Robert Capon – Parable of the Lost Sheep, pt.2

Tonight we are discussing the Parable of the Lost Sheep (and the Lost Coin) found in Matthew 18:10-14 and Luke 15:3-10. Please read chapter 4 “Losing as the Mechanism of Grace” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book  Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter is here.

The Parable:

Jesus tells the following parable:

Matt. 18:12-14: What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

Luke 15:3-10: So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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 which was lost.’ 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.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The “Bad” Sheep:

As we begin the parable, the reason given for the missing sheep is important. Matthew says that the sheep “has gone astray.” The Greek word used is planao which means “go astray,” “deviate from the correct path,” or “be misled.” This is a sheep that refuses to follow the right path. This same Greek word is used in Revelation to describe the nations that are “deceived” by the false prophet (19:20) or the ancient serpent (12:9, 20:3). This sheep has been deceived to wander off.  

In Luke, however, the sheep is described as “lost.” The Greek word used is apolesas which means “destroy” or “perish.” Luke continuously uses this word in the sense of losing your life – such as when the disciples are caught on a boat in the storm (8:24) or in taking up your cross (9:24). This sheep is basically dead.

This status of the sheep is the key part of the parable. The sheep has been deceived. The sheep is perishing. Or as Capon puts it, the sheep is dead. Consider the following propositions, all of which I think are true. A lost sheep is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep; a lost coin is likewise a dead asset. In addition (if I may look forward a bit to the parables of the Unforgiving Servant and of the Prodigal Son), a debtor about to be foreclosed on is a dead duck and a son who has blown his inheritance is a deadbeat. p.187.

The sheep has also done exactly nothing to deserve the shepherd to come and look for him. The sheep disobeyed the shepherd in wandering off and has not made any effort to return. The sheep has not invited or asked the shepherd to come find it or even cried out. There is no indication that the sheep understands its predicament or even has a desire to be found. (In the parable of the lost coin this lack of repentance is even starker since a coin has no volitional capacity to return.) As Capon writes: Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin does a blessed thing except hang around in its lostness. p.186

The Crazy Good Shepherd:

Not only is the unrepentant sheep effectively dead, but the shepherd is effectively crazy. As the farmer in the Parable of the Weeds committed agricultural malpractice, so the shepherd in a parable may not be the best example if someone was in the sheep business. This parable can hardly be interpreted as a helpful hint for running a successful sheep-ranching business. The most likely result of going off in pursuit of one lost sheep will only be ninety-nine more lost sheep. Accordingly, I think it best to assume that Jesus is parabolically thumping the tub for the saving paradox of lostness. He implies, it seems to me, that even if all one hundred sheep should get lost, it will not be a problem for this bizarrely Good Shepherd because he is first and foremost in the business of finding the lost, not of making a messianic buck off the unstrayed. p.185.

In the parable, the shepherd risks his livelihood (his remaining sheep) to go find the straying unrepentant sheep to bring it home. The ninety-nine are not left in an enclosure or a pen but out on the mountainside or in the wilderness. However, the rescue mission of the shepherd is necessary for that one sheep. The sheep (or the coin) is effectively dead and the shepherd gives it life, and he gives it freely and fully on no conditions whatsoever. These stories, therefore, are parables of grace and grace only. There is in them not one single note of earning or merit, not one breath about rewarding the rewardable, correcting the correctible, or improving the improvable. There is only the gracious, saving determination of the shepherd. p.187


Once the sheep (or the coin) is found, the parable becomes a parable not of seeking but of joy. In Matthew, the shepherd rejoices over finding the sheep that went astray. In Luke, the shepherd (and the woman with the coin) invites over his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. It is not simply that the shepherd goes about his job and finds the sheep that was lost and went astray, but that there is an overwhelming joy that overcomes the shepherd in fulfilling his mission. The joy is not, as Matthew explains, over the ninety-nine who did not go astray, but over the one who was dead and brought back to life. And this joy is not simply limited to the shepherd and his neighbors but extends into the heavenly realm itself. For there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Luke 15:7


What of repentance? Jesus speaks of the “one sinner who repents,” yet there is no real repentance (as generally understood) in the parable. The word “repentance” (Gk: metanoia) is a compound word meaning to “change one’s mind.” But there is nothing in the parable to suggest that the sheep did anything to change its mind or promising not to get lost again. Repentance generally requires confession, contrition, and absolution, yet none of those are evident in the parable itself. In the Parables of Grace, as Capon explains, repentance is not an action but an acknowledgment, and absolution is not about forgiveness but forgetting.

Confession, for example, turns out to be something other than we thought. It is not the admission of a mistake which, thank God and our better nature, we have finally recognized and corrected. Rather it is the admission that we are dead in our sins – that we have no power of ourselves either to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth saving. It is the recognition that our whole life is finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other.

And to take the other side of the coin, absolution too becomes another matter. It is neither a response to a suitably worthy confession, nor the acceptance of a reasonable apology. “Absolvere” in Latin means not only to loosen, to free, to acquit; it also means to dispose of, to complete, to finish. When God pardons, therefore, he does not say he understands our weakness or makes allowances for our errors; rather he disposes of, he finishes with, the whole of our dead life and raises us up with a new one. He does not so much deal with our derelictions as he does drop them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. He forgets our sins in the darkness of the tomb. He remembers our iniquities no more in the oblivion of Jesus’ expiration. He finds us, in short, in the desert of death, not in the garden of improvement; and in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home. pp.187-88.

Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is savory waffles. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast.

Ephesians 2:4-9

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