Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son
These parables (Luke 15) teach many helpful lessons, but the primary message in all of them is that God has compassion for those who are lost and wants them to come back to him, and that we should share his heart.
I find myself wondering whether Jesus is referring to those who have never been in the fold or those who were once there and then left. But that does not appear to be Jesus’ concern. He simply addresses the reality that sheep are not in the fold, coins are lost, and children are not at home. People are lost, and this is of great concern to the God. If we are like God, it will concern us as well.
God’s concern is clear by his going out to search for the lost sheep and searching carefully for the lost coin. It is obvious by his watching for his son to return—note that the Father saw him while he was still a long way off (Luke 15:20). The parable also specifically says God was “filled with compassion” for his son when he saw him (v. 20). God’s concern for those who are lost is also indicated by the great joy he feels when they are found—sheep, coin, and son. In the latter case, his joy is spelled out in detail, including giving him the best robe, a ring, sandals, killing the fattened calf, having a feast, and celebrating. You can feel the joy of the statements, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (v. 24). This joyous sentiment is repeated in v. 32. God’s concern for lost people is clear from his going out to seek them, his compassion for them, and his rejoicing upon their return.
Jesus, of course, shared his Father’s heart, compassion, and concern for those who were lost. He demonstrated these values in the priorities and tangible actions of his ministry. For example, he welcomed sinners and ate with them (15:2). The Pharisees thought that was a reason for criticism, but it actually showed that Jesus shared his Father’s heart. His manner was such that tax collectors and sinners gathered around to hear him (15:1). I doubt any of the Pharisees were being overrun with sinners seeking them out, like Jesus was. Jesus’ concern for the lost is also evident in his relentless focus on preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, guided and reinforced by prayer (Luke 4:42-44). Notice this is what he said he must do (his “vision”, v. 43) and was also what he actually did (his actions, v. 44). On another occasion, after once again acting on his concern for those not in the fold, he stated his mission clearly: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus steadily persevered in his mission (8:1).
How are you doing on following Jesus in this? How is your church doing? I apologize for the abrupt transition, but it is imperative that we realize we are not merely making interesting observations about what Jesus did but are hearing the word of God and so need to apply it in our lives. Are you happy with your answer to those two questions?
One insight that may help us follow Jesus in his mission is to recognize that the sway of the ninety-nine can be extremely powerful. The sheep in the fold can so occupy us that we fail to go look for the sheep in the field. I’m not sure they intend to restrain us. They are doing what most all sheep do—seeking their own interests. I can hear church leaders and ministers talking about all the needs and demands placed on them by the ninety-nine and how they have no time left to look for the one. It is true that the ninety-nine have many needs, and God cares about those too. But as Cory Asbury reminds us, “the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God” leads him to “leave the ninety-nine” to chase down, fight for, and find those who have wandered from home. If we want to love like God, we cannot allow the sheep in the fold to so occupy us that we neglect the sheep who are lost. The logic of the parable indicates that it would have been obvious that you leave the ninety-nine to look for even one (15:4). It does not, however, seem to be all that obvious to us today. We easily get so busy with the sheep in the fold that we neglect the sheep in the field.
Jesus knows what it is like to feel the pull of well-intentioned sheep. In the aforementioned passage when Jesus was praying by himself, the people he had been ministering to looked for him, found him, and “tried to keep him from leaving them” (Luke 4:42). But after prayer it was clear to Jesus that he had to proclaim the good news of the kingdom elsewhere too. So he kept on going through the various synagogues preaching the good news (vv. 43-44). Today sheep still try to keep us from leaving them, but through the power of prayer and the power of the example of Jesus, we can resist inertia and deliberately act on the mission of proclaiming the good news to lost sheep.
Thankfully, there has been a resurgence over the last few decades of leaving the fold to do good deeds for others. We are not totally confined to the pen. For the most part, however, our forays out into the fields are focused on doing good deeds with little actual speaking of the good news of the kingdom. Jesus shows us that both are essential. We do not follow the concern of God and Jesus for lost sheep until we have both done good deeds for them and also told them the good news about the kingdom of God.
As noted, these parables have a lot to teach us about repentance and other matters. But their primary focus is on the attitudes of religious people who don’t view lost sheep properly. This is clear from the introductory verses that tell the occasion of the parable, namely, that sinners were gathering around Jesus and he was welcoming them (15:1-2). It is also clear from the ending of the parable of the lost Son, which is a rebuke to religious people with bad attitudes. We often cut that parable short, focusing only on God’s compassion for sinners who come home (vv. 11-24). God does have amazing love and compassion for such people. But the ending shows that real thrust of the parable is to contrast how God views sinners with the Pharisees viewed them. The Pharisees muttered over Jesus even spending time with them (v. 2), and their attitudes were like those of the older son (vv. 25-32).
Today, religious people sometimes have attitudes very much like the Pharisees. Those who are outside the fold can sometimes be off-putting in their attitudes, ways of speaking, and behaviors. We may not enjoy being around them. We may also resent new people coming into our group and diluting the attention we have received previously. We may even find ourselves questioning the sincerity of their interest in Christ, as if we know their heart motivations. All this sounds very much like the muttering of the Pharisees.
For the most part, however, I don’t think our attitudes are as bad as theirs. But then that’s not really the standard for comparison is it? Our calling patently is not to be better than the Pharisees. Our calling is to be like Jesus. It’s not enough to avoid being a Pharisee; we must be like Jesus. That means that if we avoid extremely ungodly attitudes toward non-Christians but still get so occupied with the ninety-nine in the fold that we fail to go out and serve and speak the good news to those outside the fold, we have still fallen short. Jesus’ actual ministry reflected the heart of God for sinners that the parables reveal. We must follow him outside the fold to both do the deeds that demonstrate God’s kingdom and to overtly tell them the good news of God’s kingdom.
Doing so will make God happy. Doesn’t it make you happy when someone shows interest in something that is important to you? The interest must be genuine, of course. They can’t be kissing up to us. But if they genuinely share our interest, we like it and feel favorably toward them. I believe God is joyful when we sincerely share his interest in lost his sons and daughters to the point that we go out to them. Though God is clearly pleased with his existing faithful children, the parable of the lost sheep specifically says there is more joy over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine who don’t need to (15:7).
This indicates one of the key ways we can start reaching out. We can develop a genuine compassion for people who are lost. We need to see through all the off-putting attitudes, talk, and behavior and recognize lost people as God’s creation, made in his image, though it is now marred. We need to feel the pain of God over the alienation between him and those who rightfully belong to his household but who have been deceived, defied him, and run away from home. If we can develop his compassion for those who are ignoring him, it will lead us to reach out to them.
Focusing on Jesus will help too. Jesus had his Father’s compassion for the lost, and it led him to reach out to them. He even deliberately resisted the sway of the crowds to make time to speak the good news to more lost sheep. Focusing in a balanced way on the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, will lead us to address all the things he did in his ministry—doing good deeds for others, speak good news to others, and teach those who do follow Jesus.
The last item in that list points to another thing we can do: training. Jesus not only did good deeds and spoke good news, he also trained others to do the same. He taught them, to be sure, but he did more. He trained them. He showed them what to do, gave them power to do it, and then sent them out to actually do it themselves. And he processed it with them afterwards (Luke 9:1-10; 10:1-20). Then, before he left, he commissioned them to continue his work in the world (Luke 24:44-49; see blog series on Great Commissions). Equipping people to continue Jesus’ mission in the world is what Empowering Subjects is all about (see more).
If you’re not satisfied with your answer to the questions above about how you and your church are doing at following Jesus’ mission, you can change that. Some of the keys are praying for and opening your heart to compassion for lost people, weighing your life and ministry by Jesus’ example of reaching out to the lost, and seeking training to do what he did.