This parable–found in Matthew 18:11-14–has its more famous counterpart in Luke 15, right along side the parables of the lost coin and lost son (a.k.a., “The Prodigal Son”). People who know the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15 often do not know of the existence of this variation on the same theme in Matthew 18. And yet, this lesser known story brings its own unique insights to the saga of redemption.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
“And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
“In the same way, your Father in Heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
These little ones.
Did you notice that? Jesus is speaking of a certain group of people.
This is why a parable is meaningless until we establish its setting, its context. We must go back to the larger passage and read to understand what was going on, to whom was He speaking, and what was His point.
He’s talking about children in Matthew 18:1-6. Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? He sets a child before the disciples and establishes four life-changing, ministry-directing principles:
–to enter the kingdom, become as a little child. Otherwise, you are unwelcome and not allowed to enter.
–to be great in the kingdom, humble yourself as a little child. Otherwise, you resist everything the Lord calls on you to do and are useless in His service.
–to receive a little child in Jesus’ name is to welcome Jesus. A staggering statement. We not only honor Jesus when we reach out to the child in love and mercy, it is none less than Jesus Himself we are touching.
–to hinder a child who believes in Jesus is to bring upon himself a fate worse than death. (As I write, this very morning’s (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reports that the archbishop of Dublin has handed over to authorities more than 60,000 secret files on priests who have abused children in their parishes over the decades. Investigators found a secret insurance policy, taken out in 1987, by which the church protected itself against lawsuits by victims. The church was protecting everyone except the children. That’s the Catholic church, but anyone who thinks the problem is confined to one segment of Christianity–or humanity, for that matter–is sadly mistaken.)
The next segment of Matthew 18–verses 7 through 9–warns those who cause people to sin (anyone!) by their own misdeeds. Such people should go to every length to rid themselves of vices which harm others.
And then, just before our parable, Jesus utters a statement unlike anything found anywhere else in Scripture. Millions of people love this and it has given rise to all kinds of fantasies regarding angels.
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in Heaven always behold the face of my Father in Heaven.” (Matt. 18:10)
What is He saying? That each of us has a personal, guardian angel? That our guardian angels have a special relationship with the Father without the need of a go-between? That each child has a guardian angel?
Here is what Professor Craig Blomberg has to say on this subject:
“It may or may not imply the idea of guardian angels, that each person has an angel watching out for and representing him or her before God. Similar Jewish beliefs were common, having developed out of Psalm 91:11. Others see a more collective concept here, as with the angels who watch over nations in Daniel 10:10-14 or over churches as in one interpretation of Revelation 2:1-3:22.”
Blomberg continues, “Seeing God’s face seems to imply access to God (cf. similar expressions in 2 Samuel 14:24; I Kings 10:8). At any rate, Hebrews 1:14 teaches that angels are concerned for believers and serve them. So Jesus’ words here are appropriate even if we cannot be sure of all the specific ways in which angels minister to us.”
Now, to the parable.