The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Part 1)

Reading Time: 7 Minutes

The parable of the Lost Sheep can be found in Luke 15.4-7 and Matthew 18.10-14. Jesus probably used this parable on many different occasions, as Luke and Matthew demonstrate.

The setting for the parable in the Gospel of Luke is a discussion with Pharisees. Luke records the argument like this:

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15.1-2).

The religious crowd of Jesus’ day believed a fence around things of God was to be desired. The fence protected people by keeping the bad guys on the outside and the good people within its protective environment.

The Pharisees could easily have said, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Or, “The best thing a parent can do for their children is to watch out for what kind of friends they have.”

Convinced of the value of a good fence, the Pharisees would never eat or allow one of their own to eat with a tax collector or a sinner.

Jesus Built Bridges

I believe that Jesus saw his work as that of a bridge builder. His actions were a way of reaching out a hand to people and walking them across the bridge to a relationship with God.

At another time, when the religious crowd criticized Jesus’ practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus explained the rational behind his behavior.

He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5.31-32).

We all know that for medicine to work, it must come into contact with the sick. It is difficult to heal the sick, while living behind a fence. As the Great Physician, Jesus came into contact with people in order to give them life.

Matthew’s Gospel and the Parable

The setting of the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18 is a different setting from the one in Luke. Matthew 18 is a message to the church.

I have read that when sheep stray away from the other sheep, they get tired, lay down and don’t return. It takes the energy of a shepherd to find them and often put them on their shoulders for the trip back home.

The church has people like lost sheep. They stray, lie down, and seem to have little interest in rejoining the other sheep. It takes the energy and effort of shepherds to find them and often expend considerable energy to bring them back home.

A Few Notes About Shepherds

In tomorrow’s article, we will examine the parable of the Lost Sheep in detail. For the remainder of today’s article let’s consider the strange world of shepherds in the days of Jesus.

You may find it interesting to know that shepherds were among the least respected people in Israel in Jesus’ day. Like tax collectors, shepherds were believed to be so dishonest that they were not allowed to be a witness in court.

They were believed to be thieves, because when their flock mingled with another the shepherd may pick up one or two sheep that weren’t their own. In addition, they allowed their sheep to graze on property that belonged to other people.

What is ironic is that the most famous king of Israel, King David, was a shepherd. One of his most famous Psalms began with these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23.1).

Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd. He said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10.11).

Two Kinds of Shepherds

As I have surveyed the Bible about shepherds, there appear to be two kinds of shepherds. Ezekiel 34 describes the sad state of affairs people face when their leaders are selfish shepherds.

Ezekiel 34.2-3Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them — to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.

God is opposed to leaders who feed themselves, but do not feed the sheep. See also Ezekiel 34.7-10.

Ezekiel 34.4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

The shepherd in the parable of the Lost Sheep did everything possible to care for his flock.

The shepherds in Ezekiel’s day did not seek the lost, but ruled the people with force and harshness.

Ezekiel 34.6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

When leaders use the sheep for their own self-centered purposes, the sheep are scattered. The story of humankind is filled with the tragic results of this kind of evil leadership.

Ezekiel 34.12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

The life and ministry of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purpose for his sheep. In the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus equates his actions with that of the shepherd who seeks the lost in order to rescue them from the perils of life.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd

In John 10.1-18 Jesus declares that he is the Good Shepherd. You will profit by reading the entire chapter of Ezekiel 34 and the first 18 verses of John. Here are two key verses in John to consider.

John 10.10“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why is he like the shepherd, who seeks the lost sheep with such passion? One answer. He desires to give people the very best life possible – abundant life.

John 10.11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

What did it cost Jesus to be the Good Shepherd? Everything. More than a shepherd who spent a day or several days searching for a lost sheep, Jesus’ entire life’s work was a rescue operation to bring us to life.

Going Deeper

Please consider this as you respond to the parable and the article.

(1) Think about the illustration of the fence or the bridge. Which one do you most resemble?

(2) Please read the parable of the Lost Sheep and the surrounding verses in both Luke and Matthew.

(3) Please read the Ezekiel 34 and John 10.1-18 passage.

About This Blog

Klyne Snodgrass has devoted 12 years of study to produce the book, “Stories With Intent.” His book is recognized as the best book on the parables in print. I am indebted to Dr. Snodrass’ work that helps shape my articles.

If you have a prayer request, please email me at or private message me on Facebook. I will pray for you and so will the prayer team at Maywood Baptist Church.

1 Comment

  1. Reading these passages, it seems that shepherding is very definitely something God requires of leaders in the church. It also looks as though Jesus intended this as a way of life for all believers. That said, it does seem some personalities and spiritual gifts naturally make better shepherds. Clearly, however, this is not just something for “the other guy.” We are expected to look for the lost or abandoned. To build the bridge, and RUN over it.

    What I sense in today’s world is a lack of focus on “good” people who have wandered and laid down. Put away their Bibles. Set their prayer life on the shelf. But they live good, moral, decent lives – generous with others, kind to strangers – maybe still go to church every week, look really good…but empty inside. “Shepherds” pushing past them to go after the “more lost.” It seems important to note there are lost around us everywhere. Jesus did not neglect any.

    May my eyes be open to those Jesus would have me shepherd – no matter their status in our world.


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