Re-thinking the Parable of the Lost Sheep

I’m re-thinking the parable of the Lost Sheep.

As you recall, Matthew (in chapter 18) talks that “IIf 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, truly I tell you, 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 perish.”

In context, it sounds like Jesus’ comment at the end means something like, “God welcomes lost sinners.”

Luke is a bit more clear: “I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

Fair enough.

But consider that Matthew’s gospel is built around five “discourses” or long speeches/conversations between Jesus and various audiences. Each discourse, in a way, revolves around the Kingdom of God.

Indeed, Matthew’s gospel is about the kingdom of God:

  1. The first line references Jesus’ descending from David, the first good King of Israel, highlighting Jesus’ royal lineage.
  2. Jesus first words (not spoken to the devil in the Garden) are “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” (4:17). This message echos John’s message (3:2). Jesus is announcing inviting repentance and announcing the kingdom.
  3. The first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount and begins with the beatitudes, which state that certain people are “blessed” (divinely happy) – why? Because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So the first sermon opens with a description of who the kingdom belongs to: the mournful, the poor in spirit, the unjustly persecuted, the hungry after righteousness, etc.
  4. The second discourse is Jesus sending out the disciples to “conquer” Israel (like Joshua sent out armies to conquer the promised land!) by – you guessed it – preaching the kingdom. He tells them what to say (10:7): “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  5. The third discourse shows Jesus keen understanding that not all will welcome the kingdom nor enter it. The parables of the Sower and others show how some will reject the kingdom.
  6. Now we come to the fourth discourse. It begins with the disciples “getting it” that the kingdom is here. They know it, and they have accepted it. They are the “good soil” from the Sower parable. But now they have questions: who is the greatest? Again, Jesus defies expectations: it’s people like children who are greatest in the kingdom of heaven – because children are humble. (18:4).
  7. Then then, after a discussion of receiving of temptation, he pivots immediately to talk about the Parable of Lost Sheep, followed by what to do if your brother sins against you; the parable of the unforgiving servant, What’s the transition? How do these connect? Obviously, the interpretation that God welcomes sinners makes sense. But is there more? This is what I’m re-thinking.
  8. Perhaps the fourth discourse is all about how to live in the kingdom: not only be humble, but be forgiving (like God is forgiving). Go seek lost sheep. Forgive your brothers 490 times. Doing these things makes one great in the kingdom.

That’s my hypothesis. Perhaps it’s obvious that the parable of Lost Sheep isn’t just about God’s relationship to sinners, but a kingdom subject’s relationship to fellow subjects in the kingdom, but I never saw it before.

Your thoughts? Know of any Patristic commentary on this matter? What’s Augustine and Chrysostom and Aquinas and Maximos and Lewis say? I haven’t checked these yet.