grasp on this parable when he said:

“I ask you tonight, how did that sheep get lost? He was not rebellious. If you follow the comparison, the lamb was seeking its livelihood in a perfectly legitimate manner, but either stupidly, perhaps unconsciously, it followed the enticement of the field, the prospect of better grass until it got out beyond the fold and was lost.

“So we have those in the Church…who wander away from the fold in perfectly legitimate ways. They are seeking success, success in business, success in their professions, and before long they become disinterested in Church and finally disconnected from the fold; they have lost track of what true success is, perhaps stupidly, perhaps unconsciously, in some cases, perhaps willingly. They are blind to what constitutes true success.” (Gospel Ideals: Selections from the Discourses of David O. McKay [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953], 535.)

It seems President McKay is saying that these sheep aren’t necessarily disobeying the Shepherd’s voice, they just aren’t hearing it anymore, perhaps they aren’t listening for it anymore. Or as Geoff J. would say, they aren’t having enough contact with the Holy Ghost. In John 10:27 Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” If we don’t recognize His voice anymore how are we expected to follow Him?

So how do we recognize His voice? Read scriptures, pray, blah blah blah. But that’s the right answer. If we’re not learning what He said and praying to understand it then we are not going to recognize His voice.

As Pharisees

Howard W. Hunter had a different take on the parable:

“The shepherd leaves his secure flock and go out into the wilderness—that is, go out into the world after him who is lost. Lost from what? Lost from the flock where there is protection and security. I hope the message of that parable will be impressed on each of us who has a responsibility.
“We should help those who have lost their way. What should we do to help those who have lost their way in the wilderness? …We invite you to become involved in saving souls. Reach out to the less active and realize the joy that will come to you and those you help if you and they will take part in extending invitations to come back and feast at the table of the Lord.

“The Lord, our Good Shepherd, expects us to be his undershepherds and recover those who are struggling or are lost. We can’t tell you how to do it, but as you become involved and seek inspiration, success will result from efforts in your areas, stakes, and wards.” (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, edited by Clyde J. Williams [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997], 218.)

I love that he says “we can’t tell you how to do it, but as you become involved and seek inspiration, success will result…” because it means that we actually have to make a real effort, it forces us to do more than just go through the motions.

An analogy: We can either be freelance shepherds or investor shepherds. As a freelance designer I ultimately don’t care that much about the company that I work for. I mean, yeah it’s too bad when their profit is down but my main concern is getting paid and doing nice work that I can put into my portfolio.

If I were an investor in my company I’d obviously have much more interest in keeping the it running profitably. If that means giving up my weekends and evenings I would do it. There’s an assumed sacrifice.

Christ perfectly understood this principle:

John 10
12- But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
13- The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
14- I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
15- As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.

And who are His sheep? “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15: 13)

Are we freelance shepherds just getting a paycheck? Or are we investor shepherds, someone willing to do what it takes to love and sacrifice for my brothers and sisters? Am I doing (fill in your calling here) because I need to check it off, it’s my duty? Or do I truly know and love those who I serve? I think that fundamental difference is the essence of Jesus Christ and who He expects us to be (become).


  1. Very nice post.

    For me, the few times I have really tried to do this kind of stuff, specifically choosing a ‘sheep’ to help is important. The rifle istead of the shot gun.

    Comment by Eric — March 23, 2006 @ 11:51 am

  2. Eric,

    I find your analogy of fire-arms completely inappropriate. Hunting is evil and we are only supposed to eat meat in times of famine or during the winter. It’s almost April so find a new analogy.

    Comment by kevon — March 24, 2006 @ 7:43 am

  3. Rusty, Good thoughts, obviously we all should want to be shepards not hirelings. I appreciate the perspecitives you’ve presented as well – McKay’s & Hunter’s.

    When reflecting on this parable I have always felt bad for the ninety and nine. That’s the group I always felt I was in and they get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment.

    Your post made me re-think this a bit. Maybe the ninety and nine is more of a back-handed slam against the Pharisees. They thought they were part of the flock and the Saviour rejoices in finding the one who has wondered off from them. (Lots of holes can be blown in this thought…but I had it anyway).

    Comment by don — March 24, 2006 @ 1:48 pm

  4. Another quick perspective: It was the Good Shepard who went out and found the lost sheep. It wasn’t the ninety and nine who went out. (I’m not a Shepard…I’m one of the ninety and nine…so I must not have any responsibility toward those that are lost. The Bishop and the Quorum Pres. they are the shepards, not me.)

    From a “Born Again’s” perspective this could look like God’s sovereign election taking place. He decides who he will look for and save.

    Ok, sorry, I’ll quit thinking about this!

    Comment by don — March 24, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

  5. We had some recent Stake training where a good brother reminded everyone in the room that a person who chooses to come back (whether returning from a the viewpoint of a sinner seeking repentance or one who simply wandered away for a while is immaterial) is likely going to feel the Spirit for the first time in a long time as the door to the Bishop’s office closes behind him/her.

    It’s important for the Bishop to acknowledge the presence of the Spirit in the room and help the prodigal/lost sheep learn to not only recognize it him/herself, but seek to have that influence always.

    Comment by Chad Too — March 24, 2006 @ 6:26 pm

  6. Rusty,

    There is something eerily familiar about your post….

    I enjoyed it both times! :)

    Comment by scoutmaster — March 25, 2006 @ 4:11 pm

  7. Just a comment to Don (hi Dad) –

    Feeling bad for the ninety and nine is familiar to me, too. But then I had an outstanding New Testament teacher at BYU (this guy was prof of the year when I had him; amazing guy, but that’s really not relevant…or is it?). Anyway, he pointed out the irony in this parable is that, in one sense, there really AREN’T any “ninety and nine” out there who don’t need the Shepherd to rescue them. Some of us feel like the good guys trying to do what’s right while the bad sheep wander, but really each of us can (and should!) consider ourselves to be that lost sheep — lost and then found and carried home on His shoulders.

    Wake-up call for (or slam against) the Pharisees? Perhaps. And for us, too!

    BTW, Russ, thanks for this post. A timely, tender reminder for me in my RS responsibilities.

    Comment by Amy — March 28, 2006 @ 12:42 am

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