I may be unique in this, but through the years I have had a hard time understanding the three parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, as a set; have you? I thought of them as independent stories. I’ve often heard them taught in isolation, as though they are unrelated to one another. Distracted by the details of 3 unfamiliar scenarios, (having never searched for a sheep, or coin, or been so hungry as to want to eat pig slop), and stumbling over what looked like rejection of 99 good sheep and the good son who stayed home, I was challenged get a handle on the underlying message. Since my shepherding experience has given me new insight to help me understand one of these stories better, I find it easier now to see the underlying theme of all three. They hold together far better than I imagined!
The full message of “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” is incomplete when not taken in context of the whole scripture passage from which it comes. Since the 3 parables of “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Lost (Prodigal) Son”, are Jesus’ single answer in response to a specific situation, it is important to look at what the occasion was, and at what these three stories share in common.
Luke Chapter 15: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country
and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over
ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.“
First, it is important to understand that these 3 parables as a whole are Jesus’ one, single answer given in response to an accusation of Him posed by the Pharisees. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were always looking for something to catch Him on, and they were hard-hearted about accepting what Jesus taught. Now they had caught Jesus eating with people of poor reputation, that others wouldn’t want to eat with at the risk of ruining their own reputations. But Jesus, the sinless, perfect Son of God, didn’t seem to even bat an eye at sitting down with “tax collectors and sinners”.
Tax collectors in those days were allowed to charge as much extra as they thought they could get out of folks to line their own pockets. (Wouldn’t you just hate that?) It would have made people feel like they were being violated by government-protected thieves. I can’t imagine those tax collectors had a lot of friends. Shepherds may have been among the “sinners” group. Because shepherds’ duties made them ceremonially unclean, and their schedules kept them out in the field with their flocks 24/7, keeping them from worship at the temple, and a chance to become ceremonially clean, they were considered an undesirable lot.
“Shepherds are reckoned among the ἁμαρτωλοί, [“hamartolos, or ‘one who deviates from the path of virtue, a sinner'”, from https://www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/hamartolos%5D because they are suspected of driving their flocks into foreign fields, and of embezzling the produce of their flocks.”
(Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 133).
But Jesus was more concerned about connecting with them and other general “sinners”, than He was about His own reputation.
When the Pharisees and teachers of the law pointed out Jesus’ “social imperfection”, they were gossiping about Him within earshot. They “muttered”! They didn’t even confront Him directly.
“the Pharisees…muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In their muttering, they criticized Jesus for His love of lost people. Jesus answered their criticism by sharing the motivation of His heart in three separate stories about other lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Each parable reveals emotional intensity, giving another layer of how deeply felt Jesus’ love for the lost and His longing to meet their needs, really is.
Jesus began His answer with the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus’ wording of the second sentence, “Doesn’t he….?” implies the shepherd’s motivation to look for the lost sheep would have been regarded by His audience as common knowledge and common practice. Perhaps He led off with this one because there were shepherds among His audience?? In any regard, those of His day familiar with sheep and shepherds, they should have been able to appreciate the emotional connection a shepherd has for the animals he is responsible for; how their dependency on him for protection and their need for him triggers his compassion; how irresponsible, cold-hearted and cruel it would be to leave one in need abandoned in the wilderness.
The best analogy to it I can think of that a 21st century audience would appreciate, is that of a parent to a child. When a parent knows a child is lost and needs him, in addition to love and concern for their child, a parent also has an overwhelming, motivating sense of responsibility for their welfare. It is similar with good shepherds and a lost sheep.
The parable also speaks to the goodness of the featured shepherd. The wording of the parable makes it sounds like in Jesus’ day, those shepherds who wouldn’t look for a lost sheep, would have been looked down upon. (“Bad shepherds” who “don’t look for lost sheep”, and how much this angers God is described in Ezekiel 34). So Jesus’ first response to Pharisees’ questioning the social wisdom of Jesus’ choice to eat with those of poor reputation, is a story that implies, “and just how badly would I be thought of, as a shepherd, if I didn’t go look for my lost sheep?”
Later in Luke 16 it states,
“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”
Jesus knew what really motivated Pharisees was money. So in case the lost sheep analogy was too foreign to them, He told another parable. It was a three sentence story that featured their favorite thing, a coin, in case they could relate to that better. The coin was important to the widow because it was one of only ten. This parable reinforces the idea of a lost thing having enough emotional value to be worth the effort to search for it, and to be worth celebrating once it is restored to the owner.
In case they still didn’t get it, Jesus tried one more time. Every person who wasn’t raised by a sociopath ought to be able to understand that a father loves his son, no matter what, right? So even Pharisees and teachers of the unforgiving law ought to be able to get this one.
Luke 15:1 “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus”
From the wording, it sounds like the tax collectors and sinners were voluntarily gathering around to listen to Jesus. So in a sense, the Pharisees were gossiping about Jesus’ “social impropriety”:
- Right in front of the “shepherd”, just as he had begun to gather his found sheep into His arms and tend to his needs.
- Right in front of the “widow”, just as she bent to pick up “her lost coin”.
- Right within earshot of the “father”, just as he was running up the road to embrace his long awaited, lost son.
If something similar had happened to me, I think this would have been a “clear the temple” moment. I may have lost my temper with the Pharisees, especially if I felt about the tax collectors and sinners the way Jesus expressed He did (does) in those three parables. Let’s look at those sections of the parables that speak to how Jesus felt about the lost ones He was reaching out to:
‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“She calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
“…celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Jesus’ happy moment of celebrating His new connection to His lost ones was being rudely interrupted by the snide, disparaging remarks of those who thought themselves more holy than the Lamb of God. Not a good time to rain on His parade. But still, He tried to address them, to make His heart known. The singular message of the three parables is essentially, “Those who are lost and in need of Me are so important to Me, I am willing to invest My time to endure inconvenience, sadness, work effort, unpleasant circumstances, –or gossip and loss of reputation— for the chance to bring back what was lost (sheep, coin or son); in this specific case, “tax collectors and sinners”. I am not only willing to do it, I am HAPPY to do it, even though it doesn’t make any sense socially to do so. I do it for the reward of My own joy if they do respond to My efforts to save them, because I can’t bear the thought of going on without the lost one(s).”
But do the values of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, the restorations of which are so emphatically celebrated in the parables, lessen the value of the 99 sheep that were already where they belonged; the 9 coins the widow always had; or the son who never abandoned the father?
Luke 15:25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat [think: “cheap pizza party at home for just a small group”] so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ [think: “you put on a really nice barbeque with plenty for a big party”]
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Speaking as a shepherd, the 14 that were still in the barn when I had to leave them to go look for lost little David, were still VERY valuable to me. They just weren’t the urgent priority of the moment. Were any one of them lost, I’d have been out in the dark looking for them, too, for the same reasons. Never for a minute did one of the rest of my flock lose value in my eyes. I just didn’t need to look for them. It wasn’t necessary because I already had them, and being their shepherd did (does) give me a lot of joy. I was glad they were safe. But the emotional priority of the moment that put me into emergency mode, was the one sheep that really needed me the most just then. I think it is reasonable to assume the widow’s 9 coins were valuable to her, and the father’s son who stayed really was much loved. The shepherd, widow and father did not really demean the value of what they already had that remained present, faithful, not lost, by looking for what was. The emphasis of the story is the motivation of the searching, since it is Jesus’ response to those who could not understand why He would bother.
What is lost is valuable enough to the Searcher to be worth going to some trouble to get it back, and to even be Happy to be able to do it! Once something precious is restored, it is worth celebrating!!! Jesus was saying He was eating with the tax collectors and sinners because they were lost. They weren’t only “worth” the trouble to try to get them back, He was literally Happy to do it!!!! Those who love the Searcher, would share in His joy, not be envious of the lost who already suffered from having been lost.
Jesus feels the same way about you and your need for Him.