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66. Parables of the Lost Sheep and Coin (Luke 15:1-10)
James J. Tissot, 'The Lost Drachma' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"1 Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.' 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 'Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep." 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin." 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.'" (Luke 15:1-10, NIV)
You can never escape criticism. Anyone who stands up and does something will be criticized. You'll be criticized fairly and unfairly. And if you retreat in weariness, then you'll be criticized for doing nothing. You can't escape criticism.
But criticism has a way of bringing out the best -- or the worst -- in a person. When Jesus was criticized, he responded with the most wonderful trio of parables in the Bible -- the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. And in them we catch a remarkable insight into the seeking nature of God.
Welcoming and Eating with Sinners (Luke 15:1-2)
"Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" (15:1-2)
It all began with muttering. The Pharisees and their cohorts, the teachers of their particular brand of Talmudic style teaching, were muttering about Jesus' choice of friends. The Greek word is diagongyzō, "complain, grumble (aloud)."621
For Jesus wasn't just attracting those interested in debating religious things on an intellectual level, or the niceties of the Law. Not just regular synagogue-goers, but a new crowd altogether, and not a traditionally religious one. They were gathering to him, Greek engizō, "come near, approach."622 And it wasn't just a few. Luke uses the descriptor "all." The Pharisees and scribes weren't used to rubbing shoulders with these people. They considered them unclean, and to associate with them would bring their uncleanness on a person. To hear Jesus, they had to associate with these offensive people -- and they just didn't like it. It wasn't at all comfortable -- and it reflected upon Jesus.
The groups mentioned were:
1. Tax collectors. These people were Jews where were considered traitors because they worked for the hated Roman oppressors. They had a reputation for being rapacious and unfair. Since the Roman tax farming system was run by contractors, not government officials, the chief tax collector would bid on the contract to tax a town or region. Whatever he could get over his contract price was his to keep. Then he hired local tax collectors on the same basis -- men who loved money more than reputation, men who took all they could get and kept whatever they were able to keep.
2. Sinners, Greek harmartōlos, "sinner," of one not careful in the observance of ceremonial duties, "unobservant or irreligious person."623 This term could be applied to immoral people, but also to those whose occupations were considered incompatible with ceremonial cleanness. It was the Pharisees' catch-all term to refer to the "others" who, unlike them, weren't careful to keep their religion with a legalistic rigor.
Once on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv I was talking with an Hasidic Jew. What about the Conservative and Reformed branches of Judaism in America? I asked. He sniffed: There is only one category of true Jews! And he represented the religious, traditional, observant remnant of true Judaism! I could tell that all others were despised.
And so flocks of tax collectors and "sinners" were rubbing shoulders with the religious elite, and they didn't like it at all. They followed the Rabbinical dictum: "Let not a man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him to the law."624
Jesus doesn't just tolerate them, they complain, he welcomes and eats with them. The word "welcomes" (NIV) or "receiveth" (KJV) is Greek prosdechomai, "take up, receive, welcome."625 There's nothing passive about Jesus' attitude. It is one of actively welcoming, of going out of his way to welcome people who might expect rejection from this famous teacher. More than that, Jesus eats with them, Greek synesthiō, "eat with."626 Table fellowship in Jesus' culture implies more than just a meal, but welcome and recognition. We see this in Revelation:
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat (deipneō) with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)
The passage just before the one we are studying here clarifies what it means to be a disciple, and ends with the phrase, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (14:35b). The tax collectors and "sinners" now know what it means to be a disciple, and are listening with all earnestness, much more intently than the Pharisees. And Jesus is responding to their spiritual interest by welcoming and eating with them -- building a special fellowship with many of these outcasts. He doesn't really care what the Pharisees think about it.
But Jesus is acting out the very character of his Father, so he tells three parables to help his hearers understand the Father better. We'll examine the first two in this lesson, and then the third over the two following lessons.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-6a)
"Then Jesus told them this parable: 'Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.'" (15:3-6a)
The Hebrews had been a shepherd people as far back as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their ancestors as well. Even though the economy had broadened considerably, sheep were still a solid part of their agrarian life. Sheep were raised for wool, meat, and for sacrifices in Jerusalem. A hundred sheep would be a fairly normal size for a small farmer.627
In Jesus' parable, the farmer is probably counting his herd at evening, as was customary, and finds one missing. No doubt he leaves the ninety-nine with a helper, and then goes off looking for the lost sheep until he finds it. There is no blame directed toward a straying sheep; the emphasis Jesus is making in this parable is seeking out something which is lost, finding it, and celebrating the discovery as a joyful event. We could read other things into the parable628 -- but to do so would be to miss the point Jesus is making. Israel is not the lost sheep here, but the tax collectors and sinners -- they are the lost sheep of the house of Israel Jesus is sent to (Matthew 10:6 and 15:24).
And so the shepherd joyfully carries the sheep back to the flock. I've heard some foolishness about the shepherd having to break a sheep's legs, but I've never seen it in any reputable source. The parable isn't about having to correct the sheep, but about the joy the shepherd has in finding his sheep.
Rejoicing over Sinners Repenting (Luke 15:6b-7)
"Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (15:6b-7)
It's time for a party, a celebration. The shepherd calls his friends and says, "Come on over for something to eat and drink. We're celebrating finding my sheep that was lost on the hills."
The sheep is a sinner, and the ninety-nine represent the righteous. This is the answer to the Pharisees where were grumbling about Jesus' welcoming tax collectors and sinners.
You are happy for all your sheep. But you take them a little for granted. It is when one is threatened and may be injured or killed that, worried and concerned, you search and search until you find it. Then you are so delighted that you must share your joy with others. Jesus takes this parable from real life reactions and now turns it to a spiritual application.
God rejoices, angels rejoice, when a sinner repents! There is a celebration for every victory, for every person who was in jeopardy and is now rescued. Jesus' redemption is no mass salvation, but one-by-one, person-by-person, name-by-name.
Jesus is on a search-and-rescue mission. That's what the Kingdom of God is really like. That was Jesus' mission. Is it ours? Is it yours?
Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (15:8-10)
Jesus tells a companion parable about a woman who has ten silver coins and misplaces one. Luke uses the term drachma, which is a Greek silver coin, about equivalent in value to the Roman denarius. We're not sure that the drachma was in circulation in Palestine during Jesus' ministry. But Luke's readers would know what a drachma was. It was worth about the same as a denarius -- a day's wages.
The ten silver coins might represent the woman's dowry, we're not sure. But for a peasant woman, that lost coin was very valuable. Palestinian homes often didn't have any windows. So to search diligently, the woman needs to light a lamp. She sweeps the house -- maybe the coin is covered in the dust of the dirt floor. She searches high and low. But finally she spots the glint of the coin in the flickering light. She reaches for it and holds it between her fingers. She is so elated that she rushes out and calls to her friends and neighbors. Come on over. We're celebrating my finding a lost coin.
A Matter of Focus
How we view these parables has a lot to do with how we view the church's mission. Is our job to take care of the needs of the righteous who have gathered into our congregations? Certainly. No doubt about it. But what about the lost who seldom attend? What about the husband of the faithful who stay at home to watch football? What about the people who now live in the community that surrounds the church building? Once church people lived there, but now the neighborhood has changed. What about them? What about their spiritual welfare? What about the lost?
What about those in our churches who seem to drop out of regular attendance? Who goes and searches for them until he finds them, and finds the reason for their straying?
What about the younger generation? Who will seek after them? What about the lost in Russia and Eastern Europe that spent two generations under atheism? What about mainland China and Japan? What about the Muslims? Who is seeking the lost? Or have we gotten like the Pharisees -- a bit superior and calloused to their eternal plight?
These three parables reveal God as a Searching Father, looking for the lost, actively seeking them, and rejoicing when they are found. An essential part of God's character is about extending mercy to the undeserving -- not only those who happen to stumble upon it, but an active program of seeking out the hurting and oppressed, the blind and the imprisoned (4:18-19). That is the message of the cross, the message of active love.
We disciples must become like our Master. We must have the same passion that he has:
"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (19:10).
Discipleship demands that if we have lost this passion we must regain it. If we lack this passion we must seek it from Jesus.
Scouring the hills,
Sweeping the house,
Actively intent on finding.
And, upon finding, breaking out in unrestrained joy --
Joy that invites friends to a party,
Joy that rejoices over finding and rescuing.
The joy of a shepherd over his found sheep,
The joy of a housewife over a found coin,
The joy of a father over a wayward son, now returned home.
Rejoicing loudly and passionately,
That is what discipleship is and demands of us.
For we, too, have been found by God.
We, too, have been the focus of a search-and-rescue mission.
We, too, have been the honored guest at God's party.
We, too, have become the searchers and rescuers and partyers.
Father, sometimes I take you for granted. Sometimes I forget how you brought me to faith as a boy of nine. Sometimes I forget to seek and search that is your nature. Sometimes I am too comfortable, too busy, too full of excuses to be like you. To put myself out to do what you are doing. Forgive me. Renew and restore in me your passion for the lost. In Jesus' sacred name, I pray. Amen.
"In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:1-10)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Why was Jesus' being criticized by the Pharisees and scribes? Was Jesus' mission to these outcasts active or passive?
- Compare and contrast the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. What are the similarities? What are the differences?
- What is the point of these two parables? How does it relate to the criticism Jesus had received?
- What is the chief lesson here for disciples? What are we supposed to get out of these parables?
- Identify the demographic groups in your community who, as a whole, are presently "lost" to Christian faith. Who in your community should be responsible to reach out to them? Who is their "neighbor"? What are you or your church doing to reach them?
- What are you or your church doing to reach the lost peoples of the world? Are you active in your church's foreign missions program? Why or why not?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Diagongyzō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 45.
 Engizō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 54.
 Harmartōlos, Shorter Lexicon, p. 9.
 M. Ex. 18:1 (65a), cited by Strack and Billerback II, 208; cf. I, 498f.
 Prosdechomai, Shorter Lexicon, p. 170.
 Synesthiō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 192.
 Jeremias, Parables, p. 133.
There are a number of references to lost sheep in the Old and New Testaments:
"I have strayed like a lost sheep..." (Psalm 119:176).
"We all, like sheep, have gone astray..." (Isaiah 53:6).
"My people have been lost sheep..." (Jeremiah 50:6).
"My shepherds did not search for my flock..." (Ezekiel 34:8, 11, 16, 31).
Jesus is sent only to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6 and 15:24).
"For you were like sheep going astray..." (1 Peter 2:25).
In Matthew's Gospel (18:10-14) Jesus uses a similar parable of the lost sheep to make the point that the Father is unwilling that any of "these little ones" be lost. In the so-called Gospel of Thomas 107, a sort of Gnostic lesson is drawn from the parable, that the shepherd loved the lost sheep (which was the biggest in the flock) more than the others: "Jesus said, The (Father's)kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety- nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'"
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