When The Lost Are Found
I find some of the preaching habits of Jesus difficult to replicate. On a regular basis, Jesus did what most modern preachers would regard as unthinkable: Jesus preaches a message designed to confront, and correct, those who are complaining about His ministry.
The teaching ministry of Jesus was attracting all sorts of people. Luke tells us “tax-collectors and the sinners were coming near (Jesus) to listen to Him” (15:1). In other words, Jesus was attracting irreligious people; He was attracting the ‘undesirables’, He was attracting the spiritually confused, and the morally bankrupt. It is significant that Luke says that they came “near” Jesus. They did not hover on the periphery; they did not keep a low profile, but rather, like an eager autograph seeker, these folks got as close to Jesus as possible.
Off to the side there was another group of people. The religious leaders—the scribes and the Pharisees—kept themselves separate from the riffraff. Moreover, they were bothered that Jesus would even mingle with such company. We can picture them rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and speaking in muffled tones.
Luke presents the scribes and Pharisees to us as complainers and, in response to these complaints, Jesus them. In response to the complaining clergy, Jesus tells three stories designed to correct their skewed theology.
Each of the three stories centres around something lost: The lost sheep, The lost coin, and The prodigal son. Without a doubt, the parable of The prodigal son is the most familiar of the three. But I agree with Charles Spurgeon who asserts that “Each one of the parables is needful to the other, and when combined they present us with a far more complete exposition of their doctrine than could have been conveyed by any one of them.”
Commenting, also, on the parables as a whole, J.C. Ryle wrote, “There is probably no chapter of the Bible that has done greater good to the souls of (humanity)”. Friends, we approach this text this morning in search of that good, in order that we might leave this place with our souls sufficiently encouraged.
We’ll begin by looking at the three common threads that run through these parables: Firstly, something is lost, secondly, something is sought, and thirdly, recovery is celebrated.
In all three accounts the thing that is lost is of tremendous value. For the shepherd who owns 100 sheep, every sheep is important since they represent his livelihood. In the second parable, the coin is the Greek drachma, which was, for many, a day’s wage. For this woman, it was one tenth of her life’s savings. And, of course, it goes without saying that the wayward son was of immeasurable value to his father.
Everyone present—the Pharisees, the scribes, the tax-collectors, and the sinners—would have agreed that the sheep, the coin, and the son were of tremendous value. What then, is the purpose of Jesus telling these stories?
The religious leaders were complaining because Jesus was spending time with the dregs of society. In the eyes of the religious leaders, these sinners were worthless. In response to this sentiment, by piling one parable upon another, Jesus drove home a contrary message—that these ‘sinners’ were of tremendous value to God.
The three things lost, the sheep, the coin, and the son, represent our condition apart from God. And the amazing thing is that these parables are not presented as a damning indictment against us. Though our condition apart from God is a miserable condition, it is not a hopeless condition. Though we resemble an animal with no sense of direction, though we be like a lifeless coin, though we be like an immoral son, our situation is not hopeless. We know this because Jesus communicates in the clearest of terms that lost people matter to God.
The value of the thing lost is evident in the efforts of the owner to recover it. The account of the prodigal son differs from the other two on this point. There is no indication that the father searched for his wayward son, although he was, apparently, on the look out for him (15:20). This portrayal has caused many to picture God as being like a patient father, waiting eagerly for us to return to Him. Certainly, there is truth to that, but we need to balance such a notion with the first two parables. The loss of one sheep, the loss of a single coin, causes the owner to embark on an all-out search.
In the first parable, 99 sheep are left unattended in the open pasture (15:4), while the shepherd pursues the one lost sheep. In the second parable, the woman burns valuable oil as she lights a lamp in search of her one lost coin (15:8).
Common to both of these parables is the criteria for ending the search. Jesus says that the shepherd “goes after the (sheep) which is lost, until he finds it” (15:4). The woman “searches carefully (for the coin) until she finds it” (15:8). This is no cursory search. This is no token search. The cliché that ‘no stone be left unturned’ applies here.
I suspect all of us know what it is like to lose something. And what usually determines the nature of our search is the value of the thing that is lost. There was the time, last summer, when we took Anya to the Toronto Zoo and we noticed that she had lost her hat. We retraced our steps for about ten minutes and then decided that the hat was not worth an indefinite search, and so we gave up looking. The hat was never recovered.
Many summers ago, when the MacPhail household consisted of Bryn, Allie, and our cat, Tigger, we journeyed up to our cottage for a week of vacation. At one point in our holiday, Tigger managed to escape the cottage.
Losing Tigger compelled us to conduct an all-out search. There was an urgency to our search—the more time that elapsed, the wider our search perimeter needed to be. And, if the sun were to set, Tigger would become vulnerable to all sorts of wild animals. We searched frantically, and relentlessly. Even our social inhibitions were set aside as we yelled, ‘Tigger!’ at the top of our lungs for all our neighbours to hear.
Thankfully, we found Tigger. What seemed like an eternal search probably lasted just an hour. If we had to, I suspect Allie and I would have searched all night, and that we would not have given up until we found Tigger.
Friends, this is how Jesus describes God’s pursuit of lost sinners. Lost people are of such value to God that an all-out search is warranted. I wonder if Francis Thompson had this text in mind when he wrote his famous poem, ‘The Hound of Heaven’. The metaphor of a hound, to mark God’s relentless pursuit of us, is a fitting one, and a comforting one.
Think, for a minute, about those individuals in your life that are not following Jesus. For some, this may be our spouse. For many, it is our son or our daughter that has ‘fallen away’. Still others are saddened by the reluctance of our grandchildren to embrace the Christian faith. And most of these, I suspect, are not like the prodigal son, who was given over to gross immorality (15:13). Most of these are ‘good folk’ who are more like lost sheep, wandering aimlessly away from the Shepherd’s pasture.
I have no difficulty bringing to my mind family members and friends who do not know Jesus. After many years of praying for them, I confess that I have seen little change in their outlook. I’m tempted, at times, to give up hoping. I imagine that they are too far gone; too set in their ways; too hardened against Christianity to change . . . But then I am confronted by a passage like this.
I may be quick to abandon the search, but the Hound of Heaven is relentless. What a joy it is to think that the Good Shepherd is still seeking lost sheep! I may be quick to despair, but the Good Shepherd is determined to bring every sheep into the fold.
Everyone likes a happy ending and perhaps this has contributed to the popularity of these parables. Something of value is lost, there is a desire to seek and recover what is lost, and thankfully, what is lost is eventually found. Simply noting the recovery of what was lost would have sufficiently constituted a happy ending, but we are given more.
The recovery of what was lost motivates an elaborate celebration. The sheep is found and is carried home on the shoulders of the rejoicing shepherd; friends and neighbours are summoned, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” (15:6).
The woman “calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’” (15:9).
The son returns and is immediately kissed by his waiting father (15:20). The son is given a ring, a robe, and sandals to wear (15:22); a fattened calf is prepared for dinner (15:23); there is music and dancing (15:25) as a party ensues.
Jesus explains the celebrations, saying, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10).
Let that sink in for a minute. Jesus is telling us that there is a party in heaven for every conversion. The parable is clear—the shepherd’s response, the woman’s response, and the father’s response is representative of God’s response to the repentant sinner.
The image of the rejoicing shepherd, with his sheep on his shoulders, is powerful enough. The thought that our Heavenly Father would hoist us on His shoulders like a returning hero is sufficiently encouraging. But there’s more; God says to all the heavenly host, “Rejoice with Me”.
Some may regard this as a redundant statement. ‘Is there not always joy in heaven?’ Certainly. ‘Is the felicity of the heavenly host ever interrupted? Do the heavenly angels ever cry or sigh in agony?’ Never. Then how are we to understand Jesus’ words “there will be more joy in heaven”? (15:7).
I can scarcely conceive of, let alone articulate, what Jesus is saying here. And yet, there seems to be a special kind of joy in heaven when a sinner repents—a bliss above bliss (Spurgeon).
Too often, I fear, we speak about salvation the way we speak about a math equation: Grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone = eternal life.
And while that equation may be accurate, we should not view salvation as God’s robotic response to a successfully completed math problem. Saving souls is God’s delight; saving souls is cause for a huge party in heaven.
We should aspire to join that heavenly party. And we should seek to bring others with us to the party. What a delight it will be!
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun. Amen.