Parable of the Lost Sheep comparison

Section 1, Observation

In a cursory overview the similarities between Luke’s and Matthew’s account of the parable of the lost or wandering sheep are striking. A more attuned eye notes both accounts have clear distinctions. The purpose of this overview is to identify them.

First, the similarities are obvious. Both passages have to do with a single sheep separated from a flock of one hundred. In both cases the shepherd leaves the majority behind to go search the other sheep. Upon its recovery, there is jubilation. It is also interesting that both passages, Jesus explicitly offers the parable as a “what if.”

Perhaps most obvious is the physical location of the passages in the volumes in which they are written. Matthew places the parable in one of his five discourses—specifically on the teaching of the church. Luke, on the other hand, places it in the middle of his Gospel for the Outcast.

In Luke, Jesus is engaging in dialogue and acts that are freeing the outcasts in the region. In fact, the Pharisees begin grumbling because Jesus is interacting with “tax collectors and sinners.”[1] In Matthew, Jesus has just finished a lesson on caring for the little ones who believe in him.

Audience is also a major difference. In Matthew, is appears like Jesus is speaking to his disciples as he is instructing them on life in community and the church. In Luke, Jesus is speaking to “the Pharisees and teachers of the law.”[2] Also noteworthy is that Jesus puts the Pharisees in the shoes of the owner of the hundred sheep in Luke, whereas in Matthew he offers his disciples a hypothetical and then asks them what they think.

There is a major addition in the Lukan account, as well. The shepherd upon finding the lost sheep, places it on his shoulder. Matthew mentions nothing of this.

The term used to describe the conduct of the sheep is also different in both versions of the parable. In Matthew, the sheep have wandered off. They have strayed the course. It seems like Jesus might be addressing Jewish people who have wandered off of the course too (or have been misled). On the other hand, in Luke, the sheep are lost.

Moreover, in Matthew, it is the sheep that wander off—so the burden is placed on them and their choice to leave the group; they must be forgiven for their error. On the other hand, in Luke, the sheep are lost and must be found. This is a significant difference.

In Luke, the parable is listed with a series of other parables about losing things; a coin, and more notably, the lost son. Luke is a Gospel written to a Gentile audience, perhaps the lost sheep in this parable are referring to Gentiles who are lost themselves.

In Matthew, the story is sandwiched between two passages about the consequences of sinning. First, Jesus warns his followers not to lead the little ones astray, then he describes how one might deal with sin in the church. If the parable of the wandering sheep is any indication, if a sheep wanders off, it might be the burden or at least the fault of the community. In verse seven in Matthew, he makes a reference to the preceding parable by saying, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish[3].”

There are subtle differences in language too. Luke says that the owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the countryside; Matthew says he leaves them on the hills. Luke writes “when he finds it,” and Matthew writes, “if he finds it.” Luke demonstrates a certainty that the owner will find his sheep while Matthew makes it conceivable that the sheep have wandered off and will not be found.

Matthew’s passage remarks on the owner’s joy that his sheep has returned. It is a one-on-one interaction. In Luke, the owner gathers those around him and rejoices. Luke proceeds to tell us that all of heaven will be rejoicing when the one sheep is found.

The passages are fascinating in their similarities and their differences just from observation. This essay explores interpretation in its next section.

Section 2

The distinct purpose and nuance of the three synoptic Gospels is fascinating from a literary and academic perspective. Even more significant are its spiritual ramifications though. The contrast in the Gospels shows us that Jesus’ ministry and life can individually impact audiences within a variety of contexts. This idea gives the reader hope that he or she might find a message that is applicable to his or her life. It is amazing that stories that are so similar, but as they are placed within a different context they have an enormous impact on their meaning and application. Seemingly from the same source, the Gospel of Matthew and Luke list a parable of lost or wandering sheep in contexts that are so unique, the story takes on a completely different meaning. Though the similarities between Luke and Matthew’s account of the parable of lost sheep is similar, it is distinct in its application.[4] Ultimately, the context Matthew puts the story into offers us a deeper understanding of the mutuality and the forgiveness that a community following Jesus exhibits. On the other hand, Luke applies the parable to evangelism, and offers us a perspective of a shepherd who seeks and saves the lost[5]. Beginning with Matthew and then moving to Luke, this essay will analyze the context and the purpose of the parable of the wandering or lost sheep.

The Gospel of Matthew is broken up into five discourses[6] and Matthew 18:10-14, a discourse on life in the church, is where Matthew places the parable. When considering the surrounding context of the parable, the reader is clued into the fact that Matthew is using this parable as a lesson in life in the church. The theme for the Matthean account is the life that those in community have in common[7] In other words, it is instructional for Christian living and focuses on how to deal with issues in the church. Matthew specifically depicts Jesus as creating a community that protects the least of these from individuals causing them to stumble and also, individuals who may not forgive them when they do[8].

In addition to context, there are a few significant differences in Matthew’s terminology that also lead the reader to believe that this teaching is “pastoral”[9] Matthew begins in verses 1-5 describing the kingdom of heaven as a place that individuals in a “lowly position” will enter. Though this idea was common in Jewish thinking, because even the prominent would “dare never become too arrogant themselves,”[10] Jesus’ idea was “dramatically countercultural”[11] because it included children. Matthew terms these children as “little ones.” This radical expression emerges again when he warns his disciples not to cause them to “stumble”[12] and not to “despise”[13] them. These “little ones,” already have a place in heaven—fit with “guardian angels,”[14] though use of that term may be an anachronistic imposition.[15]

Matthew uses the term “wanders”[16], whereas Luke uses the term “lost.” Matthew’s terminology implies that the sheep are only beginning to stray. They are part of the fold and they begin to lose track of where they are going. The shepherd’s goal is to corral them back into the fold, since they are not as far gone as Luke’s “lost” sheep.[17] Moreover, in Matthew, Jesus leaves his sheep in the hills—a relatively protected area. The image of going after the sheep is not a great risk, but simply a matter of routine shepherding. In fact, it is typical for shepherding in Palestine to occur this way. Furthermore, shepherding on a mountain is quite typical, too.[18]

The point of the parable then is to encourage Jesus’ disciples to partake in the “pastoral care” of God, which involves keeping stray sheep in the fold. As the discourse continues, this theme is reinforced when Matthew begins to describe the process of forgiving the stray sheep, and encourages Peter to endlessly forgive those who have gone astray.

The personal instruction of Matthew 18 in which Jesus engages is considerably distinct from how Luke portrays this parable. Coupled with the parable of the lost coin, Luke offers the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) as a prelude to the bulk of the chapter, which tells the story of the lost son.

The structure for all of Luke’s parables here is similar: they begin a character who suffers a loss, has that loss recovered, and then celebrates joyously at its rediscovery.[19] The similar motif suggests that Luke is illustrating a greater point.

The context of the parable is distinct, since there is no clear audience or setting changes until the following chapter, so it seems like it’s meant to be understood together.[20] It is noteworthy, however, that it begins with sinners and tax collectors gathering to hear Jesus, who have been instructed to do just that in the previous chapter.[21]

The Pharisees, who are in league with scribes here, are doing what Luke has typically depicted them as doing: complaining that Jesus is fraternizing with sinners (they do this previously in Luke, and again when Jesus dines with Zacchaeus, where the same term, diegongyzon is used to describe their grumbling).[22] This question alone, altars Jesus’ perspective. He is a “hospitality-extending host”[23] (compare that to the pastoral role he plays in Matt. 18). His defense of his action culminates in this triplet of parables.

In Luke, Jesus is directly addressing the Pharisees and asks them a rhetorical question, which puts them in the position of hospitable shepherd (in Matthew, he merely asks the disciples to consider the situation). The reference to the Pharisees does not end there. In fact, he reinserts them in the story when he implies that they are “righteous persons who do not need to repent,”[24] which shows Jesus’ high view of even his detractors. But he holds a conviction against the individuals who need not repent. This continues in the parable of the prodigal son, when an entire character, the older son, needs not repent and grumbles in a similar manner at the rejoicing that the Father has with his lost, but now found son.[25] Jesus gets accused of dining with sinners, but this dining is a celebration of the fact that these sinners are now found, and are now included in the fold. He is rejoicing with sinners and tax collectors because they have now been found.[26]

Jesus makes certain that when rejoicing is happening, it is occurring in the heavenly realm—with God and angels. So there is no mistake that these parables are about God and Jesus’ outworking of his mission on earth. On top of that, Jesus implies in the parable that being found is how one is redeemed. Though the parable emphasizes seeking the lost—the inferred response is the action of repentance. Jesus assumes that these sheep are restored when they are found.[27] Contrast this with Matthew’s account of the wandering sheep; they are not restored just when they are discovered, they go through a process of forgiveness. In Luke, the shepherd rejoices so readily, he carries the sheep right on his shoulders, and gathers the community around to celebrate its recovery. These actions demonstrate a radical inclusion of the lost sheep. Subsequently, the story is considerably more complete when this totally estranged sheep is found, then when a wandering sheep, who is implied to typically be in the fold, is found.

Further demonstrating his “gracious hospitality,”[28] is the image of the shepherd leaving his sheep in the “open country.”[29] Jesus is willing, and ready, to risk his whole flock of well-behaved sheep in order to save the one lost one.[30] In Luke, the “open country” implies danger and risk, whereas the “hills” implies more security—in both parables there is no mention of leaving the flock with another shepherd, so the risk in Luke is clearly greater than the one in Matthew, leading the reader to truly believe in the radical hospitality that Jesus in demonstrating here. The radical hospitality that is still an invitation to the grumbling Pharisees, to whom Jesus is directly addressing. “The parable is open-ended, and so is the invitation.”[31]

The Jewish audience that is hearing these parables would understand their historic importance. One could argue that the image of the shepherd is humble and lowly—especially because sometimes shepherds were not the owners of the flocks and in Jewish society those kinds of shepherds were looked down upon.[32] But in this case, the shepherds are the owners of the sheep (and subsequently the cost of losing sheep is high),[33] which gives them a high status. It should also be noted that the image of shepherds is not always negative since Moses, David, and Amos were shepherds.[34] Ultimately, the Jewish audience makes the connection that Jesus is the divine shepherd, as is described in Ezekiel 34, the passage of scripture where the Lord is famously described as the shepherd of Israel.[35] Perhaps, too, some would make the connection to 2 Samuel 12:1-17, when Nathan convicts David of his adulterous murder by depicting a shepherd stealing a poor man’s precious ewe lamb.[36] The people Jesus is addressing in Luke are the scribes and Pharisees, who would also make the connection to Jesus’ divinity. In both cases, Jesus is the divine shepherd.

Between Matthew and Luke’s version of the parable of the lost or wandering sheep, the most significant difference is the application and the role Jesus plays. Jesus is the forgiving leader in Matthew. The wandered off sheep in Matthew’s account represent people who have strayed the course within community and need to be forgiven. Jesus emphasizes that this type of radical forgiveness should be characteristics of his followers. In Luke, however, Jesus is the gracious host, evangelizing and expanding the Kingdom of Heaven by including people that have more than wandered off, but are lost. Jesus risks the entire flock for the sake of another believer, who might be found. All of heaven rejoices when that day comes, and the lost are recovered.


Carroll, John T. Luke: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2012.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. NICNT, edited by Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

France, R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT, edited by Joel B. Breen. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

[1] Luke 15:1

[2] Luke 15:2

[3] Matt. 18:7

[4] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, edited by Joel B. Breen. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 672

[5] Luke 19:10, the thesis of the Gospel of Luke.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 221.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, 450.

[9] France, 685.

[10] Keener, 447.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Matt. 18:6

[13] Matt. 18:10

[14] Keener, 51.

[15] France, 687.

[16] Matt. 18:12

[17] France, 686.

[18] Keener, 452.

[19] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, edited by Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 572.

[20] Green, 568.

[21] Green, 570.

[22] John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2012), 310.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Luke 15:7

[25] Carroll, 319.

[26] Green, 575.

[27] Green, 575.

[28] Carroll, 311.

[29] Luke 15:4

[30] Ibid.

[31] Green, 586.

[32] Keener, 451.

[33] France, 687.

[34] Keener, 451.

[35] Carrol, 311; Keener, 453.

[36] France, 703.