ANSWER: “The parables of Jesus usually have a moral lesson for us when read simply and literally, and a spiritual lesson when read as dramatic illustrations of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament and brought us salvation. Since Our Lord Himself used the scriptures in this way, the Fathers of the Church followed His example.
The Pharisees knew of the mercy of God for His people: Jesus teaches that the repentance of the sinner is not simply an occasion for relief, but for overflowing joy. Immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, Our Lord tells of the woman who found the coin she had lost. She naturally rejoiced over that coin rather than the others. The point is developed further in the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the grumbling of the older brother serves as a warning to those who begrudge the generosity of God who will pay the last-hired labourers in the vineyard as much as he pays the first.
The allegorical interpretation of the lost sheep sees Christ as the Good Shepherd, fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel 34 in which God identifies Himself as the shepherd who searches for the sheep who have strayed. The lost sheep, representing all humanity, is Adam who has fallen. The Good Shepherd went into the wilderness by becoming incarnate in a sinful world, and then carried the lost sheep home by taking the cross on his shoulders. In this reading of the parable, we are all part of the lost sheep, as members of the fallen race of Adam, and the joy of the virtuous is the rejoicing of heaven in the salvation of mankind.
Our Lord’s parables invite us to prayerful meditation and call us not simply to have an opinion but to change our lives. In the case of the lost sheep, the proper response is sincere repentance for our sins, encouraged by the generosity of Our Lord and the joy of heaven at our salvation.”
– This article by Fr Tim Finigan was published as part of the feature “Catholic Dilemmas” in “The Catholic Herald” issue August 1 2014. For subscriptions please visit http://www.catholicherald.co.uk (external link).