Through a series of three parables, Jesus laid out our assignment to seek and react to the restoration of others just as God does.
Source: Providence Collection, GoodSalt.com
One of the most challenging aspects of Jesus Christ's invitation of "Follow Me" is revealed in Luke 15. Here, Jesus uses three parables that build on one another toward one powerful climatic conclusion.
Jesus' underlying purpose in the passage is to open our horizons to experience emotions as God does. He lays out in this chapter the important assignment that allows us to not only know and believe the gospel or "good news" He brought, but to experience joy over good news within the broader gospel—to literally rejoice alongside God when others who "were lost are found."
"This Man receives sinners"
Let's step up to the front of the crowd gathered around Jesus as the chapter begins and hear directly from Him.
Those assembled are a diverse group—drawn to the young Rabbi by His unique teachings and healing touch. His wide audience spans religious folks who think they've heard it all and know it all to those who believe they've compromised their lives so much and for so long that God's door has seemingly been closed in their faces. Yet here is a man who speaks of hope and redemption and a way of return to God not expressed by others.
Thus, "the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him" (Luke:15:1). And at the same time, "the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, 'This Man receives sinners and eats with them'" (Luke:15:2).
The starchy, well-to-do (at least in their minds) religious folks here are aiming not merely to diminish the rest of the audience and pummel them back into place, but to tarnish Jesus' reputation. They're basically accusing: "What are they doing here? Who let them in!" Well, guess who?
Going after the one
Jesus looks around and surveys their hearts—indeed, all hearts. He knows what needs to be spoken and commences with "What man of you . . . ?" as He proceeds to share the story of the good shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to "go after the one which is lost until he finds it" (Luke:15:3-4).
As Jesus' audience understands, every sheep is precious, and at day's end when all the shepherds come home from the field except one, the entire village knows what he is doing. A sheep has gone missing. The man is out there and won't come home until he secures the little one. Anxiety and anticipation runs through the village until his return, for the wilderness is fraught with challenge for both the sheep and his master.
Jesus concludes the story with the shepherd appearing with his little one that was careless and strayed, the hero proclaiming, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!" (Luke:15:5-6). The man solicits a communal and collective response from all who understand what has just occurred.
But then Christ magnifies the example of the strayed animal and figuratively opens a window to heaven, exulting, "Likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" (Luke:15:7).
Searching until she finds it
The body language of some in the audience, however, shows that Jesus will need to go further.
"Or," He then says, introducing a new story of a woman who loses a single silver coin among a collection of 10—possibly her dowry collection—and proceeds to turn her house upside down and inside out to find it. He comments how she will "light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it" (Luke:15:8).
All of us can identify with this when we've lost a wallet, purse, keys or vital documents. When she finally recovers that which is valuable to her, she's unable to keep such thrilling news to herself and says to all her friends and neighbors, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!" (Luke:15:9).
Then Christ again gives us a peek into God's throne room: "Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke:15:10).
As before, the story elicits thoughts of sustained focus and energy, because "the search is on," and nothing but finding that which is lost is truly satisfying. And this is to be shared and experienced by others in a communal and collective response, knowing we have all been there ourselves.
Narrowing down to one on one
Jesus now moves to yet a third story, delving deeper to give His answer concerning the initial tension between the "do-gooders" and the castigated sinners of His audience (recall: "What are they doing here?").
Up to now we've been dealing with analogies of livestock and money, precious as they may be. The contrasts presented have been one out of a hundred and one out of ten. The sheep was careless and wandered off, and the coin was lost, not on its own but by someone else. The lamb and the coin couldn't return by themselves. They had to be sought after, as they were—with results.
But now Christ sharpens the focus to one on one, person to person, as He tells the story of a father and his prodigal (wasteful, reckless) son.
The son asks for his inheritance up front before his father dies (Luke:15:11-12). The problem is not in what he asks and the portion given. It's what he does with it. Leaving home, he blows what he's been given on "wine, women and song," and His life crashes down around him by his own doing—made worse by a famine (Luke:15:13-14).
He ends up feeding pigs—a loathsome task for a Jew—and comes to a point where the food he dispenses to them looks pretty good and more than he could hope for (Luke:15:15-16).
"But when he came to himself . . ."
The young man has finally hit bottom! Verse 17 mirrors the experience of all who begin to make their way back from the abyss of human nature: "But when he came to himself . . ." It's then that he states, "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 . . .'" (Luke:15:17-19).
Then, one of the most beautiful scenes in Scripture follows in verse 20: "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" (Luke:15:20). An embrace for the ages! The father had never closed his door and waited with the same anticipation, hope and fortitude that mirrored the energy of the shepherd and woman of the previous parables regarding their loss.
And is it any wonder concerning the father's joy when his son humbly confessed to him in verse 21, "I have sinned against heaven [that is, God] and in your sight, and am not worthy to be called your son"? (Luke:15:21)
So often repentance is incomplete and evaporates because we are simply saying we're sorry to those in front of us to gain momentary favor rather than seeking forgiveness at the highest level from the Giver of life. Until we readily address that highest level of relationship and start there first, we're doomed to stay on the treadmill of human disappointment.
The father is overwhelmed and fully reinstates his son as a family member. The father desires all to know that his son is back in place—just like the previously mentioned lamb and coin—and everyone is invited to experience his joy alongside him (Luke:15:22-27).
But is everyone happy? No! His brother is furious. The story says: "But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him" (Luke:15:28). He complained to his father: "Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time . . . But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him" (Luke:15:29-30).
The father replied: "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:15:31-32).
Revelation and inescapable conclusion
This trifold lesson leaves us with one incredible revelation and one inescapable conclusion for those who would take up Jesus' invitation to "Follow Me."
First, these parables reveal a God who literally seeks after those precious to Him. He remains an active force and intervenes in our lives. This revelation by Christ separates our Heavenly Father from any humanly manufactured deity. No other exists with this quality of seeking after what others have given up on! Only His love can love the unlovable, help the helpless and give hope to the hopeless.
Our God is One who seizes the initiative to guide us back to Him. He is at work in incredible ways that we cannot fully fathom. But we can grow in faithful assurance that when we or others have strayed, He is still seeking after us.
Secondly, the inescapable conclusion here is that God desires that we rejoice alongside Him as He rejoices. This comes by appreciating and embracing the mission Christ revealed of Himself in Luke:19:10: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
Thus, we must reject the view of the scribes and Pharisees and the older brother of Luke 15. It's not our job to choose the members of God's family. Rather, it's our job to accept them. Perhaps it's only in having been lost and apart from God ourselves and then being found and rescued by Him that it's possible to rejoice in the finding of others.
Christ continues to search hearts just as He did that day recorded in Luke 15, when He was surrounded by a skeptical crowd belabored with all their issues. Perhaps the antidote for what's bothering you about someone right now—maybe wondering how God could ever use him or her—lies in a story attributed to President Abraham Lincoln.
The Civil War was in its last days, and the North was the apparent victor. An aide approached the president and inquired, "What shall we do now that the South is conquered?" Lincoln replied, "I will treat them as if they never left."
Embrace that thought. And embrace the joy of the shepherd, the woman and the waiting father as you rejoice with God as He rejoices in finding the lost.