Summary: What is God's attitude toward repentant sinners?
Searching for the Lost: An Exposition of Luke 15
There are three well known parables in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Parables are illustrations which use a story to shed light on spiritual truth. Jesus wasn’t the only one who taught in parables in his day, but he was a master of the art. We will be looking at these three parables with special emphasis on the third which has been called “the parable of the prodigal son.
The first three verses of the 15th chapter are critical to the understanding of these parables. This is because these parables shed light on the attitude of Jesus in comparison to the Pharisees. The first verse tells us that a number of tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus. Tax collectors were despised in those days as they collected these taxes for Rome. They were known to hold company with notorious persons and prostitutes. Pharisees avoided company with these people. So it would seem scandalous to the Pharisees that Jesus had no problem with keeping company with them. Why would a Rabbi be tainted by their presence? But Jesus saw things the other way. The company of sinners did not make Him unclean. Rather, His presence cleansed the unclean.
The Pharisees were, as expected, indignant. The imperfect tense in Greek shows that they and the scribes continued to mutter about this. They were saying that Jesus was not only accepting the company of sinners, he was even eating with them! So Jesus answers this attitude by a cascade of parables.
The first parable talks about a shepherd who had lost just one of the 99 sheep. A lost sheep never returns on its own. It has to be searched for, encouraged, and led back to the flock. Going out to save a lost sheep was hard and dangerous work for the shepherd. The lost sheep might be on a rocky ledge of a cliff. There could be predators which could attack. There was danger of getting lost in the desert. There was heat by day and cold by night. There was hunger and thirst. It seems like a lot of work to save even a single sheep. It would be tempting to rejoice that the shepherd still had 99 sheep and let the stray go. There is some implication here that the Pharisees would have been content to let a lost sinner go and cut them off from their company. But not Jesus; He was willing to go through the labor and danger to rescue a single sheep. And when we remember that Jesus was keeping company with many tax-collectors and sinners, we get the idea that if laboring to save a single sheep is worth it, how much more when many are lost. We think of the prophet Isaiah saying: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every on to his own way.”
The second parable is of a woman who lost one of her ten silver coins. A lost coin for a rich person might not be a big deal, but these ten coins represented the family’s life savings. Ten coins would only feed a family for ten days. It isn’t very much of a nest egg. So this lost coin was significant. The first parable showed one of a hundred sheep was missing. Now it cascades to one coin in ten. The woman searched the house diligently until she found it. Like the shepherd, she called her friends to rejoice with her.
The third and longest parable goes on to amplify the attitude of Jesus for the lost. Now the loss here is far greater than a sheep or a coin. One of the father’s two sons was lost. As valuable as a sheep might be or a silver coin, it pales in importance with the value of a human life, especially of one’s own flesh and blood. The Pharisees might rejoice that one of his boys stayed home and would have pronounced their excommunication on the prodigal. He was the second son anyway, so even though it was sad, they were willing to let go of him.
The first two parables would have stimulated some interest, but they are fairly conventional and true to life. The parable of the Prodigal Son, however, it pure shock and awe. It is outrageously counter-cultural. It would have generated a visceral response by the hearers. The first outrage was that the younger son would be bold enough to ask his father for his inheritance when his father was still alive. The oldest son would get most of the property. Other sons would get some goods and sent out to find their own way, or they would stay and be subject to the older brother upon death of the father. Daughters were given a dowry and married off to some other family. But this son wanted to go out and make something of his life while his father still lived. This was unusual, but even greater outrages would develop.