The Lost Sheep. 4 “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy 6 and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
Jesus addresses his listeners directly: “What man among you …?” What he suggests all will do in going after the one lost sheep is actually not what many of us would do, but the attractiveness of this extravagant individual concern makes the listener want to agree. In a split second we are drawn into God’s world, seeing and acting as he would. The description of the shepherd echoes Ezek. 34:11–12, 16:
11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. 12 As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark…16 The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, shepherding them rightly.
The shepherd’s joy is like God’s joy; his dedication to the individual sheep, carrying it back to the flock, is a reflection of God’s love. One should note that the parable ends in v.6. The verse that follows begins Jesus’ comment to Pharisee regarding the meaning of the parable.
“I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” The joy in heaven is over the change of heart (metanoia: cf. 3:3; 5:32) of the sinner (v.2). The phrase “have no need of repentance” is ironic and tragic: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47)
God does not commend the righteous for remaining righteous (vs. 7), and Jesus has not come to compliment them for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. The tension in the story is not their attitude toward God, it is their attitude towards those God also loves.
Culpepper  writes, “The contrast with the ninety-nine righteous persons creates a tension that requires a reversal in the position of Pharisees and scribes and the tax collectors and sinners. On the one hand, the Pharisees and scribes are likened to the ninety-nine who were not in jeopardy. On the other hand, God takes more delight in the return of the tax collectors and sinners than in the others, and because they take offense at Jesus’ celebration with the tax collectors and sinners, they show that their spirit is far from God’s. The parable poses a double scandal for the Pharisees and scribes; not only are they reminded of the biblical image of God as a shepherd but also God takes more delight in celebrating with a repentant sinner than with the scribes and Pharisees. Their ‘righteousness’ did not make God rejoice. The celebration of the coming of the kingdom was taking place in Jesus’ table fellowship with the outcasts, but because their righteousness had become a barrier separating them from the outcasts, they were missing it.”
The Lost Coin
8 “Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ 10 In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A different image is used in a second parable to the same effect. What woman who has lost one of her ten drachmas, Greek silver coins will expend so much energy, turning her house upside down in search of this one coin in ten? Perhaps it was part of her dowry and thus had added sentimental value. In a barter society perhaps it represents that fund for a “rainy day.” There is a part of the question that begs a “no one would,” but where the shepherd lost 1% of the flock, the woman has lost 10%. (In the next parable the father will lose 50% of his sons…. perhaps a stretch in thought, but…)
There are some scholars who posit that Luke, as he often does, parallels the shepherd (male) story with another in which the same dynamic is operative through a female protagonist. Other commentators see a subtle difference in that in the first, the sheep wander away on their own, whereas in the second the coin is lost by the carelessness of the owner. In either case the shepherd/woman represent the church and it poor shepherding by not ensuring the Gospel is being proclaimed, the lost being found, and repentance occurring.
When the woman finds the coin, her joy is like the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner. It needs to be shared. It is too great for one person. She and the shepherd invite their friends and neighbors for the thanksgiving party. What about the other nine silver pieces and the ninety-nine sheep — are they not important, too? Surely, but the joy of the kingdom breaks out of the ordinary categories of reason and good business. What was given up as lost has been found. It is like a new life, a resurrection, and must be celebrated. Note her there is no reference to repentance, but only finding the lost.
Clearly these first two parables are fundamentally about God and their aim to reveal the nature of the divine response to the recovery of the lost. A question that then lingers from the context of their telling, is how will the listener respond? Will the listener join the celebration? These first two parables are silent to this implied question, but not so the third parable – the father celebrates, but not so the older son.
Luke 15:4 what man among you: the man refers to someone who is a shepherd. Commentaries are divided on what to make of the occupational reference. Some hold that shepherds were considered to be looked down upon as people not worthy of trust. Thus the listener is ironically asked to associate themselves with the unclean. Others hold that given there were 100 sheep, this is clearly a wealthy owner-shepherd. Thus the listener is given to draw comparisons with the promised Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34. Another argument for the “wealthy man” assumption is that the parable that follows represents a “poor woman.” This contrast has been a pattern in Luke’s telling of the gospel story (cf. 1:6-7; 2:25-38; 4:25-27; et. al.)
lost: apóllymi The literal meaning is “to destroy,” “kill,” in battle or prison; – or “to suffer loss or lose”; “to perish”; “to be lost” (cf. Lk. 15). The three parables are told from God’s standpoint and while the meaning used is more passive in our English translation “lost” as in wandered off, in the Greek it can be understood as “lost” in the war between good and evil. Notably, in Matthew’s version (18:12-13) the sheep “went astray.”
Luke 15:6 joy…Rejoice: The words used in these parables are all from the same root word that gives us Eucharist – chaírō (to rejoice), chará (joy), synchaírō (to rejoice with).
Luke 15:8 coins: drachma, a silver coin worth about a day’s wage
light a lamp: assuming her house is typical of the times, there are no windows, hence the need to light a lamp even during the daytime.
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/