The Biggest Lost Sheep

Too Big to Fail.

Screen shot 2014-01-18 at 10.24.20 PMThus is titled a best-selling book (and HBO movie) about the bailout of several major US banks during the economic collapse of the late 2000s. [Side trail: how many people even remember that whole sequence? I was working in the financial sector then, afraid of losing my own job, and even now I have trouble remember all the details: who bought whom, who collapsed, who merged, etc. We need a new syndrome to replace Attention Deficit Disorder: “How Mass and Social Media Keep Us Entertained and Ruin Our Memory by Shuffling Major Story after Major Story Until They All Run Together and We Cannot Remember Anything that Happened 3 Hours Ago, Let Alone 3 Years Ago.” But HMSMKUEROMSMSAMSUTARTWCRAH3HALA3YA is a horrible acronym, and probably hard to remember. Wait, what was I talking about. Let me check Twitter again…]

Anyhow, the whole premise of the book, the movie, and, frankly, the historical reality upon which they were based is simple: some banks were so big and so important that they deserved to be rescued – in fact, they had to be rescued – at whatever cost, even if it meant losing a lot of other things along the way (taxpayer dollars, other banks, other industries, international reputation, etc.). In other words, only the biggest things – because they are the biggest – are worth striving to save and rescue when the going gets tough.

Sometimes it feels like that with the Lord. Fortunately God does not operate on that principle.

As a Christian, it is easy to fall into the line of thinking that one has to be big, prominent, popular, well-known, gifted, polished, brilliant, or some combination of these in order for Jesus to care about you. We think that the only people who really matter to the God of the Universe are people who seem like a big deal: the celebrity pastors, the best-selling Christian authors, the short list of 10 or so preachers who all get invited to speak at the same conferences year after year. Or maybe on a local level, we think that the only people who really matter to God are a church’s head pastor, or a missionary in Africa, or someone like that.

We often think: “God only cares about the big-time Christians. If they are at risk, God will rescue them. They are too big to fail. Me … I’m just a nobody. Sure, maybe Jesus died for my sins, and that’s good and all, but at the end of the day, I do not really matter. I’m small-time. The important people are the main actor and actress, the director, the producer, and maybe the supporting cast. I’m just the ‘key grip.’ Whatever that is.”

The parable of the lost sheep speaks precisely to this spiritual quagmire. However, oddly enough there are two versions of the parable, and though they are quite close, they lead the struggling Christian (or non-believer) in entirely opposite directions. Let’s have a look.

Two Antithetical Versions of the Same Parable

This parable of Jesus is justly famous as one of his most heart-warming and evangelistically-fruitful stories: God will go after the lost sinner (or struggling Christian) and rescue him/her, and then throw a party to e celebrate. That’s good stuff.

The biblical account found in the Gospel of Luke (15:1–7) is the first of a sequence of parables about “lost-ness,” including the lost coin and the prodigal son (the parallel in Matt 18:12-14 is quite close to Luke, so we will use Luke for discussion). However, another account can be found in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which, as I’ve discussed before, is a mid- to late- second century writing that contains 114 “sayings” of Jesus, in no particular order. Roughly 3/5 of the “sayings” have some sort of parallel in the four canonical gospels, and the rest are creations of the author. Saying 107 in Thomas contains the parable of the lost sheep. Here are the two versions, shown side-by-side for comparison.


Luke 15:3–7 Gos. Thomas 107

3 So he told them this parable:

Jesus said,

4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?

“The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine sheep and looked for that one until he found it.

5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, ‘I care for you more than the ninety-nine.'”

6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.


Structurally, the two versions of the parable are quite similar. In both of them, the man has 100 sheep; one of them is lost; and he leaves the 99 and goes and finds that sheep.

However, I’ve underlined three important differences in the Thomas version.

Screen shot 2014-01-18 at 11.00.18 PM
Where DID he leave the other 99?
  • Why did the shepherd go after the sheep? In Luke’s account the only reason why the shepherd went after the sheep was simply that it belonged to him, and it was lost. That’s it. However, in the Thomas version, the shepherd went after the sheep because it was the largest. The sheep was “too big to fail.” It was his most precious, prized sheep, apparently. Perhaps if a scraggly sheep had gotten separated from the flock, he wouldn’t have gone after it. Given that Thomas inserts this little parenthetical to clarify which sheep it is, he clearly is advocating that way of thinking that I mentioned earlier: God (the shepherd) only cares about the biggest and best.
  • How did the shepherd respond when he found the sheep? In Luke’s account the shepherd rejoiced privately (v5), then he gathers all his friends and throws a party because he found his lost sheep. He’s supremely excited because his sheep was lost, and now it is found. But how does Thomas’ shepherd respond? He was irked because he had gone through “such trouble.” Perhaps he felt like the biggest, baddest, best sheep in the flock should not have done such a stupid thing; now he has wasted his entire day searching down the sheep that should have known better. Sighing heavily, perhaps, and rolling his eyes, he takes the sheep back to the flock. But he makes sure that sheep knows that he has royally screwed up, and the shepherd isn’t going to forget about “all the trouble” he has gone through anytime soon.
  • What do we learn about the shepherd / God from this episode? In Luke the parable ends with an explanation by Jesus: God will rejoice immensely over the recovery of one lost sinner through repentance. He exults in saving his people. What about the Thomas shepherd? He reiterates his favoritism. Note the implied dichotomy between the two. The shepherd / God goes after a lost sheep because he is lost, and he rejoices over his repentance and recovery more than 99 self-righteous persons who don’t think they need God. In other words, in Jesus’ parable, the shepherd goes after the sheep precisely because he is lost, sinful, and needs rescuing; the other 99 think they are doing just fine on their own. Jesus, in other words, prizes the lost sheep over the 99 because he is weak, broken, small, and needy. But the Thomas shepherd goes after the sheep and prizes it over the 99 because, well, it was the biggest.

Same parable. Dramatically different understanding of God, our shepherd, and being lost.

Connecting to the Pew

I have one spiritual takeaway and one more academic/apologetic takeaway.

  • For the lost sinner and the struggling Christian. The contrast between these two parables – one written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Luke), and one clearly not (Thomas) – illustrates how flawed and spiritually deadly the line of thinking I introduced earlier can be. We are so often tempted to see ourselves in terms of the parable in Thomas: “God only cares about the biggest and best, and he loves them more than the rest of us, and even when he saves that person, he is highly annoyed at the trouble of doing so. How much worse is it for me? Why would God even bother? He’ll never deliver me from this situation.” Flee from that thinking! The contrast with Luke’s version, which Jesus himself actually spoke, shows clearly how ridiculous and unbiblical Thomas’ version actually. Why does God pursue us? Why does he want to rescue you? Because you’re the biggest? No! Precisely the opposite: because you are not the biggest. Because we are weak and helpless and lost without him. That’s why he tracks us down and rescues us – because we are NOT the biggest sheep. In fact, we are the biggest UNDESERVING sheep. Yet he rejoices in delivering us. Whether this applies to the lost sinner who needs the saving grace of the cross, or to the struggling Christian who needs deliverance from sin patterns or whatever else: God goes after us, regardless of how “big” we are in his eyes. In fact … we are big in his eyes precisely because we are small and destitute and needy.
  • With respect to Thomas and the Gospels. There is within New Testament circles a huge debate right now about whether some form of the “Gospel” of Thomas actually precedes Matthew/Mark/Luke (implication: the canonical gospels used and modified Thomas as one of their sources), or follows Matthew/Mark/Luke (implication: Thomas borrows from the canonical gospels as his source, not the other way around). My own supervisor (Simon Gathercole) and Mark Goodacre have recently published lengthy books arguing that Thomas came after and depends on the canonical gospels; but a large number of scholars (DeConick; Kloppenborg; possibly Watson) argue that Thomas (or some earlier form) is the earliest “gospel” and preceded the later canonical gospels, which borrowed heavily from Thomas. In fact, many in this camp argue the the more “gnostic” ideas in Thomas were the earliest form of Christianity, which the later canonical gospels “edited out” as part of a greater move towards the orthodox “party.” It’s a huge and complicated discussion. However, I think this example of the two competing versions of the parable of the lost sheep sheds some light on the question. To assume that Luke borrowed from Thomas’s version would require that he (a) removed the very important detail about the preference of the shepherd for this sheep, which shows up twice and occupies a huge portion of the parable (based on word count), (b) completely reversed the sentiment (“trouble”) into rejoicing, even to the extent of throwing a party, and (c) removed the “kingdom” framing in the parable in Thomas. I find this a high bar. The argument for Thomas’ priority would be easier if Luke was also “borrowing” the parable of the lost coin and prodigal son from Thomas as well, since they form a unit in Luke, but neither of those parables are in Thomas. It is simply implausible to believe that Luke would have taken a “kingdom parable” in Thomas, stripped out the kingdom theme, reversed the attributes of the shepherd and the sheep, added a rejoicing motif, and stuck it with two other parables not in Thomas (or in the so-called “Q” source) – rather than, say, including it in his “kingdom” parables in chapter 13. Moreover, given that this parable is, relatively speaking, a prominent “kingdom” parable in Thomas (along with 5 others, such as the mustard seed and the sower), it would be odd for Matthew, like Luke, to strip out the “kingdom” framing that is so prominent throughout the rest of Matthew. It is much more plausible to see these changes as working the opposite direction: Thomas borrows the basic parable from Luke (which is what Gathercole and Goodacre argue) but modified the details in keeping with the broader theology that gives preference to those with special knowledge, or access to “the All,” or to divine mysteries – namely, those who are a “big” deal.
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