Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The lost sheep and the lost drachma


We find the parables of the "lost sheep" and the "lost drachma" in the Gospel according to Luke:

"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? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver [drachmas], if she lose one piece [drachma], doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece [drachma] which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 14:4-10).

Lord Jesus Christ used the image of the shepherd in His preaching because His audience knew this image from the pastoral economy and from the books of the Old Testament. The image of the shepherd, of the herdsman leading his flock, was deeply rooted in the experience of the "nomadic Arameans" (Deuteronomy 26:5 [Russian Bible]). The Israelite shepherd is both leader and comrade. This powerful man defends his flock from wild beasts while knowing his sheep well (Proverbs 27:23), adapting to their situation (Genesis 33:13), carrying them in his arms (Isaiah 40:11), even loving one or another of them as a daughter (II Kings/II Samuel, 12:3). His authority is indisputable, based on devotion and love. The ancient Babylon and Assyria's kings called themselves shepherds with a divine ministry to gather and care for sheep of the flock. The Bible uses this image to show the relationships that bind Israel with God also work through Christ and His envoys with the Church.

Many Jews preserved a prophecy of the coming shepherd. Jesus fulfills this prophecy; as the shepherd of those sheep and of publicans and harlots who accept the Good News joyfully. The shepherd image appears as well at Bethlehem where they receive Jesus, Who had been born in their cave (Luke 2:8-20). Ancient Christian symbolism, in the catacombs of Europe and the Near East, often shows Christ as a shepherd, bearing a sheep on his shoulders, as Christ rescued sinful humanity when Christ took upon Himself our sins.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost drachma depict the Lord's true concern for the conversion of a sinner, and the joy in the heavens for those who repent. These parables emphasize that God Himself seeks out the sinner to save him. This Christ speaks in other places in the Gospel: "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10; Matthew 18:11) and to "call . . . sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13).

These parables of Jesus show the proud and self-assured Scribes and Pharisees God's boundless love and compassion toward all men. The Scribes and Pharisees were certain that only they fulfilled all the minor prescriptions ad sacrifices of the Mosaic law, and did not need to repent and to deal justly with sinners.

From the Gospel, we know that Christ met all men who were conscious of their sinfulness and wanted to change their lives. He visited homes of sinners and ate with them-with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and Levy the publican, who became the Apostle Matthew. This tolerant and welcoming gesture bothered the Scribes and Pharisees, who considered a helping hand to a fallen brother or simply touching him as ritual pollution. These elite scholars thought that Jesus sinned by consorting with sinners. So they warned people to shun Him.

Christ says, as it were, to His accusers in reply: "You bring an accusation against me that I accept sinners who have fallen away from God, that I even go after them, bring them to repentance and, saving them from perdition, return them to God. But, after all, you (Scribes and Pharisees) also act likewise in regards to that which is near and dear to you.

Further, Jesus offers to them the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. "What man of you, having an 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? Either what woman having ten pieces of silver [drachmas], if she lose one piece [drachma], doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?" If you act that way on losing your property, Christ further says, as it were, then why do you reproach Me, when I am saving men who have fallen away from God, their Father. A responsible, good shepherd, on finding a lost sheep, does not punish it because it fell away from the flock, does not even drive it back to the flock; but, rejoicing that he found it, takes it on his dependable shoulders and bears it home; he calls his friends and says to them: "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance." This is how God rejoices to return the lost sheep to the flock of salvation.

The lost sheep stands for the sinner dead to virtue and blessedness (the lost drachma), for which God had created him. By the Holy Spirit, the Lord acts inscrutably on the heart of man, who has not lost all capability for repentance and conversion to God.

Jesus' expression "over one sinner that repenteth," in both parables, emphasizes that the sole pledge of salvation is repentance. And "joy . . . in heaven," according to the word of Venerable Ephraim the Syrian, is "a feast for God." "Repentance, making a feast for God, summons heaven also to the banquet. The angels rejoice when repentance invites them to the supper. All the heavenly ranks celebrate, being aroused to gladness by repentance."

The sheep who ran away from the flock is a pitiful animal. It may stray where there is neither forage, nor water, the prey of wild beasts. Thus, too, the soul is unfortunate, exposed to every delusion and passion as an easy prey of the devil who seeks, according to the word of Scripture, "whom he may devour" (I Peter 5:8).

The Lord shows great care for lost souls, whom He boundlessly loves. God loves the world so much "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). And after His Ascension to heaven, His Providence cares for the Church that calls sinners to repentance.

The shepherd who discovers the lost sheep, does not drive it back to the flock, but takes it on his shoulders and joyfully bears it home. Here the compassionate Shepherd Jesus Christ strengthens him who has freely decided to seek salvation. The sinner goes not alone on the new path, but with Christ. If he falls on the way, Christ will take him onto His shoulders, encourage and comfort him, for He said: "Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

These parables of the Savior address the Pharisees of His time and all times everywhere. The Lord desires that we would imitate his love for man. In each man, we must see a brother in Christ and an image of God. And no matter how a man might fall and darken God's image in himself, we must seek God's spark in his soul, as Dostoevsky did so in his Notes from the House of the Dead. "Sins are sins, but the image of God is the basis of man," writes Feodor Michailovich. "Hate the sin, but love the sinner," the holy, righteous John of Kronstadt loves to say. And the Apostle James in his epistle says directly: "He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death [both the sinner's and his own, V.P.], and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).

Blessed Theophilact, the Archbishop of Bulgaria, and other interpreters of the Gospel understand by the "ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" as the angels and the righteous, for whom the salvation of a sinner is also dear, but who have already walked their path of salvation and departed to eternity,

Nicholai (Velimirovich), the Bishop of Ohrid, sees the parable of the lost drachma as the tragedy of both the world and of each person. He sees the nine drachmas that were not lost as the nine angelic orders, which Christ, Who is depicted in the parable under the form of a woman, leaves, in order to find the one drachma - the human race seduced by the devil and fallen away from God. Coming to the earth, Christ found the sinful human race and declared to the holy spirits: "Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece [drachma] which I had lost," I have found the men who will fill up the place in the Kingdom of Heaven left after the fall of the angels away from God, which had happened of old.

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