The Parable of the Faithful Shepherd

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.

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The Parable of the Homeless Demon

“Now, when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it.

“Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came;’ and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order.

“Then it goes, and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

Jesus knew demons. He saw them, grieved at their ugly activities, and threw them out at every chance. Earlier in this chapter–verse 22–Jesus healed a man tormented with one, causing blindness and muteness. That set off a long discussion on the subject of the work of the devil.

After making numerous points on Satanology–is that a word?–He gave them an unforgettable word-picture (a parable) to put the whole thing into perspective.

At the end, He said, “And that’s how it will be for this wicked generation.”

How is that? What will things be like?

And how are things today?

Those questions bring us to this story. It may take up only 3 verses of Matthew 12, but those brief sentences contain a world of information and insight.

Have you ever heard this little parable preached on or taught? Other than the times I’ve done it myself, I cannot recall ever hearing any preacher even refer to it. And yet it is loaded with insights and implications for us today.

This parable explains some things you’ve been wondering.

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The “John the Baptist” Parable (Matthew 11:16-19)

You have to be pretty special to warrant your own parable. The Lord clearly thought John the Baptist was in a class by himself (see Matthew 11:11,14), and did not mind saying so. When John was beheaded by the tyrant Herod, the Lord seemed to have grieved as much or more than when Lazarus died.

They were as different as they could be, Jesus and His distant cousin John. (Luke 1 simply calls Elizabeth the relative of Mary, so there’s no way of knowing how closely they were related. We get the impression they weren’t close or they would surely have known one another growing up. After all, there was only a few months difference in their ages. When I was growing up on the farm, my cousins who were similar to my age became some of my best friends. Yet, it seems that Jesus and John were strangers when the Lord walked out into the Jordan to be baptized. That’s Matthew 3:13ff)

John was a loner, living in the desert, wearing home-made clothes of camelskins and eating a diet of locusts and wild honey. He must have looked scraggly. When he preached, he spared no one’s feelings. When a delegation of religious leaders showed up to “honor him” by allowing him to baptize them, he rebuked them: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Show some evidence of your repentance, then we’ll talk about baptism!!” (my paraphrase of Matthew 3:7-8).

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to have been a people-person. He lived in town, wore regular clothes (since no mention is made of his attire and no one called attention to it) and ate normally. When He preached, He too could be pointed and plain-spoken, but not to the extent of John.

In this 11th chapter of Matthew, Jesus is struck by how people not only rejected John for his ascetic ways, but are now rejecting Him for being the opposite.

“When John came, neither eating nor drinking, people said, ‘He’s crazy.’ Then, I came both eating normally and drinking normally and what do they say? ‘He is a glutton and a drunkard! A companion of the worst kind of sinners!'”

The people wanted it both ways.

In truth, they wanted it neither way.

Jesus put it in a form they could understand and would never forget.

“This generation is like children playing in the marketplace.”

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The Parable(s) of Matthew 9

We’ve said before that no one knows exactly how many parables Jesus used. We don’t even know how many we have in the gospels for the simple reason we can’t agree on what a parable actually is.

The stories–a certain man had two sons, that sort of thing–are clear enough and no one argues that they fit the genre. But how about Matthew 9:15-17? Is this a parable? Is it three parables?

Bear in mind that in the famous 15th chapter of Luke where we have Jesus’ parables on the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy (i.e., the prodigal son), Luke introduces them with, “Jesus told them this parable.” He says it like all these are just one story.

So, let’s approach the three illustrations of Matthew 9:15-17 as one entity. After all, the Lord gave them all in answer to one question.

When we begin to look at a parable, bear in mind that unless we establish what question the Lord is answering, it will be meaningless.

In this case, there are two questions. There is the question from the disciples of John the Baptist (“why do we have to fast and your disciples do not?”) and there is the broader question behind it, one with meaning for us.

First, the two questions. Then the three answers.

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Why We Need Parables

Dwight L. Moody used to remind pastors to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf so everyone could reach them.”

What he meant–and what he practiced as well as it could be done–was, “Keep the message simple.” Make it accessible to everyone.

How many times have we sat in a class or church service that was numbing our brain and lulling us to sleep because of its “precept upon precept” style of presentation, when the speaker/preacher said those magic words that jerked us back to life: “Let me tell you a little story….”

We sat up and listened for a dozen reasons. We are built to enjoy a story (which is nothing in the world but a recount of how someone other than ourselves dealt with life; it’s how we learn), we love a good laugh, we devour great insights, and we appreciate the break in the flow of the lesson that day. But what we especially appreciate is that the story may help us grasp the contents of whatever principles the speaker was sharing.

Case in point….

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How Jesus Learned to Love Parables

No one automatically comes into this world with their teaching techniques firmly in hand. We learn them from the people who teach us, we learn them by trial and error, we figure out for ourselves what works best.

Even though the Lord Jesus Christ was Who He was when He arrived–with all that the Incarnation means–we can safely assume that He learned somewhere along the way, growing up in Galilee, the value of a well-placed story.

But more than any other way, the Lord Jesus learned to love parables from Scripture. And by Scripture, we mean the Old Testament, since that was the only sacred text available at that time.

The parable has played a leading role all through the years of God’s dealings with His people.

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Parables: “They Answer A Question”

(Southern Baptists are studying the parables of Matthew’s Gospel in 2010, and as we’ve done for several years, I’m leaving a few thoughts on the subject and we’ll have some cartoons here…if I can get them done. I was making better progress on the drawings before retiring, and since then I haven’t had the time!)

Consult the various texts and commentaries on parables–there is no lack of them–and you’ll find scholars are not in agreement on what constitutes one. Is a parable a story and always a story, the way they appear so often in Jesus’ teaching? We think of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan,” two of the Lord’s parables that are so well-known they have contributed expressions to the everyday speech of cultures all over the world.

No one doubts that those are parables, but what about “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world”? (Matthew 5) Are those parables, too?

What about “whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock”? (Matthew 7:24) That’s not exactly a story, but more of a hypothetical situation. Most collections of parables include it.

At this point, my temptation is to issue something of a disclaimer and say, “Now, not being a Bible scholar, but merely a preacher of the Word, what I plan to do here is….” But it doesn’t work that easily, does it? I am a Bible scholar, and so are you.

The word “scholar” does not mean “expert” but “student.” And aren’t you and I that?

This may give me the right to express my opinion on our Lord’s parables, say, and that’s what I am about to do. It does not, however, automatically make those statements carry equal weight with either the more learned or the more thoughtful. Readers should take everything I say (and all the writings of the “experts”) to the Lord in prayer and not passively accept it as “gospel.”

That said, here are my two statements for today….

One: for our purposes here, the Parables of Matthew will deal only with stories Jesus told, and not with metaphors, similes, and suppositions. That will allow us to limit the numbers to something more manageable.

Two: I’m suggesting as a way of looking at Jesus’ parables that each of them answers a question.

Sometimes the question is evident such as in Luke 15 when critics attacked Jesus for “receiving sinners and eating with them.” He told the parable we call “the prodigal son” to say why was He doing that. (Because they are lost!)

Sometimes the question is unspoken and we have to do a little sleuthing. And that’s the fun part.

Take the seven parables of Matthew 13. And right away, we’re faced with a difficulty….

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