Have you ever misplaced something of value only to find it later? What are some of the emotions you feel when you have lost something of value? There may be some grief from the loss, anger over the events that lead to the loss, and some sorrow over the future effects of the loss. How do you feel when something which was lost is suddenly found? Typically the response would be one of relief and joy.
When God created man, He did something that defies human reason: when He created man in His own image, man received the capability of a relationship with God by choice. To choose a relationship with God, man has to reject the sin-filled world. Most people choose to reject God, preferring the temporal and immediate sensations of this world, and by so doing choose to remain separated from any relationship with God for eternity. God's purpose is that people would turn to Him. He has revealed that purpose through His Word, through the prophesies of the Old Testament prophets, through nature, through circumstances, and finally through His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Since turning to God requires a conscious choice, until that choice is made, man is lost. Even God Himself does not step into our hearts and place demands upon us to turn to Him. So, when a person turns to God, it is done by a personal choice that has been supported and guided by the Holy Spirit. With that decision comes the establishment of an eternal relationship with the God who desires it. Consequently, there is no shortage of scripture that describes the response of the heavenly host as one of joy and celebration when any individual turns to God.
An excellent metaphor for contrasting one who has rejected God is to refer to that individual as "lost." and to refer to one who has turned to God as "found." In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, we find Jesus using this metaphor as He describes for the crowds the nature of salvation and the difficulties that some people have with accepting it.
Consider first the setting for this event.
The message here has to do with the value of those who need God's love, and like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son that Jesus describes, they are in need of being found, and their salvation is to be celebrated. Just as we are saddened by the loss of something of value, God is saddened by the loss of the most valuable being of creation: people.
Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
Jesus was speaking to a public congregation made up of people from all walks of life, and in the simplistic view of those in authority in their Jewish culture, there were two groups of Jews: those who were "clean" with respect to their religious dogma, and those who were "unclean." To be "clean" was to be obedient to the laws and traditions that were espoused by the religious leaders, a group that was well-represented by the Pharisees who were the executors of the law, and the scribes who were the recorders and interpreters of it. These leaders often referred to "unclean" Jews, those who did not ascribe to their strict interpretations, as "publicans" and "sinners." The first term refers to those Jews who cooperated with the Roman government, most notably those who worked directly for that occupying government in the task of collecting taxes as a tribute for Rome. However, in a broader sense, the term refers to anyone who is associated in any way with Roman Gentiles. "Sinners" is a broader term to refer to any Jew who breaks their written, traditional, or oral laws. The term can also refer to any non-Jew. The prejudice of the religious leaders towards those who they felt were "unclean" was so much a part of their world view that Gentiles were considered of no human value at all.
Consequently, with this cultural setting in mind, we find Jesus teaching the people. As a healer and a teacher in the synagogue Jesus had the attention of the religious leaders who considered Him untrained, yet amazingly powerful in His words and actions. Accepting Him as a "religious leader" Jesus would be expected to follow the oral and traditional laws of the scribes and Pharisees. This would include prohibitions of "fraternization" with those who are 'unclean." The religious leaders considered the general public to be "untouchable." The religious leaders were extremely frustrated by Jesus' openness to all people, and that openness clearly exposed their pride and prejudice. So, as described in these verses, the religious leaders "murmured." We find that it had not been long into Jesus ministry that the murmuring of the religious leaders included conspiring to bring about His death.
Yet, those "untouchable" people were gathering around Jesus and listening to Him. They were being healed by Him. Jesus was casting demons out of the hearts of these people. The religious leaders were jealous and indignant.
Prejudice towards those who are not "religious" is not limited to the ancient scribes and Pharisees. Several years back, as a minister in a church fellowship, I found myself engaged in a ministry that took me into the most seedy areas of town, usually involving late-night visits to bars. Some of the "pillars" of the church fellowship called for my resignation, feeling that it was not appropriate that I be "seen" in such places. Thankfully, we came to an understanding, but I was never sure if I was ever fully supported by these individuals in that ministry.
We as Christians have a lot to learn about the basis of the Gospel: God's agape love. Our response to the needs of others should be based on this love, and not on the finger-pointing self-righteousness illustrated by these religious leaders.
And he spake this parable unto them, saying, 4What 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? 5And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
In this first parable Jesus implies that the good shepherd will go to great lengths to find a lost sheep and bring it back. It may be instructive to remember that these are parables, and not the reporting of historical events. Parables are intended to provide an allegory to illustrate an important point using parallel examples that people can understand. The context of Jesus' teaching clearly indicates these parables as responses to the criticism expressed by the religious leaders toward Jesus for his mingling with "publicans and sinners."
The allegory of the shepherd and the sheep is clearly evident in the relationship that Jesus is establishing with the people. As the Shepherd, Jesus has come to seek and save those who are lost, those who have not had an opportunity to understand the good news of God's grace, and respond to it. As the Shepherd, Jesus has come to the lost sheep with the purpose of saving them from the certain death that accompanies the separation of a real sheep from its flock.
In this parable, the one lost has become lost in ignorance. A sheep is not to be blamed for its separation from the flock simply because the sheep does not have the capacity to understand its lost state. The religious leaders despise these lost sheep because of the lost state, expressing no love nor interest in them. However, Jesus demonstrates just as much love for the lost sheep as He does for those who are in the flock, and like a shepherd who seeks to save the lost sheep, Jesus seeks to save all who will respond to Him. Jesus does not condemn the lost sheep because they are lost, as the religious leaders do. Jesus is giving the religious leaders an opportunity to know that they too can love the lost sheep and seek their salvation.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7I 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.
Unlike some parables that Jesus presents without explanation, relying on the curiosity of the hearer to investigate, allowing that those who "have ears to hear" can hear. Jesus takes no such chance here, as His message to the religious leaders is not to be missed. The "likewise" in verse seven ties the parable directly to the response of God to the repentance of the "unclean" people who the religious leaders despise. The religious leaders think that they alone are the ones who are in agreement with God, yet Jesus is clearly illustrating that their attitude towards the lost sheep is ungodly, inappropriate, and hypocritical.
Is the hypocrisy of the ancient Jewish leadership evident today? Do Christians today look upon those who are lost as "unclean" or of lesser value than ourselves? This parable relates the issue directly to those who have not yet heard the gospel. Do we think less of people because of their sinful and worldly lifestyle, when in reality they are simply living a life that is consistent with the separation from God that sin creates? A better solution than prejudice would be to open up our hearts to the lost, just as Jesus does, and look for opportunities to communicate the good news of God's grace to those who have not yet heard it. It is much easier to share God's love with words and actions that show compassion and love, than it is when those words communicate pride and prejudice.
Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? 9And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. 10Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
Jesus then presents a similar situation, but one of profound difference in its importance to those who understand it. In the first parable the item lost was one in a hundred sheep. In the second, it was one of ten coins. He is setting up the self-righteous religious leaders in this progression of messages. The context of the parable could be instructive. Scholars who study ancient Jewish culture have agreed that this parable refers to a set of ten coins that were given to a young virgin as a form of a "dowry" towards her potential marriage. The ten coins represent her virginal purity. If, prior to her engagement, she is found guilty of an inappropriate relationship with a male, a coin is taken away. The loss of a coin in this context can dramatically impact the interpretation of the parable by the religious leaders who are criticizing Jesus.
Like the lost sheep, the coin was lost and not taken away due to any guilt on the part of the woman. In this second example, the woman would be fully desperate in her seeking for its recovery, because its loss could affect her for the rest of her life. In the first parable, the shepherd restored a lost sheep to the flock. In this second parable, Jesus escalates the drama by describing the finding of the coin as a desperate and life-changing event. The shepherd will recover the loss of a single sheep. This woman will not recover fully from the loss of the coin.
Jesus is expressing to the religious leaders the depth of love that God has for those who are lost. His search for them is no less desperate than that of the woman in search of her lost dowry. Likewise, the issue of guilt enters the parable when we understand what the coin means to the woman. Like with the sheep, guilt is not an issue. For the religious leaders, guilt is the center of the issue. They condemn those who do not ascribe to their narrow interpretation of the law as guilty and deserving of being hated and despised. Jesus is hammering them with the message that guilt is not an issue. The people who the religious leaders despise are valuable people who are lost and are in need of repentance.
However, Jesus does not leave those He is teaching with a description of the guiltless lost alone, for there are those who do willfully reject God. There are those who have heard the truth of the grace of God and have decided to reject it in favor of the immediate sensual gratification that this world can bring to the natural soul. Jesus escalates His message further in his third parable. In the first two examples, Jesus depends upon the allegorical representation of sheep and a coin to represent the state of a lost person. In this third example, Jesus becomes more direct as he describes ... a lost person.
And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
Jesus message is about relationship, and this parable turns directly to those relationships. The first part of the parable concentrates on the younger son of two, with a message similar to that of the first two parables. The second part of the parable focuses on the older son and reflects the critical attitude of the religious leaders.
Consider for a moment how the religious leaders would respond to the request of the younger son. It was commonplace for a father to divide his property among his sons prior to his death. In this case, there were two sons. Since the elder son was to receive a double-portion (Deut. 21:17), the younger son would receive one third of the father's estate. As a rule, the Father would retain the use of the inheritance until his death. Some believe that by demanding the inheritance, the son was saying he wished his father was dead. By demanding the inheritance, the son is clearly rejecting his father, a supreme insult in their patriarchal culture.
What do you think the Pharisees would think of the younger son? Pharisees were often called upon to provide judgment for people in their community, so it would be natural for them to consider immediately the judgment of the unrepentant son. Some would probably call for his death. Their frustration with Jesus message could be vented at this point as they finally get an opportunity to express their indignation at another's guilt.
How do you think a father would respond? Under the law, the father would be obligated to give this inheritance to the son. A father who responds in the manner that we would expect from the religious leaders would, following the disposition of the inheritance, hold a funeral service, and declare the son dead.
However, the father here is a loving and caring God. Rather than control us like puppets, he has given us a free will to choose whether to be obedient to him or not. When we rebelled against him, as this son has done, he continued to love us and desired for us to repent. By describing the actions of this loving father, Jesus is showing us the depth of love that God has for those rebellious children who He has created.
And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
Again, the father usually kept use of the inheritance until he died. The son wanted it for himself. Selfishness, or self-centeredness, is the very core of all sin. The son wanted the independent use of all that his father had the ability to give Him. He rejected the authority of his father, and had no intention of honoring him with any of that which had been given him. Such is the very nature of sin.
Do you suppose the father was hurt by the son's demands for the inheritance? The scriptures often describe God as compassionate towards those He seeks to bring back to Himself.
Do you suppose the father knew what the son would do with the inheritance? God knows us better than we can ever know ourselves, and any parent can testify how a young child simply does not "have a clue" when it comes to what the parents know about them, their interests, and their lives. Likewise, God is fully knowledgeable of what we will do with the life of choices that He has given us. Without His Holy Spirit, all people are left to expend their resources on self-centered living.
The idea of a "far country" is amplified by the concept of the locality of God, as understood by ancient Jews. By going to a far country, it meant that the son was leaving the home of his father, and leaving the God of his father. Likewise, people naturally take what God has given them and turn their backs on God and keep it all for themselves, refusing to acknowledge the source of their life.
Away from the restraint, the caring and watchful eye, and authority of his father, what did the son lose? We see the loss of property, character, reputation and self-respect. How much of the hurt and pain in our society today is caused by the loss of these things? Sin causes people to squander the gifts God has given them on fruitless, empty, and unrewarding pursuits. What happens to these people when a crisis comes into their lives (as with the famine in this example)? They have no where to turn for help.
Where were the friends of the prodigal son in his time of need? He had left back home the person who truly loved him. Pushed by want, the son did two things detestable to a Jew. He put himself under the hire of a non-Jew. The people to whom he was speaking could identify with that. The publicans and sinners were detested by the Jewish leadership and found themselves in a situation similar to the prodigal.
The second thing detestable to a Jew was the contact with pigs. Such contact made a Jew ceremonially unclean. Even the carob pods were eaten by only the poorest people, and were useful only for feeding pigs. The prodigal came to the point where he was in a place so low and insignificant that no one noticed, cared, or helped. How many people in our society feel that way today? When we separate ourselves from God, we separate ourselves from the one who always unconditionally loves us. Life away from God is wasted. Jesus pointed out the state of an individual who had fallen to the lowest possible place on the social ladder.
And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my fatherís have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
Note the response of the son. By his own decision he chose to turn back to his father, to confess what he had done, and place himself, humbly, under His father's authority. Here is where there is a change from the first two parables. In the first two, it was the authority figure who sought out and found the lost article. Here, there was a willingness on the part of the lost person to be found. The first step of repentance is realizing there is a need for repentance. The second is a willingness to do so. Where in the first two stories the shepherd and the woman were seeking the lost, in this example the father is patiently waiting for his lost son to return.
The son's first decision was to turn back and go to his father. True repentance always results in positive action. Many people think that repentance means feeling sorry, or that repentance is an emotion. Repentance is an action. It is a changing of life, turning away from self and turning to God. The word for 'sin' here is interpreted as "missing the mark". What causes us to miss the mark? We miss when we are not facing the target, being distracted by other interests. We are distracted by the desires for self that the world provides.
The son had no hope of regaining his "Sonship". His desire for his father was so great that he was willing to be one of the lowest servants. What is this attitude called? Such is the nature of true humility. When we recognize our lost state and our true rebellion against God, we recognize that we are not worthy of being a son (or a daughter) of God. It is not until we attain that state can we really respond in humility and accept the gift of salvation that God has offered us.
Those who Jesus has ministered to, and who have responded to His message, have all demonstrated this attitude of humility when they, like the prodigal, come to the realization of their lost state. Only his father could restore the son, and likewise, only God can restore a lost soul to fellowship and relationship with Him. This concept of humility is alien to these proud religious leaders. We can probably see similar patterns in the church today, a pattern illustrated by religious leadership who think they are beyond criticism, or who think they are more "religious" or more "spiritual" than others and are not in need of repentance. Jesus teaches that all people are in need of repentance, and throughout the scriptures are written God's abhorrence of pride, simply because it is pride that man uses as a wall of arrogance against Him. It may have been pride and foolishness that lead the prodigal to his humility, but it is the humility, exercised through a true repentance that restored him to his father.
And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
What will determine the kind of reception the son receives when returning home? Certainly, the way the son is received is predicated by the kind of father he has. Some of us may expect to return home to a father who would whip us for being so disobedient. The kind of reception the son received was probably not what he expected, and certainly not the response that the prideful and legalistic religious leadership would assume.
The father did three things. First, he ran to his son. In their day, such an action would be considered undignified. This shows that "dignity" was not as important to the father as was his love for his son. The Jewish leadership were people who defined themselves by their dignity, and would not lower themselves to to anything that could be interpreted as undignified. Jesus describes the One who restores the lost soul as one who is not characterized by false appearances, but rather as the One who reaches out to the lost, those who cannot reach out to God on their own.
Second, the father embraced him and kissed him. The son would have arrived home dirty, unkempt, and clearly showing the state he had fallen to, probably wearing the same clothes that he wore in the pig slop. What does this further signify about the father? We see an enthusiastic acceptance that was not concerned with any "uncleanliness" that might be attained by touching the son. The Jewish leadership would shudder at such a thought. They would start looking for the appropriate sacrifice and ritual to be cleansed after such contact, totally blinded to the foolishness of their pride or the need of the son. God does not become "unclean" by touching the heart and lives of the lost, and neither did Jesus. Neither did the disciples as they learned to minister, and the touch of one in need does not make one "unclean" today.
At this point the son spoke his words of confession. Note that the father loved him so much, the actual words were not as important as their intent. We see this in that the father cut him short in giving instructions to his servants. God is not wanting a sequence of words when we pray. He wants a true heart-felt desire for him. The religious leaders often wasted many words saying nothing. It is the desire of the heart that God sees and truly responds to. Prayer helps us to express those desires, but it is the motivation for prayer that God hears best.
The third thing the father did was to give him three symbolic gifts, the robe, ring and sandals. A robe is a symbol of honor. It communicates to the son that the father considers him of great value and worthy of his full respect. This robe is one that the father would keep on hand to cover the dirty clothing of a highly respected traveler. The ring is a symbol of sonship. A ring identified the authority to make decisions for a family, and by giving the ring, the father was restoring the son to a position of honor in the family. The sandals identify lifting him up from the position of a slave to that of a son, for only slaves went without footwear. With these things restored to him, the son could again be a son.
Likewise when we repent and come to God, he gives us gifts which enable us to be sons and daughters of God. What are those gifts? Upon salvation God gives the Holy Spirit and all of the fruits and gifts that His presence engender.
Often we leave this parable at this point and end it prematurely. Jesus did not stop the parable here. He went on to point out the hypocritical attitude of the religious leaders.
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
At this point, Jesus brings the entire set of parables to bear on the condemning attitude of the religious leadership. After illustrating the love of God, and His purpose of the salvation of all people, Jesus uses the attitude of the older brother to illustrate the current opinion of the Jerusalem Jews. When the son came home, the older brother was exactly where he was supposed to be: in the fields working. Most likely, as the elder son he was the master of the fields, carrying the full authority of the father over the work of the family. Likewise, the religious leadership was always "busy" working for what they thought were the purposes of God. Like the elder son, the religious leaders were too busy to witness the restoration of the son to the family.
The news that was brought to the elder son was one of celebration and joy. Likewise, the message that Jesus brings to the Jerusalem leadership is also one of celebration and joy. However, the elder brother received the message in the same way the critical and conspiring religious leadership are doing.
And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.
Like the religious leaders, the response of the elder son was one of anger and rage. He was so indignant over the restoration of the prodigal brother that he refused to enter the home of his father. Likewise, the religious leadership is so blinded by their dogma, legalism, and pride, they cannot bring themselves to enter into the circle that is the fellowship surrounding Jesus. They summarily reject Jesus and His message solely on the basis of their own self-righteousness.
Since the elder son would not come into the house, his father came out to him in the same manner that he came out to meet the prodigal. God's invitation to fellowship with Him is open to all. The father is described as begging his son to come, but the son's indignation is too great.
And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
Note the self-righteousness of the elder son. The religious leadership dedicated their lives to obedience to the law. They would consider their own sacrifices to be enormous. Like the elder brother, the Jerusalem Jews would adamantly argue their obedience. They would all agree among themselves that they had never transgressed, and had kept all of the commandments. The purpose of the complex set of oral and traditional law was to create an environment where it would be literally impossible to break the commandments of God when their own commands were so much stricter and well-defined. Therefore, the religious leaders were absolutely convinced of their righteousness and innocence before the law.
The elder brother refers to this dedication as that of a slave before a taskmaster. The King James translation does not quite illustrate this in the words "serve thee", but it is more apparent in the Greek texts from which the English translations were made. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the son concerning his relationship with his father. Likewise, the religious leadership had developed an identical misunderstanding, as their God had become a taskmaster who demanded adherence to the law, rather than a loving God who desired their love in return. The love of God that was demonstrated by King David had, over the years been replaced with a cold and demanding religion that had become a complete fabrication of man.
The religious leadership was highly indignant concerning the gifts of forgiveness and grace that Jesus was offering to the "publicans and sinners." It was Jesus' claim of holding the authority to forgive sins that first enraged the Jerusalem Jews. Note the indication of the indignation of the son towards his father when he said, "You never even gave me a young goat..." The religious leadership could not accept Jesus' offer of forgiveness and grace to these "unclean" people while they had dedicated their lives to the keeping of the law, never receiving such an assurance for themselves.
Note that the elder also refers to the prodigal as "this son of yours" and not as a brother. The elder brother cannot bring himself to love the brother who had sinned. He had, in his heart, celebrated the funeral of his brother when the younger took the inheritance and left, and he had no intention of restoring the relationship. Likewise, the religious leadership has no intention or interest in any relationship with the type of people that Jesus is reaching and restoring.
Note that the father said that the celebration was necessary. Jesus is telling us that God the Father celebrates every time a lost soul turns to him in repentance and joins his family.
And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Note that the father said that the celebration was necessary. We see the celebration of the shepherd upon the restoration of the single lost sheep. We see the celebration of the woman upon finding the lost coin. Finally, we see the celebration of the father upon the restoration of his wayward, yet repentant, son. God the Father celebrates every time a lost soul turns to him in repentance and joins his family. How do we respond when we hear the news of some incredibly violent criminal who testifies a new-found faith in God while within the prison walls? Do we celebrate the salvation in a manner similar to that which God describes taking place in heaven?
Jesus was criticized, condemned, and ultimately put to death by a religious leadership that could not celebrate the salvation of those whom they considered "unclean." The religious leadership had built for themselves a theological fortress using walls of hatred and bigotry against anyone who did not believe and act as they did, and did so declaring their position as righteous. For them, salvation came only by adherence to the set of laws that they had themselves created. Much of this fortress mentality still exists today among many who consider themselves holier than others. For some, the purpose of the church is to keep the aquarium clean rather than serve as fishers of men. There is no institution among modern cultures as segregated as the church. The temptation to consider ourselves better than others, the temptation to reflect the bigotry of the Jerusalem Jews, is real and is difficult to overcome. Jesus shared these parables to remind us of the huge value that God holds for every person, and how He celebrates the salvation of every individual, a salvation that comes not from being obedient to a religion, but by turning to Him as Lord in humble repentance.
- God is gracious and offers forgiveness of sins to people who are willing to accept it.
- Living apart from God results in wasted potential.
- Joy comes to God, other people, and themselves when unsaved persons repent.
- Lost persons can repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ for salvation.
- All people who claim to belong to God's family should be glad when He offers His grace to individuals who do not deserve his favor.