July 16, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: Lost sheep and good shepherd

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

Matthew (Mt 18:10-14) and Luke (Lk 15:1-7) tell us Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep, but they do so to make different points.

There are a lot of sheep in the Holy Land. During the three months that I studied at the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1997, I saw many sheep being cared for by shepherds. Once, when I was out for my daily walk, I turned a corner and found about 100 sheep headed toward me. I made a quick U-turn.

Jesus was hardly the first person to compare God with a shepherd. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Like a shepherd, he feeds his flock; in his arms, he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Is 40:11).

And, of course, there is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Jesus asked in his parable, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the 99 in the hills and go in search of the stray?” (Mt 18:12).

That is Matthew’s version; Luke has the shepherd leaving the sheep in the desert. Once he has found the lost sheep, “he rejoices more over it than over the 99 that did not stray” (Mt 18:13).

Matthew’s Gospel made the point that his followers must seek out those who have gone astray and, if possible, bring them back to the community.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus used the parable to justify his table companionship with sinners. He told his listeners that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7).

In this respect, the parable of the lost sheep is similar to the parable of the prodigal son since they both illustrate Jesus’ concern for the lost and God’s love for the repentant sinner.

The shepherd in this parable is undoubtedly a good shepherd, but the idea of God as the good shepherd comes from John’s Gospel (Jn 10:1-18), where Jesus compares himself first to the gate of a sheepfold and then to the good shepherd. Technically, this isn’t a parable. It’s an allegory, but the idea is similar.

To keep the sheep together during the night, shepherds built enclosures that were closed on three sides. The shepherd then slept in the opening, acting as the gate. Jesus said that he was the gate, and that whoever entered through him would be saved.

Next, Jesus said that, just as a good shepherd lays down his life to protect his sheep from wolves, he was going to lay down his life for his followers. And he said that he also had sheep that did not belong to the flock. These might have been Christians who were at odds with John’s community. These, too, Jesus said, he must lead, “and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).

The message for us is that we must make every effort to bring back to the Church those who have left it. That will cause great joy in heaven. †

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