The parable of the lost sheep

Brooklyn Museum: The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur)

This post is based on chapter 7 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

There are connections between this parable and Psalm 23 (as well as Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ezekiel 34:1-34).

The KJV translates Psalm 23:3 as “he restoreth my soul”. The original Hebrew text contains the verb ‘shub’, which has the meaning of repent/return. Therefore a possible translation is “He brings me back” or “He causes me to repent”. Arabic versions of the Psalms contain the former.

In Jeremiah 23:1-8, ‘shub’ appears in verse 3: “I will bring them back” (NRSV).

In Ezekiel 34:16, ‘shub’ appears in the statement, “I will bring back the strayed” (RSV).

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel build upon and expand themes present in Psalm 23.  Jeremiah introduces the element of the bad shepherd; Ezekiel that of the bad sheep. In Jesus’ telling of the parable, He incorporates elements from all three passages.

The parable of the lost sheep opens with a bad shepherd who’s lost one of his sheep. He accepts responsibility and goes after it. He leaves the 99 in the wilderness, and we don’t hear of them again: the parable is left open.

When the shepherd finds the sheep (weighing 50-70 lbs/23-32 kgs), he puts it on his shoulders and carries it as it is too terrified to walk. He does so rejoicing, rather than complaining.

Luke 15:7 contains Jesus’ conclusion to this story. But how is the parable about repentance?

In Jesus’ day, repentance was seen as a going to God with no need for Him to come after us. But Jesus now emphasises the need for God to come to us:

  • The shepherd leaves the flock, knowing that the lost sheep won’t come home on its own
  • Finding the sheep isn’t enough, it must be carried home. This points to the price to be paid.
  • Repentance on the sheep’s part is to accept being found

Repentance is accompanied by joy for the shepherd, and presumably for the sheep as well.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)
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