The Sheep

Feeding my three miniature schnauzers their morning meal, the youngest one goes through the same ritual every day: While gulping food from his bowl, he invariably misses one kibble that falls to the floor. He stops what he’s doing and searches for that kibble before casting an eye at all the chow still in his bowl waiting to be eaten. He ignores the bowl, however, until he’s swallowed that one errant nugget.

As he went through his routine this morning, for some reason the parable about the “lost” sheep came to mind. I couldn’t shake it all day. Like so many of the parables Jesus tells, I believe there’s more than one take-away or meaning to this one.

Conventional wisdom has it that even one silly sheep out of a hundred is important to the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 in search of the one. We all will be saved!

Doesn’t that make you feel good? That none of us “sinners” will be abandoned until we’ve all been brought back into the fold. That God so loved the world that …

But, wait a minute.

Aren’t we making some assumptions about this parable? That the shepherd is good and the sheep isn’t? That the 99 were respectful, while the one may have been resentful? That the one responsible for the incident was the sheep, not the shepherd?

Perhaps this parable is also about responsibility?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep appears in the Gospels of Matthew (18:12–14) and Luke (15:3–7). It is about a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to find the one which is “lost.”

Lost? Who is lost and who is responsible for the loss?

In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is as follows.

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 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” (World English Bible).

It’s interesting that, in Luke’s Gospel, the one responsible for the sheep being lost is the shepherd, who wasn’t keeping watch when the sheep happened to wander off somewhere. Look how the verse is translated by different biblical versions:

(NIV) “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?”

(NAS) “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?”

(Complete Jewish Bible) “If one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, doesn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?

(KJV) What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”

(MSG) “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it?”

(Living) So Jesus used this illustration: “If you had a hundred sheep and one of them strayed away and was lost in the wilderness, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine others to go and search for the lost one until you found it?”

Only the Living Bible translates the verse such that the sheep had strayed and was lost, until the shepherd sought and found it. The other verses put a more mercantile twist to the story: The shepherd was responsible for the care and welfare of 100 sheep. Maybe he was napping or day-dreaming; perhaps one shepherd wasn’t enough to watch over 100 sheep. Nonetheless, one of the sheep was gone—leaving only 99 accounted for.

Perhaps that “lost” sheep was of critical importance to the flock—a leader, innovator, “heretic,” visionary, prophet whose role is essential to all the others? We assume that the errant sheep had wandered off … but what if that sheep had left to escape? Who’s at fault here: the shepherd or the sheep? In every single translation, the man has lost the sheep (i.e., the fault is his), rather than the sheep has gone astray (the sheep’s fault).

Remember the Napoleon character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm?

Sheep symbolize the masses. A clever and designing leader can easily lead them anywhere. Their numbers count in getting things done, but they never want to know the reason for any change. They are content to do what the leaders want them to.

Napoleon was quick to realize that they could be of great use to him in his struggle to attain supreme power. He therefore pays attention to their education, and teaches them to repeat the slogan “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Another animal on the farm, Snowball, is addressing a meeting. This interrupts the meeting at crucial stage and Snowball fails to control his audience. When Napoleon expels Snowball and announces that there will be no Sunday meeting in future, four of the pigs voice their protest. At that, Napoleon’s dogs begin to growl and the sheep start bleating “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The sheep are part of the massive propaganda machine that Stalin set up as he came to power in Russia, and they’re also the people who were swayed by that same propaganda. Instead of thinking for themselves, they just repeat slogans over and over.

The sheep represent the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

In the New International Version, the words of Matthew’s Gospel tell the story a bit differently … such that the sheep caused the problem by leaving the flock:

(KJV) “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”

(NIV) “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.”

(NAS) “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying.”

(Complete Jewish) “What’s your opinion? What will somebody do who has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go off to find the stray?”

It’s a matter of responsibility—individual and collective.

Atlas Shrugged, a 1957 novel by Ayn Rand was her fourth and final novel; it was also her longest, and the one she considered to be her magnum opus in the realm of fiction writing. Rand described the theme of Atlas Shrugged as “the role of man’s mind in existence.” The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop her Objectivism philosophy: reason, individualism, capitalism, and depicts what Rand saw as the failures of governmental coercion.

The book depicts a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against “looters” who want to exploit their productivity. Dagny and Hank discover that a mysterious figure called John Galt is persuading other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear as a strike of productive individuals against the looters. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society based on Galt’s philosophy.

In Atlas Shrugged, she shows that without the independent mind, our society would collapse into primitive savagery. Atlas Shrugged is an impassioned defense of the freedom of mankind’s mind. But to understand the author’s sense of urgency, we must have an idea of the context in which the book was written.

Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The world is best served, she believed, when individuals act entirely in their own rational self-interest. In other words, when they act selfishly.

This, of course, is contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity and most other faiths based on living out the Golden Rule.

The “absolute,” when taken together, is that we truly do need each other. It is both through community and leadership that we survive. With leadership without community, we have Putin’s aggression against his neighbor and brother. With community without leadership, we are lost and without direction.

Like that one missing sheep.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read our current issue online and subscribe at no charge (free!) at

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