The Parable of the Bad Shepherd

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that 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.” (Luke 15:4-7, NRSV)

We are all familiar with the famous good shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost one, who is the keeper of the gate, who lays down his life for the sheep. This brief essay is about the good shepherd’s younger brother, the bad shepherd. We all know him well, although he usually goes by another name.

The bad shepherd, fearing for the safety of his flock, built a wall around his sheep while they were grazing on the mountain. The wall saved the bad shepherd from one trouble that often plagued his older brother: sheep wandering off from the flock and being lost. The bad shepherd’s sheep did not wander. The boundary between the flock and the rest of the mountain was clearly marked; the wall kept the sheep from straying. It kept wolves from entering the flock. It kept the sheep safe. By the end of the day, the sheep had eaten all of the foliage inside the wall and they began to starve.

During another summer, the bad shepherd found that one of his sheep had fallen from a small mountain cliff, breaking her leg. He knew that he could nurse the sheep back to health with a couple of months of careful attention. On the other hand, such an approach might lead the sheep to believe that there would be no real consequences to jumping off of cliffs. She might jump again — and she might even convince other sheep to go with her. These worries whirring in his mind, the bad shepherd carefully gathered the wounded sheep in his arms and carried her off to another mountain, far away from the other sheep. He left her there in the hope that she would heal herself and realize the true costs of cliff-jumping.

One morning, the bad shepherd counted his sheep and found that one was missing. He asked his brother, the good shepherd, what to do. “Leave the flock behind, because those sheep are safe, and search for the lost one,” the brother advised. Yet the bad shepherd felt unsure. What if the lost sheep did not want to be found? If the sheep wanted to be with the flock, surely he never would have gotten lost in the first place! So the bad shepherd made up his mind: he would not wander after lost sheep. The sheep could find their own way back. Morning after morning, he made this same decision. Finally, his job became quite manageable. With no remaining sheep, it’s easy to be a shepherd.

This Christmas season, I pray that the mercy and love of the Good Shepherd will be with all and each of us bad shepherds.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Jay, great parable. The nuances of sheep deterrence are tricky at best.

  2. At some point, the bad shepherd realized that sheep is good eatin’, had a feast, and found other employment (writing polemics about sheep)

  3. I have the same prayer. Thanks JNS, you are a wise fellow.

  4. Darrell Wyatt says:

    JNS, thank you for this thoughtful posting. Could I have your permission to share this in our next ward correlation meeting?

  5. Very nice JNS. I want to use this too. Any copywrite concerns?

    A very clever twist that provokes interesting thoughts. Thank you.

  6. Funny.

    Of course you could have written each episode with a shepard who goes too far in the other direction, giving the opposite lesson in each case. Which just reminds us that there are almost always tradeoffs in the real world of sheperding.

  7. Steve, thanks. I agree that deterring sheep is a tricky matter, one best left to those with infinite wisdom.

    AC, cheers. I like mutton, too. But not metaphorically.

    J. Stapley, thanks.

    Darrell and Eric, please feel free to use this in any context where you think it might be helpful. All I’d ask for is attribution.

    Ed, your comment is interesting, and worth thinking through. I’m not convinced, but I’m open to persuasion. With respect to the third episode, though, it seems to me that the story in the opposite direction is in fact exactly the Luke parable that I opened the post with.

  8. JNS:

    Do you have a detailed interpretation of your parable?

    Might I take a quick top-of-the-head stab?

    The sheep are church members.
    The bad shepherd represents misguided church leaders.

    The wall represents policies and approaches that limit the sheep and their long-term growth opportunities.

    How far off am I? What thoughts motivated your twist?

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Eric, who were the sheep and shepherd when Jesus told his parable?

  10. Eric, there are many differences between me and Jesus, but here’s one more: I’m hesitant to offer detailed interpretations of this text, while He generally was quite willing to do the same. My reason for hesitating is that I don’t want to limit other people to reading this in the way that I do myself. If others can construct useful readings involving Christlike insights into ideas or situations that I haven’t thought of, I see that as a valuable outcome.

    With respect to your ideas, let me quickly note that I see the story as somewhat broader in meaning. In my view, we all play both roles; we’re all sheep and shepherds. As mortals trying to find our way to Christ, we’re sheep. But we also have roles in which we’re called to imitate Christ and try to lead and serve other sheep. When we’re in those roles, we’re shepherds.

  11. Steve:

    Thanks for responding to my comment. I usually take a simple approach to this good sheperd parable that the sheep are church members, the sheperd is a christ-like leader, and bringing the sheep back is a reactivation effort. So if this is reasonable, how opposite do we get with this twist?

    Might the sheep be non-members? The sheperd Satan or some bad dude? The wall the effects of sin? hmmm. A few possibilities.


    I am not really trying to tie you down, and I am definately not trying to set a trap for you or anything. I was just curious if you had some specific motivation behind your effort here. I was also hoping to engage in some discussion with the smart dudes at BCC on the implications. If you don’t want to go there that’s fine.