Parables of Lost Things


Luke 15 is probably one of the most familiar chapters in the Gospels. Almost everybody knows the parables it contains, even if they don’t know they come from Luke 15. The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son are all part of this amazing chapter.

Some background

Dishonest tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus’ sermons; but this caused complaints from the Jewish religious leaders and the experts on Jewish law because he was associating with such despicable people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1, 2 TLB)

These “publicans and sinners,” as they are referred in older translations, were despised by most Israelites of Jesus’ day and generally ostracized. The religious leaders – the Pharisees and the teacher’s of the Law – would have nothing to do them in any way. In fact, these religious leaders didn’t even care about their souls and made no effort to reach out to them to bring them into their religious circles. So you can imagine how they felt when they saw Jesus eating and having fellowship with them, not once but on numerous occasions. They were shocked and scandalized. They complained about it and gossiped about it to the point where our Lord had to deal with them. He did so by telling three parables; the three parables everybody knows.

Or do they? Let’s see.

The lost sheep, Luke 15:1 – 7

In fact, there aren’t really three parables here, but one long one with three parts. So, let’s look at the first part, which deals with a lost, wandering sheep. Most people think this part of the story is about a lost sheep, but the focus of the story is not the sheep but the shepherd. Maybe a more accurate title for this segment of Luke 15 would be “The Seeking Shepherd.”

This story would have been an old, familiar one to Jesus’ listeners that day, for they all would have been able to picture the Oriental shepherd doing his job. We have no such picture today. Do you know a shepherd? You probably don’t. The care and concern the shepherd had for his sheep was well-known back then, if not today.

“If you had a hundred sheep and one of them strayed away and was lost in the wilderness, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine others to go and search for the lost one until you found it?” (Luke 15:3, 4 TLB)

“If you.” The fact is, because you’re probably not a shepherd and you probably don’t know one, you probably will just have to take Jesus’ word for it. But to His listeners, what Jesus said made all the sense in the world; they would have been able to completely identify with the shepherd of the story. Jesus also said this, which you can relate to:

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. (John 15:13 NKJV)

This is the idea behind the story of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s care and concern for it. Only a heart of love could lead a man to risk his very life in the dangerous, barren, animal-infested wilderness, at night, looking for a single sheep that foolishly wandered away from its pen.

And then you would joyfully carry it home on your shoulders. When you arrived you would call together your friends and neighbors to rejoice with you because your lost sheep was found. (Luke 15:5, 6 TLB)

This is the point of the story: the shepherd is thrilled and overjoyed that he found his sheep. He was so happy, he told everybody about it.

How do we relate this back to the questionable people Jesus ate with? They were Jews. They belonged to Israel just as much as the Pharisees did. Jesus, the ultimate Shepherd, wasn’t going to treat these “backslidden” Jews like others did. He, like the shepherd in the story He told, saw these men for what they were: Jews that needed to be brought back into the fold of the faith.

The lost coin, Luke 15:8 – 10

“Or take another illustration: A woman has ten valuable silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and look in every corner of the house and sweep every nook and cranny until she finds it? And then won’t she call in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her? In the same way there is joy in the presence of the angels of God when one sinner repents.” (Luke 15:8 – 10 TLB)

It may not seem like it, but this part of the story means exactly the thing as the first part. But this time, the focal point is the woman instead of the shepherd. If you can’t relate to a shepherd, then you can probably relate to this woman who lost a valuable coin. In fact, it wasn’t just a valuable coin, it was a valuable coin that probably had great sentimental value. More than one Bible scholar has noted that this coin was probably part of a set of coins that made up a headpiece signifying her marriage. Think of that coin like a very expensive, precious weeding ring. How would you feel if you lost it? Panicked? Scared? Would you feel like you let your spouse down? Well, that’s how this poor woman felt.

No wonder she was so thrilled when she found it. Thrilled, relieved, and overjoyed; all things she shared with her friends and family.

Once again, this story of the lost coin relates back to the shifty tax collectors and people of dubious reputation that Jesus was known to hang around. That coin was part of a set, just like the lost sheep was part of a group penned up, just like those “sinners” Jesus associated with were part of the Jewish nation. And just like the shepherd and the woman, Jesus was determined to reach out to those people who were being shunned.

The lost son, Luke 15:11 – 24

This is story is the crown jewel of stories. How many sermons and movies have been based on it? How many times have you heard (or maybe said) the phrase, “the prodigal’s come home.” Well, here’s the whole story.

“A man had two sons. When the younger told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die!’ his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.” (Luke 15:11b, 12 TLB)

Now remember, Jesus is still trying to teach us something about His curious habit of dining with questionable people involved in questionable activities. You can’t divorce this story, or the preceding two, from that purpose. Obviously this parable is much longer and more complex than the other two, but its major point is the same.

This parable is actually made of two parts, each part focusing on the two sons with the main focus of each part on the father’s interaction with them.

The first son

A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there wasted all his money on parties and prostitutes. (Luke 15:13 TLB)

The first son was not the bright one, obviously. He was selfish. He wasn’t interested in remaining part of a loving family. He wanted to go it alone; live life to the fullest, his own way. Old Blue Eyes himself gives us the best commentary on this lowbrow son, using the lyrics of Paul Anka:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and ev’ry highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do,
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course,
each careful step along the highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

That’s about it. It drones on for a couple more verses, and ultimately we get the picture of a guy who made a pile of mistakes in his life but kept on plugging ahead, living life his own way. Yes, it’s song for losers. And the so-called Prodigal Son was a total loser. He left his home. He left the security he had. He left his family. And for what? He wasted his inheritance and was left with nothing.

The boy became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the swine looked good to him. And no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:16 TLB)

Actually he had less than nothing. He had no money. He had no friends. He had no hope. He had no prospects. So he did what any good son would do: he decided he should go back home.

So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming, and was filled with loving pity and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20 TLB)

It’s the reaction of the father we’re supposed to be taking careful note of. Like the shepherd and the woman, this father was overjoyed that his formerly lost son was coming home. More than that, the father went to extreme to show his prodigal son how happy he was:

But his father said to the slaves, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. And a jeweled ring for his finger; and shoes! And kill the calf we have in the fattening pen. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has returned to life. He was lost and is found.’ So the party began. (Luke 15:22 – 24 TLB)

Love covered the sins of the prodigal with a blanket of the forgiveness. Sharp-eyed Bible readers have probably noticed that the father is slightly different than the shepherd or the woman. He didn’t leave home to seek out his son. He let the son go of his own free will. This father knew the son wouldn’t come back unless he wanted to. What we need to note is the father’s love for his son and the fact that the son never stopped being a son to his father. The prodigal knew he could come back home; that in some way he would find acceptance. And so God seeks those who have wandered away from Him. The backslider – the shady tax collector and notorious sinner – will always have a home with God if they come back.

The second son

In Act Two of this little drama, we meet the other son.

The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to; and in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after spending your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have on the place.’ (Luke 15:28 – 30 TLB)

And who could blame him for feeling this way? He did everything right and his father never threw him a party! It is this second part of the story that drives home Jesus’ point. Without it, our Lord’s purpose in telling these stories might be lost or not clearly understood by His listeners. The first son, the prodigal, represents the outcasts of Jewish society – those “publicans and sinners” – all those who had been shunned. The other son represents the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law, and all the truly devout Jewish people who had never lost faith; who faithfully kept the faith no matter what.

Again, it’s the father’s response that’s the focal point:

“ ‘Look, dear son,’ his father said to him, ‘you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours. But it is right to celebrate. For he is your brother; and he was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ ” (Luke 15:31, 32 TLB)

The father’s love for his son was not lessened by the return of the prodigal. Just look at how the father reacted when the elder son refused to go into the party: the father came out to the elder son.

The application of this great story is immediate yet far reaching. When combined with the other two stories, we get a clear picture of how God feels about those who appear to be no longer associated with the rest of His people. Specifically the infamous “publicans and sinners,” the kind of disreputable people Jesus rubbed shoulders with. Like the prodigal, though their sins may have been many and grievous, and though they lived on the outskirts of Jewish society, Jesus was reaching out for them, offering them forgiveness if they return to the family in true repentance.

The same thing is true of the backslider; the one who has appeared to leave the faith. God the Father never gives up on them. He seeks them out, ready and willing to take them back.

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