The Parable of the Lost Sheep


The last pages of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection include a quick reference to the well-known biblical story, the parable of the lost sheep. Here are the relevant lines from Luke 15:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

How do we understand this parable, especially the shepherd’s behavior? It seems that the Bible irrefutably fixes what lesson we are learning from the parable. Following the lines above, it reads,  “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Hence, the lesson is, apparently, repent!

But this parable is not as simple as it looks, I think. In this post, I want to explore another plausible interpretation that we can tease out from this parable. I think that the parable can be read as a refutation of utilitarian thinking. Utilitarian thinking, when simply put, emphasizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When viewed in utilitarian light, the shepherd’s behavior is irrational. A utilitarian thinker will ask, “come on, do you want to sacrifice the happiness of the 99 sheep, for the happiness of one sheep? The combined value of 99 sheep is much larger than the value of 1 sheep.” The utilitarian criticism of the shepherd’s decision will be more persuasive, if we assume 99 healthy, handsome, Grade A sheep and one weak, ugly, cripple sheep. Why bother with that cripple sheep? He produces neither delicious milk nor soft fur. He is useless anyway. Forget about him. However, the shepherd contradicts the utilitarian thinker’s justification to abandon the lost sheep and instead sets out to retrieve the lost sheep. Aww. Such a heartwarming moment. But it is not just a sentimental moment. By saving the lost sheep, the shepherd points out the limits of utilitarian thinking. He eloquently shows that values cannot be always quantified and compared and that there are things that may not be conventionally deemed as a “value” but are still valuable and thus worthy to be saved and cared for.

When I was in college, I took a class with a theology professor, who interpreted this parable politically in a similar vein, with reference to welfare. According to her interpretation, 99 sheep refer to a majority of society’s members, who are able, healthy, functioning, and self-sustaining. And 1 sheep refers to a minority who needs the society’s safety net, such as welfare. While utilitarian thinking invalidates the idea of welfare without qualms, the shepherd suggests that the weak of the society need to be cared for, because the 100 sheep live in a community, not a jungle where the survival of the fittest prevails. To sustain a community, and to prevent a community from deteriorating into a jungle, the stronger has collective responsibility to care and provide for the weaker, so that the latter can participate in communal matters on equal footing. According to my professor, when the Bible says that Jesus is love, the parable of the lost sheep sums up what kind of love Jesus is. It is a love of social equity and justice.

I hope my and my professor’s interpretation of the parable makes some sense to you. But here is a difficulty. The difficulty concerns a perspective, or from where to look at the shepherds and the sheep. I realize that in reading the story, I assume a high vantage point from which to look down on the shepherd and the sheep. From such perspective, it is relatively easy to say, “yeah, you 100 sheep live together. So, take care of each other.” But what if I am one of the 99 sheep? I will be probably kicking my feet, throw a fit, and scream, “why should I stand in cold rain and wait for the idiot sheep????”  Well, I ‘d better remember that Jesus is love.


How to find the best home contractors


This spring, I and my husband are pursuing some home improvement projects. After we very roughly set our budget, we set out to find the right contractors for us. Alas, as you can imagine, this process is tedious and very time consuming. We make a lot of phone calls and shoot multiple emails to briefly introduce our projects, patiently wait for their responses (some never respond, however), meet with the potential contractors individually, show our premise, and get their professional feedback and an estimate.

At this point, my husband and I are quite confused. Three contractors who look at the same thing give three different opinions and three vastly different estimates. For example, one person says, “you have to rip off what you have and start afresh.” Another says, “the foundation is good, so let’s save it and do some retouching.” Understandably, the second person’s quote is about half of the first person’s. So far, it makes sense. Now, the third person comes along and agrees with the second person. But the third person’s quote is even more than the first person’s. Why? How can I understand these differences? What do I make out of them? How do I process information about a field I am totally ignorant of? I don’t have an answer to these questions, and they will probably haunt us until the day when we pick our builder. So, in today’s post, I want to write about something else. While negotiating with different contractors is confusing and tedious, it is also fun in some regards. Fun because it helps me to understand who I am and where my values lie. Here are some of my random thoughts.

  1. As there are designer bags and non-designer bags and you pay extra for the name value of the former, there are designer contractors as well. People suggest that in order to find best home builders, we seek referrals. We did. Who is the best roofing company in the area? We asked, and people usually picked one company. And yeah, this company’s quote vastly exceeds other lesser known companies’ quotes by a huge margin. I guess that it costs money to have people say that XX is a good roofing company (advertising, marketing, etc.), and when you hire them, yes, you do pay extra for their name value. Personally, I don’t own a designer bag, because I don’t want to pay for the “Prada” part of a Prada bag. I just want to pay for the “bag” part. Similarly, I and my husband find that when people unanimously say “XX is THE company for roofing,” we almost see an imaginary red flag. I almost mutter, “it doesn’t mean anything.” I find that I have a tendency to lean towards lesser-known but smart and enthusastic start-ups.
  2. I think that construction companies with elaborate labor division charge more. For example, you can speak to a woman to schedule an appointment, talk to a salesman to show your premise and get an estimate, and have a carpenter to come and work on your steps. By contrast, there are independent contractors. They pick up the phone, schedule meetings, give an estimate, promote their service, and grab a saw and a hammer to repair your steps. I am definitely in favor of the second kind. Who matters in construction? The carpenter, the roofer, and the laborer. Yes, the phone lady and the salesperson should be paid, but I want the people who get dirty and sweat under the fierce sun with a hammer in one hand and the saw in the other to get the lion share of my money. According to my quick research, however, these people are paid the least. They make around $20 per hour only (sources:,
  3. Different contractors have different styles in giving estimates, and I like those who are willing to give itemized quotes. Some contractors suggest only a grand total. “We will do the jobs ABC, and you will owe us this much.” My immediate questions are, how much is material, and how much is labor? How much does the job A cost, and how much for B and C?” Some contractors are willing to give breakdowns upon request, but others aren’t. I am sorry to say, but I think this is a muddy part where a number of home owners are ripped off. Sometimes, material costs are set unrealistically. When I am given information on which material will be used for my project, I check its market price myself. Less than 20% of mark-up is understandable, I think, but 50% is ridiculous, I think. And if they are honest constructors, why can’t they give me breakdowns? Also, by knowing how much labor costs, I can be faithful to my earlier philosophy: that is, people who do the real work should be paid fairly.