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.
This is not a parable of a lost sheep. This is a story of a faithful shepherd, the value he places on one lost sheep, and the length he goes to in order to rescue it.
–The sheep is lost.
Jesus said, “One of them wanders away.” That’s how sheep get lost: they wander. They go astray. And so with humans. I suspect few, if any, ever find themselves in dire straits because at a young age they decided to rebel against the Shepherd and seek their own paths. Like the rather stupid sheep (ask any shepherd!), we are more inclined to get into difficulties–to become lost–by going from day to day, following our own desires and instincts, doing what comes naturally, until we realize we are “in over our heads,” so to speak.
I have been lost. Have you?
As a teenager, I would often spend Sunday afternoons walking in the woods surrounding our rural Alabama farm. The Bankhead National Forest abuts our property, and exploring its endless ridges and creeks was a delight. I spent many an hour unclogging dammed streams, digging out interesting rocks, inspecting oddly shaped trees, and climbing up to look inside birds’ nests. And sometimes, I found I had no idea where I was.
At those times, I did not panic because I knew my location within a mile or two. Not gifted with pioneeer instincts, I could not have begun to find my way based on the moss on a side of a tree or the directions bees were flying or sounds in the distance. What I would do was to keep walking and watch for a road.
Old logging trails criss-crossed those woods from a half-century earlier. Whatever else was true of them, one thing I knew: they would lead to the highway. From there I could get home.
In the 8th century B.C., the prophet Isaiah preached, “The ox knows his master, and the donkey knows his owner’s manager. But Israel does not know; my people do not understand.” (Isa. 1:3)
They asked Daniel Boone if in all his wilderness wanderings he had ever been lost. “No,” he opined, “but once I was bewildered for three whole days.”
–the Shepherd is on the job.
He leaves the flock, all ninety-nine of them, and goes in search of the lost one.
“But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the valleys crossed,
Nor how dark the night that the Lord passed through
E’er He found His sheep that was lost.”
The test of a shepherd is whether he loves the individual enough to make this kind of sacrifice.
Even a quick glance at the contemporary religious scene provides overwhelming evidence that many modern spiritual leaders care little or nothing for the individual. They’re looking for numbers, for crowds, for the trappings of success.
To our utter shame.
Such pastors–the word means “shepherd,” mind you–have unlisted telephone numbers and a phalanx of staffers and assistants to protect them from actual contact with members of the flock. Oh, a special few can get through, usually only those the pastor is comfortable with. But that’s the limit of their exposure and availability.
“You don’t understand, Joe. The pastor of a church numbering in the thousands just can’t do that the way they used to. He’d never have a moment to himself. Protecting the pastor this way allows him to come and go as he pleases, to minister in the way he does best, and to be at his strongest when he walks into the pulpit. That’s what we hired him for, after all–his pulpit ministry.”
You hired him? Jesus had something to say about “hirelings” in John 10, but we’ll leave that for another time.
I do understand. I’ve never pastored a church running more than 1200 or 1300 on Sunday mornings (and most had a lot less than that), so I cannot say I’ve “been there/done that.” But I am acquainted with the problem.
The pastor of thousands will choose faithful pastors and teachers to help him minister to the congregation. That’s the right thing to do.
But he will do something else….
…he will sometimes knock on the door of families that visited in his church the previous Sunday.
…he will sometimes check the hospital list and minister to these.
…when he can, he will run by the nursing home and surprise some of his elderly saints.
A pastor must never ever forget that he is a shepherd. If he loses that, nothing he does from the pulpit will be anything more than fanciful meanderings, no matter how sincere he is.
–The Father is not willing for one of these little ones to be lost.
There is that expression again–“these little ones.” Watch Jesus with the little children. They loved Him and He adored them. Dr. Bob Anderson observes, “We know Jesus was a happy person because children loved to be around Him. And children do not like to associate with unhappy people.”
“The Father is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (II Peter 3:9)
So, we know the will of the Father concerning salvation: He wants all saved and none lost.
Parse it any way you please, that’s what it says. Jesus died for all.
I have no desire to detour into an examination of Calvinism at this point. Any pastor who takes that side road, to my way of thinking, is choosing to quit feeding his flock and to hand them theological controversy in place of nourishing food.
My rock-bottom conviction on the subject of Calvinism/Arminianism is this: die-hard Calvinists and sold-out Arminians are right in that the Bible says all those things they say it does; but it says so much more which they either ignore or are forced to try to explain away.
What is the will of God? For you to be saved. For you to repent and turn to Christ and receive the free pardon of your sins and an inheritance in Heaven, which is now–now and only now, from this point on–“reserved in Heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:4).
That was the point of Jesus’s coming into this world. The angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people: unto you is born this day a Savior.” (Luke 2:10-11)
I was one of those lost sheep for whom Jesus came, for whom He searched, for whom He died. I am eternally in His debt, everlastingly one of His redeemed, and so, so glad He found me.
One final note…
Did you notice that we omitted Matthew 18:11, “For the Son of Man has come to seek that which was lost”?
It’s a great truth, and surely no one doubts it.
The reason modern translations either omit it or put an asterisk by it is that the verse is not found in the older manuscripts. This seems to indicate that a scribe, writing much later, inserted it.
Perhaps, some scholars say, the copyist intended to tie this parable to the redemptive theme in the way the twin parable is in Luke 15. If so, it was unnecessary; it does a good job without his help.
My own conviction is there’s not a thing in the world wrong with quoting that verse and preaching it. It’s the truth. And all truth is God’s truth.
I preach Matthew 18:11 in the same way I do the passage from John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. Whether it was in the original manuscript John wrote or not, it surely is “just like Jesus.” And it does not introduce a single stray doctrine or concept.
On the other hand, the last few verses of Mark 16–also not found in the oldest manuscripts–actually do introduce some new and potentially dangerous concepts (snake-handling and poison-drinking!) found nowhere else in the Word. And so, most of the pastors I know who preach through Mark, end the study at 16:8.
Why bring this up here?
If I were preaching this parable in my church, I would probably not mention it. But the readers of this blog are almost all pastors and other church leaders, and we can have this discussion among ourselves respecting these matters.
I once dropped in on a church where the pastor had decided to preach the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He informed me of this at the door as I entered, and I assured him I’d done it plenty of times myself and that there was much good to be found there.
What I did not know and he did not say was that he intended to spend the sermon time telling his congregation why that passage should not be in the Bible, why it’s erroneous and untrustworthy, and yet, why we should trust our Bible in every respect.
Suffice it to say, he did not pull it off.
Talk to the spiritually mature about this, yes. Help them to arrive at an informed concept of what the Bible is, how we got it, how God preserved it, and why we are able to trust in it. This may be part of the “meat” which is not for babies, but the mature.
It’s fine for you to disagree. That’s where I am. Leave your comments and we will welcome them.
Joe: Amen to the entire article. There is a world of little children, adults who have not grown in their spiritual life (Hebrews 5:12-14) and others who are following “pied pipers” that the churches need to come alive and reach. In recent years I knew one Pastor who said, “I do not know what to do. I just do not have anything to do.” And where he was serving I knew he had plenty of work to do and accomplish. May all of us hear the words of the Parable and “go out into the “highways and hedges” and bring the “wandering ones” to Jesus!!!
I guess I will sink or swim with this, but I believe the whole Bible and everything it says. I don’t necessarily understand it all, but I believe it.
Somehow, I just don’t see Jesus telling me on Judgment Day that I should not have believed His Word, that is was full of allegory, not to be taken literally.
However, for those who decide to pick and choose the parts they like and those they don’t, I do envision Him saying that they should have trusted His Word.