The Parable of the Prodigal Sheep
James R. Aist
Perhaps when you read the title of this article you thought to yourself, “Doesn’t he mean the lost sheep?” After all, that’s the way the later-added, extra-biblical headings refer to this parable. And, in my experience, this parable is commonly used to refer to God pursuing unbelievers until they have been drawn all the way to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, God does exactly that (John 6:44), but is that what this particular parable is really about? Let’s take a closer look, and find out.
Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go in search for the one which went astray? And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine which never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12-14).
Notice that the scene opens with the man actually owning 100 sheep. If he has them, then he owns them; these sheep belong to this man. Moreover, if this man did not already own these sheep, then none of them could actually go astray, because the man would have no rightful claim to them in the first place. So, right away, we can see that this is a parable about, not a wild sheep belonging to no one, but a prodigal sheep belonging to the man.
Having this perspective, then, let’s proceed to what I believe to be the correct spiritual meaning of this parable: It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones whom the Father has given Me (John 10:29) should perish. Jesus is the man in the parable. Now we can see that the parable of the lost sheep is really about the Father pursuing a backslider that He has already saved until he is brought back into the lifestyle and fellowship of the saints who are following Jesus. And, that is exactly why He will raise all of them up on the Last Day (John 6:39), not just the ones who didn’t backslide!
Now, if you will indulge me for a few moments more, I want to make a point of comparison. If you will take a look at the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-28, you will see that it begins in a fashion similar to the parable of the lost sheep: “A man had two sons.” They were his sons throughout the parable, and when the prodigal son returned to his father, he was reinstated, not adopted, into his father’s household. Although these two parables differ in detail, there are many parallels. Perhaps now you can better understand why I chose to say “prodigal sheep” in the title of this article.
(To read more of my articles with a biblical theme, click HERE)