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Published Date: July 11, 2018

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In the Parables, God is Father, Shepherd, and also Woman

My church recently learned the song, “Sound of Adoration,” written by Bryan Torwalt and performed by the band, Jesus Culture. It begins like this, “When we were lost ones, You were the Shepherd that carried us home. When we were prodigals, You ran to meet us with open arms.”

The opening sentence refers to Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep, and the following line comes from his parable of the prodigal son.

Most people understand the shepherd of the lost sheep to symbolize God. One of the most influential books on Jesus’s parables (by Joachim Jeremias) supports this claim, calling the shepherd “an image of God’s activity of love.” Bible readers, ancient and modern, have made this connection—after all, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Most Christians view the father of the prodigal son as a God-figure. For example, a central feature of Tim Keller’s bestselling book, The Prodigal God, is that the parable’s father represents God the Father.

There’s lots to like about “Sound of Adoration.” But I noticed that the song omits what so many other works also leave out: the parable of the lost coin. But in regularly omitting that story, we lose out on a rich and perhaps unexpected portrait of God.

Luke 15 gives us this triad of parables—lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. If these three parables are siblings, the first two are twins. They follow the same structure and make the same point.

The lost coin in Luke 15:8-10 is the center of the triad, and it tends to get lost between the other two. It’s short enough to include here:

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (NIV).

Sometimes these three parables are used to emphasize the importance and urgency of the ministries of evangelism and/or compassion. In such cases, the shepherd, the woman, and the father symbolize Christians who go out of their way to help individuals, rather than letting them fall through the cracks. When this approach is taken, the lost coin fits in well. After all, even those who believe that God limits women’s ministry agree that they may share the gospel (in the right settings, of course) and are excellent at showing compassion.

But the two twin parables are usually used to present God as a celebrating seeker and a forgiving finder. With this approach, the lost coin is typically minimized or omitted altogether. And the reason is obvious: so very many Christians are uncomfortable with a woman symbolizing God. As a result, these same Christians are either uncomfortable with or oblivious to this parable that tells of God’s diligent search for her lost coin.

And so it is, most Bible readers, even those who know the Gospels well, have never paused to ponder that in Luke’s triad of images for God, one of the three is a woman.

But is that Luke’s actual ratio, 1 of 3? Or could it be a more even 1.5 of 3? The seeker of the lost coin is clearly a woman, and the father of the prodigal son is clearly a man. But the shepherd of the lost sheep could be either a man or a woman. The parable itself doesn’t specify the shepherd’s sex. Shepherds in Jesus’s day included men and women. And the image that “shepherd” brought to one’s mind back then wasn’t necessarily a man. They might have thought, for example, of Rachel: “While he [Jacob] was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherd” (Genesis 29:9 NIV). Or of Zipporah, the wife of Moses, who was also a shepherd (see Exodus 2:16-21).

I’ll keep singing “Sound of Adoration” in church, but I’ll also feel that something is missing, that something more than a coin has been lost. The song misses an opportunity to follow Luke’s inspired lead and present God, not only as a shepherd and a father, but also as a woman.