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.


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