Thursday, May 31, 2012

The value of the beloved lost - Luke 15 - The lost sheep. The lost coin. The prodigal son.

Luke 15:1-2 (ESV)
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus loved the outcast. He loved radically, sacrificially, completely. His love was big enough to encompass the  scoundrels and sinners, even at the cost of his own reputation with the proper religious and conservative mainstream society. His life was a demonstration of the values of the Kingdom of God, the coming new order inaugurated in his life, planted in his followers by the Holy Spirit in faith, and consummated at his return in glory. His life of sacrifice heralded a new age where everything changes from the inside out. In God's just world, the last will be first.

Luke chapter fifteen, one of the most well known and beloved of the New Testament, tells three stories of Jesus' love for those found in dark corners and alleyways. Three parables illustrate the value of the lost and sometimes forgotten. God seeks the lost, forgives the repentant sinner, redeems the broken.

The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7)

The first parable is most closely connected to Jesus' listeners. He begins with a question, "which of you . . . ". He  had done the same at the beginning of chapter 14 (Luke 14:5 - see notes) to illustrate that these religious elite, no matter how judgmental, really do understand love and compassion when pressed. With his question, he graciously offers to his critics the opportunity to submit their hard hearts to his teachings.

He reminds them that the loss of even one of their sheep is enough for them to leave ninety-nine others to go looking for it. Upon finding the one lost sheep, they would call their friends for a party at their joy in its return. Jesus knows that even those who seem not to have compassion or joy would express it when personally moved. But God is much greater than the religiously repressed. His compassion for the lost is great enough to send his own Son among them. His joy at their salvation is enough for Jesus to endure the cross.

Hebrews 12:2 (ESV)
. . . looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Pharisees, who frequently had Jesus as a dinner guest, saw no value in Jesus spending time with those they called sinners. But Jesus says that the joy at one of those lost and forgotten people coming to salvation is greater than a thousand parties with the religious elite.

The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)

This story is very similar to the first. Jesus keeps his illustration in the realm of property rather than people. But this story is still one degree removed from the story of the sheep. While the first story asked "which of you . . .", this one asks the male listeners to imagine a woman who loses money.

The simple story begins with a woman in possession of ten silver coins. Each of these coins represent a day's wage. For the sake of our understanding, and keeping with the round numbers, we can imagine $1000 in ten $100 bills.

In our interpretation, we can imagine the woman discovers her pile of bills has been scattered by the cat, and only finds nine when she gathers them up.

The woman is not satisfied by finding 90%. Nine perfectly good $100 bills is not enough when she knows there is another somewhere in her house. In this moment, what is the value of that lost bill? It is marked with exactly the same value as each of the other nine, yet only the lost one would consume the woman's thoughts. Her search for the bill would be relentless until the bill was found. The one bill outside of her possession moves her more than nine in her wallet.

In the story, the woman calls for her friends to tell them about how happy she is at finding her last bill. Today I would imagine a Facebook status update combined with an instagram photo of the lost bill and where it was found. The other nine would hardly get a mention.

Jesus love was big enough to encompass the hypocrites and the religious elite. But his time and his attention was focused more ardently upon the lost and the forgotten.

Luke 5:31-32 (ESV)
Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

(That Jesus would use a woman to represent God in a parable yet again is notable in his culture. Click here to see the parable of the yeast for another example. Click here to read about Jesus and women in Luke.)

The Lost Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

The last of the three stories is the longest and most detailed. The first two were more like simple illustrations, each introduced with a question to suggest the listeners could relate. But the story of the prodigal son is a complete one, with characters and relationships and a plot. The story of the relationship of a father and his children is universal. In the prodigal son's brother, Jesus explores for the first time in the three stories what it might be like to be one of the nine other coins, or one of the ninety-nine sheep left in the man's search for the lost one. In the first two stories, the grumbling cynics are invited to relate to the character who experienced loss, as God does. But at the end of this story, the religious elite that judged Jesus at the beginning of the chapter find themselves in the character of the brother not lost. How will they treat their prodigal brothers?

In this story, a father's son approaches him for his inheritance before his time. In doing so, he trades the value of life with his father for cash, grossly under appreciating the true value of his father to the point of insult. To this ungrateful wretch, his father would be worth more to him dead than alive. This young man is lost before he even left. He is bankrupt before he even spends a penny.

People are not $100 bills, silver coins, or sheep. The first two stories were short and pithy illustrations. But the truth is that a relationship lost is far more complicated than a coin or a pet. The grief of betrayal runs deep. The scars of abandonment are long to heal. While the listeners may easily imagine searching widely for lost property, they may just as easily imagine a father wanting to write off a son such as this one for the pain he caused him. Though a few may lay themselves emotionally bare to search or wait, just as many fathers may have preferred to let the matter of their lost son go, rather than hold onto hope in a situation beyond their control. But this father's unconditional and patient love remains. Love always hopes.

The wretched son further insults his father by leaving with his money, and spending it all on parties and prostitutes. The amount of money he had judged as worth more than his father was not worth enough to invest or steward. He had not left for any reason but selfishness.

When a famine hits his land, he takes a disgusting labour job. Since pigs were considered ceremonially unclean animals to Jesus' audience, there probably wasn't a much more humiliating job Jesus could describe than tending to swine.

But the son comes to his senses. At this point of conviction, he still does not see his father for who he is. He imagines returning to him in desperation, hoping only to be treated well enough to survive as one of his father's servants. He imagines his father washing his hands of him. The son has certainly done enough for the father to be justified in doing so. But this father is exceptional.

The father sees the son returning from a far way off. His eyes have turned back to the road frequently since his son left. His father did not wait for his son to make it to the house. He ran toward him and met him on the road. Not only this, he embraces his son. Both the running and the embrace must have surprised Jesus' listeners, as a proper landowner with servants would certainly not be known to act this way. But this is a different father.

Before the son can beg for scraps, the father places his robe, ring, and sandals on him. These are the symbols of family authority. He is welcome back wholly and in every way. Not even a time of trial is suggested before placing him relationally and positionally back in the family exactly as he was before. Nothing is said of repayment of the inheritance squandered. Instead, the father pulls his servants away from their work and throws a party, giving his son the choicest dinner reserved for the most honoured guests.

The son stood before the father and his servants wearing his robe, ring and sandals, and smelling of pigs. He hasn't bathed or shaved. He probably didn't look like a guest of honour. But all is forgiven. His value is in the love of his father, not his own choices or material worth.

He is loved.

He is forgiven.

That is enough.

Luke 15:24 (ESV)
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

In all the time the younger son was gone, what did his older brother feel watching his dad spend so much time waiting and hoping for a brother that had abandoned them?

The older brother is the religious legalist. He is the loyal and the hard-working. Upon returning home to the party, it isn't joy for his brother he feels, but resentment that such attention was not being paid to him.

But the value of the older brother was no more in his faithful and consistent hard work than the younger brother's had been in his foolishness and wretched ingratitude. The father's love was enough for both, and it was in this love that both sons could find their true value.

And for the father, one son at home would never have been enough knowing one was lost. To suggest he was fortunate that he at least still had his eldest would have been an insult. He longed for the present relationship of his lost son. The redemption was even greater than the loss.

And here is where Jesus points his finger at the true feelings of the religious elite. It is not for the sake of righteousness that they are angered by the lost. It is self-righteous elitism that leads us to jealousy for the unconditional love shown to those who don't seem to deserve it.

If God's love can encompass the most heinous of sinners, what personal value or self worth can we then put in our own righteous acts? The truth of the radical love of the gospel is that our identity and value come to us as a gift from the unchanging love of our heavenly Father, through and through, from beginning to end. Whether we remain, or run away, or are returning in rags, his love and acceptance for us is sure.

This is good news for those of us in rags.

And for those that remain, we show our understanding of the love of our father when we show it sacrificially to our brothers and sisters in the dark corners and alleys. When we know our value is in the love of our Father, we are free to stop striving, give up, and rejoice along with him as our family returns.

Luke 15:31-32 (ESV)
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 19:10 (ESV)
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.


v2 – “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
v20 – the father RAN to his son.
We should rejoice at the salvation of the lost.

1 comment:

  1. Grandma has family lessons on the lost sheep and the lost coin. You’ll find them at: