The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son
We sin because we are sinners, and everyone is a sinner. But depending on the perspective, not everyone looks like one. Sin is deceptive. We learn to be self-justifiers, self-righteous, and self-affirming. But to be those things is to walk the path away from God. That is a path Jesus came to save us from.
In chapter 15 of his gospel, Luke tells the tale of two groups of people. Group One, the tax collectors and sinners, are evil and know it. Group Two, the Pharisees and scribes, are evil and don’t know it. Group One knows they don’t deserve Jesus but they seek him out anyway. Group Two thinks they’re better than Jesus so they judge his every move. They run him up the scales, weighing his actions against their many laws. He measures up to better than a sinner but worse than a Pharisee. He’s an in-between, not as bad as he could be, but far from perfect.
Group One is always welcomed by Jesus. He never shoos them away, hurrying to the next event. He lingers with them, asking for a drink of water from a well, entering their home for dinner, attending to their various illnesses. And Jesus’s patience with this group angers Group Two. But Group Two is always welcomed by Jesus as well. They, however, don’t really want him around. To them, he’s an interloper, a problem, a nuisance. He receives sinners and eats with them. He intentionally dirties himself in their presence, taking upon himself their filth. But what they don’t see is that the same Jesus who eats with sinners talks with the Pharisee. He comes into their space, enters their world, and calls all equally to repent and believe. Jesus receives all. Only one group, however, receives Jesus.
So Jesus takes his chance to show the heart of God to those who don’t know they need him. He tells them stories to sneak past their guarded hearts. And in so doing, he reveals to us today the massive heart of Christ for sinner and saint, for tax collector and rule-follower. He shows us how big the love of God really is.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin – Luke 15:1-10
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin are basically the same story. In each, something is lost, searched out, and found. Jesus is making a simple point. He came to search and find the one. He came to restore that which was lost. Charles Spurgeon put it this way, “The truth here taught is just this—that mercy stretches forth her hand to misery, that grace receives men as sinners, that it deals with demerit, unworthiness, and worthlessness; that those who think themselves righteous are not the objects of divine compassion, but the unrighteous, the guilty, and the undeserving, are the proper subjects for the infinite mercy of God; in a word, that salvation is not of merit but of grace.”
Since salvation is not of merit but of grace, God’s heart toward sinners is different than our heart often is. He’s not waiting for them to turn their lives around, he’s out there searching for them to bring them home. He’s on the move, even if they’re stuck in a cave or lost in the floorboards. He is not content on merely finding the lost one, he rejoices over its restoration. God searches for and finds the lost, one by one, until all his children are tucked safe in their eternal rooms. Then, he throws a heavenly party. Who would spend such time on one sheep or one coin? It seems excessive, doesn’t it? God’s love is like that: excessive, extravagant, lavish.
The sinners and tax collectors gathered around must have understood Jesus was referring to them. They were the lost sheep, the lost coin. Jesus had come looking for them, and they had been found! How many in the crowd had dined with him? How many had he healed? How many had received his smile, felt his touch, been warmed by his presence? And yet it was not to this group that Jesus directed his parables that day. He was not instructing the sinners. He was instructing the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes. The sinners and tax collectors had been found by Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes were still running from him.
They knew the law, but they did not know God. They looked at the letter and found rules to obey without seeing the heart to love. They ventured into the world with their Sunday best, shirt starched as stiffly as possible, Bible in hand, with a smile ready to produce. But their hearts were far from God because their hearts trusted in their good deeds rather than God’s good grace. Their mind was too occupied with obedience to see need. They were too full of themselves to be needy for Christ. They were lost and needed to be found. But they didn’t know it.
And Jesus was asking them a simple question: how far does God’s grace go? How far does his love stretch? How deep does it plunge? To the worst sinner? To the deepest depravity? To the best Pharisee? To the smartest scribe?
In each of these parables, Jesus includes two characters. The first is that which is lost. The second is the one who seeks. The lost must be found. But in each instance, the lost do not know they are lost. We have no indication the sheep understood his plight. He had no awareness of danger. He thought he was fine. The coin has no ability to see, it cannot understand, it doesn’t think. Each is lost, and each matters so much that the seeker leaves much to find the one.
The one who seeks wastes no time. The shepherd abandons the ninety-nine to look for the one. The woman sweeps the house over to uncover the coin. Time is not mentioned. Cost is not counted. All that matters is the one being returned to the many. And when it is, a party is thrown. It is not the sheep who stayed or the coins in the bank that were the cause of the party. It was the sheep that wandered, the coin that was lost. And everyone was invited to rejoice.
The Pharisees and scribes don’t know how to rejoice. Instead, when they see sinners coming to Jesus, they blame Jesus for being too lenient, not for being too gracious. They miss the wonder of his mercy thinking they deserve the party instead.
What about you? Can you rejoice in bad people being made good in Christ? Is there a certain test, designed by you, administered by you, and graded by you that one must pass to be included in God’s kingdom? The Pharisees and scribes had such a test, and Jesus couldn’t even pass it. Would your test exclude Jesus as well?
Jesus is calling the self-righteous to account in these stories. He’s showing us what his brother, James, said years later, “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son – Luke 15:11-32
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 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.’ ”
Two Ways to Live
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin prepare us for the parable of the prodigal son. Here, something again is lost. But we gain more insight. The lostness of the younger son is no accident. It is willful. He sins his way out of the house. But this story is about more than the son who left and came back. It’s a story also about the son who stayed and never entered. It’s a story in two parts, with two different ways of living, both taking us far from the Father’s heart.
The first way to live is seen in the younger brother. His is the way of rebellion. He leaves home, demanding his share of the inheritance early, a shocking request of his father, and to anyone else who heard. An inheritance is given at death, not during life. As the younger of two brothers, he would have been entitled to one-third of the father’s land and possessions. He’s basically saying to his dad, “I wish you were dead. I want my share now. I’m leaving.” And perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that the father gives it to him.
The younger brother’s way of living is what Tim Keller calls “self-discovery.” He says, “This paradigm holds that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention. In this view, the world would be a far better place if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and other barriers to personal freedom were weakened or removed.”
The second way to live is seen in the older brother. His is the way of self-righteous obedience. It is not obedience out of love for another, but selfish obedience hoping to gain something from another through good works. This way of living despises the father just as much as the rebellious life, but it doesn’t look like it. Outwardly, it is composed, obedient, good. But inside, it is a storm of manipulation and selfishness. This way of living doesn’t care about the father. It cares about the father’s stuff, just like the rebellious life. “Give me what I’ve earned,” it says, even though earning has never been the father’s intention.
Tim Keller summarizes the two kinds of living for us.
What did the younger son want most in life? He chafed at having to partake of his family’s assets under the father’s supervision. He wanted to make his own decisions and have unfettered control of his portion of the wealth. How did he get that? He did it with a bold power play, a flagrant defiance of community standards, a declaration of complete independence.
What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too, wanted the father’s goods rather than the father himself. However, while the younger brother went far away, the elder brother stayed close and “never disobeyed.” That was his way to get control. His unspoken demand is, “I have never disobeyed you! Now you have to do things in my life the way I want them to be done.”
The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled—but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons.
Do you realize, then, what Jesus is teaching? Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.
It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.
The Younger Brother
The younger brother is rebellious. His actions in the story are very bad, without any justification to lessen the offense. He essentially tells his father he’s dead to him, and he wants his stuff so he can go far away from his dull life. And the father gives him what he wishes.
Let’s not let the weight of that pass over us. The father would have had most of his money wrapped up in land. To give the son what he demanded meant he must sell a portion of his land. Handing his money to the son meant watching another man move onto his old property. Who knows how long it took him to gain it? Had it been in the family for centuries? What would it cost him socially?
The younger son does not care. He cares only about getting out of this dumpy town and getting to the big city. He wants to spend his inheritance living life his way. So he does. And it’s a disaster. He goes through the money relatively quickly and finds himself in a pig sty longing for the kind of food the pigs have. His way of living didn’t pan out the way he hoped. Our fantasies of wild living never do. Sin is painful, even if at the beginning it feels good.
Eventually, the younger brother comes to himself. His senses become ordered rightly, perhaps for the first time in his life. His desires are altered, his wants unhinged and rehung. He wakes up and sees how far he’s come. The mud of the sty becomes too much, and he begins walking home.
In his desire to get out of his father’s house, he risked every relationship at home for the false joy of living life on his terms. But it didn’t work. He had some laughs. He enjoyed some good times. But in the end, it brought him lower than the unclean animals. He ran as far as he could, and it still wasn’t far enough. The memories of his father’s house wouldn’t fade. Now, he knows he can never be a son again, but he understands. If only he can be a servant, he will be glad. He rises and goes. He wants to see his father.
What was the sin of the younger brother? Was it squandering his inheritance on wild living? Was it spending everything his father gave? Yes, those are sins for sure. But those were symptoms of another, deeper sin: the sin of wanting to be his own god. The younger brother’s deepest, most damning sin was his insistence on living without God. But in grace, the father would not allow his son’s sins to keep him from being his son. He covered them with his very own robe, bringing him back without even hearing his plea for mercy. He runs to him—a no-no for men of his stature in that day. He welcomes him home and throws a party. He was lost, and now he is found.
The Older Brother
The older brother would never do such a dishonorable thing to his father. But that’s not because he doesn’t want the same thing the younger brother wants. He’s just too cowardly to be so bold. His sins are subtle. He works long hours in the office, brings home enough atta-boys to keep his self-esteem high. But all the while, the same selfish desire for the father’s things rages inside. He’s awaiting his time to take hold, gladly accepting the role of the responsible one until the day draws near. The older brother is no better than the younger brother on the inside, though on the outside he appears obedient and loving. His sin is the same: he wants to be his own god. We see this in his conversation with the father as the party goes on inside.
Why did he serve his father? It wasn’t out of love for him. It was out of love for himself. His obedience was merely the gateway to the father’s things, not the pathway to the father’s heart. He was playing a game, one we all play at some time or another. We fall in line, doing what we must, paying our dues until the time comes at which we can grasp what we’ve always wanted. What we do is not done for the joy of doing it for the father. It’s done for the joy that will come when the father finally hands us his stuff. Tim Keller uses a story to illustrate this point.
Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overhead all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot—what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day that nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”
It is possible to serve others—even God—in order to serve ourselves.
The Father’s Heart
There is a striking change in this parable when compared to the other two. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, each lost thing is sought out. In the parable of the prodigal son, that element is missing. The younger son leaves home, and the father watches him go. No one goes looking for him. He comes home of his own accord.
Who should have searched for him? I believe that’s a question Jesus is raising. The Pharisees and scribes stood there with all the knowledge of the Bible without any of the evangelistic zeal of the Bible. They left the sinners to themselves when they held the good news of God’s grace and mercy at their fingertips. Why would they not reach out? Probably for the same reason the elder son wouldn’t. They didn’t want God as much as they wanted his stuff—in this case, the stamp of righteousness.
Jesus did not have to engage the Pharisees and scribes. He could have ignored them, left them, refused to speak to them. But he didn’t. Instead, he called them to repentance, not seeking that any should perish. But they wouldn’t listen. They had hardened their heart and would not yield to the Father’s wooing through his Son. Instead, they packed up their things and went to a foreign land. They refused to enter the party, wondering how those people could ever get in. They turned down the Father’s offer for the devil’s pledge.
As all grace does, the father’s grace to the older son is meant to push him into the house. But the son refuses. He doesn’t want to have a heart like his father’s because his heart has room only for himself. It’s not about what others deserve or don’t deserve as much as it’s about what he deserves and therefore what others cannot have.
These three parables show us one overarching truth: God loves sinners. And because he does, he sends his Son into the world to seek out and find the lost. Without God’s initiating love, we have no hope. We will either run from him in rebellion or stick close to him in self-righteousness, but we will never have salvation on our own. We may live within his walls but unless God comes to us in love and changes our heart we will never truly be home.
But Jesus is the shepherd looking for his lost sheep. He is the woman sweeping the house for the lost coin. He is the true elder brother leaving the father’s house to come look for the prodigal. He reaches all the way to the lowest, dirtiest sin, and all the way to the highest, ugliest self-righteousness. This parable is telling us one thing. When Jesus gets involved, no one stands a chance. He can clean anyone, from the self-righteous scoffer to the pigsty-dwelling rebel.