What If The Lost Sheep Isn’t An Unbeliever (And The Shepherd Isn’t Jesus)?
Right. Except: what if Matthew’s version of the story (Matt 18:10-14) is doing something quite different? What if the cast of characters is different, the punchline is different, and there is a challenge to Christians (and pastors in particular) that we haven’t noticed, because we’ve assumed both versions of the story mean the same thing? Matthew and Luke, after all, tell several stories that sound very similar, but have quite different endings (the parables of the wedding banquet in Matt 22:1-14 and Luke 14:12-24 are the best examples). What if the same is happening here, and we’ve missed it?
Here’s Matthew’s version in full:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (18:10-14)
The context is quite different from that in Luke. In Luke, the lost sheep serves to explain why Jesus is spending time with “sinners.” In Matthew, the lost sheep is a challenge not to look down on the “little ones”—whether children, or Christians at risk of being led into sin, or probably both (18:1-6)—because God is committed to them. And it is immediately followed by a discussion of how to handle unrepentant brothers and sisters, in probably the most significant text in the New Testament on church discipline. Both of these indicate that the sheep in Matthew’s version are believers, not unbelievers.
The language is different too. Luke speaks of the sheep as “lost”, a word which unites the sheep with the coin and the son(s) later in the chapter. But Matthew uses the verb “go astray,” or “wander off” (the Greek word is planaō, from which we get our word “planet”), which in the context of temptation to sin clearly refers to those who are weak or vulnerable in faith and tempted to abandon it. The shepherd in the story, in this reading, is not Jesus but Christians in general, and pastors in particular.
Those two observations nudge us in the direction of some crucial Old Testament background. Ezekiel rails against Israel’s leaders for failing to search for, and bring back, the lost sheep: “the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought ... So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My 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 none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:4-6). As countless biblical passages remind us, the answer to Cain’s rhetorical question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, is an emphatic yes. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus does not only picture himself as one who brings back the wanderer (Luke 15), but desires a community in which everyone (and leaders in particular) lives the same way (Matt 18).
This means that the application of the parable is different in the two versions. Whereas Luke’s version is intended to explain Jesus’s ministry to undesirable outcasts, Matthew’s version is designed to challenge the church—a much bigger theme in Matthew than in Luke, and especially in this chapter of the Gospel—to make every effort to restore wandering believers, rather than dismissing them. It is a summons to “an active visitation programme” (Bruner), a command to “care for our mean brothers and sisters” (Chrysostom). The point of the story, in Matthew Henry’s beautiful phrase, is: “Let not earth despise those whom heaven respects.”