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“Seeking What is Lost” --- Luke 15


Many Christians think that parables are difficult to interpret, and this is probably due to the fact that at one point in His ministry Jesus specifically said that obscuring rather than revealing truth was why He was speaking in parables:

  • “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
  • Matthew 13:11-13

    However, Jesus only did this in a specific setting, and for a very specific reason. Within some of the large crowds that followed Jesus from place to place in the last year of His ministry were a number of people who were not really interested in learning spiritual truth. Among these were the religious leaders of the Jews who had already closed their hearts to His Jesus’ teaching. These leaders listened to Jesus’ teaching only in the hope of catching Him making a statement they could use against Him. Also in the crowds were a large number who only followed Jesus because they wanted to experience the miracles. These people had demonstrated they were not interested in the Gospel. Therefore, as an act of judgment, Jesus taught in parables at that time. He was conveying new revelation about the Kingdom of God. Since the larger audience only heard the parables and not His specific teaching about those things, they were unable to understand the parables.

    But normally, Jesus employed parables because they more clearly and powerfully conveyed a truth He was teaching than simple declarative statements would. Therefore, most of Jesus parabolic teaching is straight-forward and easy to understand. There are however some basic principles about parables that need to be kept in mind if one is to interpret them properly.

    First, a parable only conveys one idea. Therefore, a parable does not express either multiple ideas or complex ones (those that have various sub-points).

    Second, the stress in the story is at the end where the climax is found, and so we will not find the main idea at the beginning or middle of a parable.

    Third, if there is direct discourse (a dialogue between two or more characters) it is meant to crystalize the main point.

    Fourth, don’t stress the details. A parable is not an allegory; most of the details of the parable are chosen simply to provide a coherent story and don’t contribute to the main idea of the parable.

    I. The Setting of the Parables: (vs.1-3)

    As the chapter opens Luke writes, “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them’. So He spoke this parable to them, saying”. In these three verses Luke tells the readers that Jesus taught this parable in order to explain why He was relating to sinners as He did. Therefore the lesson in the parable is not meant for the tax collectors and sinners, it was meant for the Pharisees and scribes; who were religious leaders of the Jews. As such they had a shepherding role for the Jewish people and Jesus was going to give teach them something they were missing about their calling as shepherds.

    Tax collectors were singled out among the wicked because they were viewed as unscrupulous traitors to their own people; greatly profiting from Rome’s domination of Judah. The term “sinners” in Greek has as general a meaning as the English translation. It therefore referred to those who were characterized by indulging in the sort of lifestyle that was contrary to the Law of God.

    The grammar of the phrase “drew near to Him” indicates that Luke was referring to an ongoing pattern, rather than a single incident. Therefore it happened many times that sinners came to spend time listening to Jesus.

    The Pharisees and scribes objected to Jesus’ association with sinners because of their understanding of what it meant to be a holy person under the Old Covenant. They believed that the law taught that God’s people were not only to refrain from sin, but to completely refrain from associating with those who did sin. Their conclusion made sense in light of the revelation of Israel’s failures in the Old Testament. Over Israel’s long history they often intermingled with pagan nations; and that resulted in them picking up the sinful ways of those pagans. So, it was logical that they concluded that complete separation from such people was the only way to stay holy in God’s sight. Their understanding was right in one sense; God did want His people to keep their distance from sin, and from those who would lead them into sin. However, what the Pharisees were missing is that not everyone who is in sin wants to stay there. Therefore, they had lost sight of the virtue of helping those trapped in sin to find their way out so they could be made right with God.

    The Pharisees and scribes did not understand that Jesus did not associate with sinners in such a way that He joined in their sin. Instead, Jesus was simply being open to the approach of sinners who wanted to find forgiveness and acceptance with God through repentance, faith, and obedience.

    A factor that particularly offended the Pharisees sensibilities was that Jesus not only spoke to sinners, He ate meals with them and even hosted meals to which sinners were invited (the Greek term translated as “receives” implies that Jesus was the one who hosted). First century, Ancient Near Eastern culture had a different view of sharing a meal with others than we do in the 21st century. To people in that culture sharing a meal was a more intimate form of fellowship. It was something one only did with family and close personal friends. If a person invited someone they did not know that well to a meal it meant that one wanted to deepen the acquaintance. So Jesus was choosing to do what the Pharisees and scribes could only see as establishing close intimate friendships with sinners and thus to them it seemed obvious that in making this choice it was a repudiation of holiness. But Jesus’ parables were meant to illustrate for these religious leaders why they were wrong, and why reaching out to sinners was in fact God’s will for those who served Him.

    It is interesting to note that Jesus tells three parables, but Luke writes that Jesus “spoke this parable” (singular). This is because the three parables are all variations of the same basic story.

    II. The Lost Sheep: (vs.4-7)

    Jesus begins His teaching of the religious leaders with a parable about a shepherd:

  • “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance."
  • Luke 15:4-7

    Jesus begins the parable with the rhetorical question “What man of you”, which implies that any of his listeners would do exactly what the shepherd in the following story does. A flock of one hundred sheep would most likely be understood as referring to the sheep that belonged to an extended family, rather than just one nuclear family (unless they were wealthy). According to the parable, when the loss of the single sheep is discovered the shepherd leaves the rest of the flock to pursue the lost animal. Jesus tells us that the shepherd in the story naturally goes after “the one which is lost until he finds it”. This indicates that finding the sheep is a priority that dictates the way he invests his time. The story suggests that this persistence is what is to be expected in light of this loss. Normally when a single sheep was lost it was because it was too weak to keep up with the flock. In light of this the shepherd does not abandon the sheep because it is unable to walk back to the flock, he carries it himself. The role of the shepherd is pictured as one that involves expending whatever effort is needed to restore what is lost. When the shepherd returns home he gathers friends and neighbors together and they all rejoice that the sheep has been found. But why would a shepherd go through all this trouble and effort; and why does everyone rejoice when it is found? Because sheep were valuable, and the loss of even one was significant.

    In verse seven Jesus explains that just as a shepherd rejoices over recovering a lost sheep, so God rejoices over a sinner who repents and thus is restored to having a relationship with God. Heaven is a Jewish circumlocution for God (a circumlocution is an indirect way of referring to something; in this case it was employed to refrain from using God’s name inappropriately). Therefore it is not the angels, but God Himself who rejoices over the salvation of an individual sinner. This indicates the profound worth of a human soul.

    When Jesus refers to “just persons who need no repentance” (vs.7), He does so ironically. There is no such person. However, this is how the Pharisees and scribes saw themselves. The implication is that what truly pleases God is when someone acknowledges their wickedness, repents and is restored to God. This is far more precious to God than a large number of people who are content in their false sense of self-righteousness.

    III. The Lost Coin: (vs.8-10)

    Jesus next gives the second parable about a woman seeking a lost coin:

  • “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
  • The value of a coin was greater than the value of a single sheep. The coin that is lost is a drachma and was equivalent to a denarius (which was the average pay for a day’s labor). The reason this coin would have so much value is because in first century Judah, cash wasn’t plentiful. Most of the population was self-supporting; meaning that they produced what they had, used, or consumed. Very little would have been purchased at a market place. So if one did have cash it was very valuable and one would definitely be motivated to hold on to it. Not only is the item lost more valuable in itself, the ratio of the loss is more significant in this parable than in the last. Instead losing one out of one hundred, the woman in this parable has lost one of ten; and this heightens the sense of the loss that much more.

    Now we are told that in order to find the coin, the woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house. This reflects the realities of the day. Houses at that time had few if any windows and so a lamp would be needed in order to clearly see the floor. The woman sweeps because they did not have furniture like we do with drawers and cabinets and so the coin would most likely be on the floor. And since poor Jewish women did not often leave the home, she has every reason to believe it is still in the house. So, the woman’s hope is that in sweeping she will hear the coin move if she catches it with the broom.

    Jesus again includes the detail that like the shepherd, the woman diligently keeps up the search until that which is lost has been found.

    Also like the shepherd, the woman is filled with joy at finding the lost coin and invites her friends and neighbors to celebrate in with her in light of finding what had been lost.

    The reason again for the joy and jubilation is because the coin is something valuable that a person would not want to lose. And once again Jesus states what the parable represents; God rejoices over the repentance of even a single sinner. So the first two parables stress that just as human beings seek to recover things of value that are lost and then rejoice when they are found, so does God. The object of His concern and joy are human beings lost in sin.

    IV. The Lost Son: (vs.11-32)

    Jesus introduces the third and final parable by saying “A certain man had two sons” (vs.11). In this parable we see once again a heightening of the value of what is lost. A son is far more valuable than a sheep or a coin; and the ratio of loss is even greater; it is now 1 of 2 rather than 1 of 10 or 1 of 100.

    In this parable the figure of the father represents God, the older son represents the Pharisees and scribes, and the younger son represents the sinners who are coming to Christ.

    The parable itself is divided into two portions. The first portion is about the father and his younger son. This portion of the story relates to the sinful choices of the younger son:

  • “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me’. So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”
  • Luke 15:12-16

    In the first century, a father could either pass on his inheritance while he was alive or it could be done after his death. However, if it was done prior to the father’s death, the father still controlled the assets until his death even though those assets legally belonged to his heir. But whatever the father did it was his choice to make; not one to be made for him by one of his children. In that culture, the younger son’s request would have been absolutely shocking; it would have been equivalent to publically saying he wanted his father to be dead (vs.12). The point of observing this is that in the story, Jesus in no way minimizes the sin of the younger son. Jesus is not telling the story to suggest that the sinners weren’t that bad; the point was that they were still valuable in spite of the evil they had done.

    Since there are only the two sons; the younger one’s standard inheritance would have been one third of all that his father owned (this is because the eldest brother would get a double share and in this case that would equal two thirds of the total).

    Then we read in the story that the younger son “gathered all together” (vs.13). This expression meant he converted all the property to cash (which would have been even a further insult to the father). Next we read that the younger son “wasted” his inheritance (vs.13). The Greek word literally refers to scattering something randomly to the wind and thus conveys that he spent the wealth in the most meaningless ways he could. It is also said that the young man engaged in “prodigal” living while he wasted the inheritance; which means he acted recklessly as a person without any sense.

    After the money was all gone, we read that there was a famine. Because of this famine, work and money would be hard to come by and because of his reckless and wicked choices the younger son ended up serving a gentile, tending pigs, and even found himself envious of the food that the pigs were eating. All of this pictures the young man coming to absolute ruin. He had left a blessed life of privilege living in a wealthy family and now he did not even have enough to survive. He was living out the curse of God that would come upon disobedient Israelites. All of this would have been consistent with the real life experience of Jews who had betrayed their God and their birthright by pursuing a sinful lifestyle. Therefore the picture of the young man’s ruin reflected the experience of these repentant sinners with whom Jesus was associating.

    The story continues as the younger son comes to a critical realization:

  • “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’. And they began to be merry.”
  • Luke 15:17-24

    The story transitions from ruin to restoration on the pivotal observation that the younger son, “came to himself”. This expression is somewhat equivalent to the modern expression “he came to his senses”, except that it means to regain a proper moral/ethical way of looking at one’s situation. Therefore, the errant son had come to the place where he recognized his need to repent. His sinful choices had led him to ruin, and so he would confess his sins and seek out whatever grace his father might show him. His rehearsed speech indicates he knew he no longer deserved anything from his father; still his only recourse was to reach out to his father and ask if he might receive the opportunity to serve as a “hired servant” (vs.19). The position that the son seeks is actually lower than that of a household slave; because a slave was considered a part of the family. A “hired servant” was a day laborer who would only be employed for as long as the work lasted; and at the end of every work day one might be informed one wasn’t needed the next day. So his expectations are low, but his only hope is that his father might show him mercy.

    The reader should not make much of the fact that the father sees the son coming from a long way off, other than it is a necessary detail for the story. But the fact that the father runs to meet his son is unusual enough that the reader should take note of it, because it is certain that a first century hearer would’ve taken notice of it. This is because it would have been considered undignified for a father to run to his son; for it was the place of the one with the lesser social standing to do so. This conveys that the father is not concerned with how he is perceived by others, but acts out of compassion (an orientation that is the opposite of the Pharisees and scribes).

    The son next expresses his rehearsed speech of repentance to his father acknowledging his sin against both God and his father, and that he is no longer worthy to be treated as a son. The father in response calls to a servant to bring out the best robe in the household, and put it, a signet ring, and sandals on the young man. These items all indicated that the father was restoring the young man to the status of a son in the household (vs.22). In addition, the father calls for the slaughter and preparation of a fatted calf (vs.23). Even in wealthier households, the serving of a fatted calf was rare and reserved for the most festive of occasions. In the parable it serves to illustrate just how joyful the father is at receiving his son back. This would be far too big a feast for one family and would result in many from the surrounding community to be invited to share in the celebration (thus echoing the imagery of the heavenly celebration that Jesus referred to in the two previous parables - vs.7, 10). The father then explains the reason for the celebration; his son had in a sense returned from the dead. In the story the idea would be it was as if the son were dead; but the reality it illustrates is that those who are saved are rescued from spiritual death.

    The conclusion of the story, and thus the most central to the main point of the parable, revolves around the conflict between the elder son and his father over the return of the wayward brother.

  • “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
  • Luke 15:25-32

    Why the elder brother finds out about the celebration so late is unimportant, and is simply how the story is told. The point is that once the elder brother hears about the reason for the celebration, he refuses to participate. In the culture of the day, this son’s refusal to enter into the celebration was a profound insult to the father (vs.28). Therefore though the son sees himself as the obedient one; this choice demonstrates that in fact he is just as much in the wrong as his younger brother. But as with his other son, the father pursues the rebellious older son. The father’s choice to go after the elder son pictures why Jesus was giving this parable. He was reaching out in compassion to these religious leaders in the hope of restoring them to fellowship with God.

    In the elder son’s protest we see that not only is he self-righteous but that he feels like God owes him something for his faithfulness. The elder son also makes it clear that he regards the father’s choice to show grace to his brother as an insult to him as if his faithfulness meant nothing. The elder son’s comments about his brother paints a picture of him as the rebellious son, whom Deuteronomy (ch.21) teaches should be cast out (vs.30). The elder brother therefore is demanding that the father judge his brother rather than restore him with grace. This reflects the attitude of the Pharisees who believed that punishing sinners was the only just thing to do.

    The conclusion of the story has the father reminding the older son that the faithful one is assured of gaining his full inheritance. The blessing of the righteous is not threatened by the grace shown to the repentance sinner. In the story, the father reiterates why it was right to celebrate; because one whom they should all value and hold dear was lost and now had been restored.

    The parable closes without the resolution of the elder son making a choice to either recognize his error or continue in his rebellion. The reason is because here at the climax of the story the question lies before the Pharisees and scribes. God Himself is filled with joy that these sinful Jews are repenting and turning their hearts back to their God. If the religious leaders do not do the same they are choosing to suggest that God is wrong and they are right (as the elder son was doing). So the question hangs out there; would the religious leaders repent and acknowledge their own rebellion and sin, or not? The chapter ends with the question left unanswered.


    By the end of Luke’s Gospel we have the answer of the religious leaders; they did not repent but continued in their self-righteous rebellion to the point that they arranged for the murder of Jesus (their own God, incarnate).

    The question is what we will do with the revelation that God values human souls and desires to see them rescued from sin. Will we obedient cultivate compassion for the lost so that we are always ready to receive those who are willing to repent; or do we consider those less moral or well-behaved than us to be unworthy to be a part of our fellowship?

    Love in all its manifestations is putting others before ourselves. If we are to please God, we must share in His compassion for the lost and in His joy when there is restoration.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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