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'" (Luke 15:1, 2, NIV).
Jesus was in the pasture lands of Peraea speaking to a "mixed multitude/' (see The Seventh-day Adventist Commentary) most of whom were eager to hear what He was saying. But along with them were some Pharisees and teachers eager to catch Jesus in some wrong word or deed. Their principal concern seemed to be that Jesus spent so much of His time with common people, even fellowshipping with them on a level that they felt was improper. If sent by God, He should be spending time with them, not with the rabble.
"Strict Pharisees also considered the common people ... as 'sinners', beyond respectability."1 "They regarded themselves as educated, refined, and pre-eminently religious . . . ,"2 well above the lower classes. Some of these rabbis "were doubtless commissioned by the Sanhedrin to follow Jesus wherever He went, to listen, observe and report back."3
Jesus knows their thoughts, their grumblings, and what they would report to the Sanhedrin. But He does not openly condemn them. Instead, He tells three stories that have significance to this day.
Lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7)
In the uplands of Perea, raising sheep was a common occupation. Many of Jesus' listeners were shepherds. Years ago, one of the Sabbath School quarterlies gave this explanation about the shepherd and the sheep: "Sheep often remain with a flock for eight to nine years, long enough for the shepherd to name them (John 10:3) and for them to recognize their shepherd's own signature call (verses 3, 5). Furthermore, when the flock entered the fold at night, the shepherd held his rod across the entrance a few inches above the ground. As each sheep passed under the rod, the shepherd inspected it for injuries and illness. Thus the shepherd most likely could identify his own sheep rather quickly." The shepherd also counted his sheep and would know immediately if even one was missing.
Connecting these things with Jesus' story and entering deeply into it, we are able to see some of the characteristics of the search for the lost sheep and what was behind it:
1. The search was definite and purposeful, focused upon one lost sheep.
2. It was an all-consuming search. For the shepherd leaves his other 99 sheep and goes in search of the lost one in the surrounding countryside. He searches diligently and thoroughly.
3. This is an active, personal search—the shepherd does not call a hired hand. He him self does the searching.
4. It's a persistent search—the shepherd does not give up. He searches until He finds the sheep.
But what about the sheep? Does it know that it's lost? Yes. It's crying for help.
How did it get lost? Apparently it wandered away from its flock, not taking the path that would keep it safe.
Perhaps it was looking for greener grass.
Many of the lost sheep of today have wandered away not because they no longer believe what they did but because they have become careless or are too busy with the cares of everyday life.
For some it might have started one Sabbath when, overcome with weariness from work and worry, they decided to stay home and rest. These people are not angry, they have not suffered insult or indignity from others in the flock. They still believe. They know the Bible.
"The fact that the sheep became lost was evidently due to its own ignorance and folly, and once lost it seemed completely helpless to find its way back. It realized that it was lost, but knew not what to do about it."4
How many of our "lost sheep" are waiting for us to come to them, to encourage them, to invite them to return to the "fold"? They want to come back, but they need our help and encouragement.
What do today's lost "sheep" need? They need what the sheep in Jesus' story received: a deliberate effort to make contact, to have someone actually seeking to be in touch with them, someone to give encouragement in a particular time of distress and simply to show genuine caring. Shall we do as the shepherd did?
And what happens when the shepherd finds the sheep? Does he scold it? Beat it? Put a rope around its neck and drag it back to the flock? No. He picks it up and carries it back to the fold.And then, of all things, he celebrates.
Lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)
This woman had lost something precious. The coin was probably one of ten she received from her family when she married; a kind of dowry, something to fall back on.
Most women of Jesus' day had no voice in their future. Husbands were selected for them; some girls were betrothed as early as 12 or 13. A married woman was "owned" by her husband, who could treat her as he chose. But the dowry was hers to keep—the one thing that was hers alone.
If these coins were part of the woman's dowry, she would have valued them and done everything possible to save them, perhaps planning to pass them on to her daughter.
Maybe the woman of Jesus' story had moved the coins while cleaning the house. She probably kept them in a box or cloth bag, but somehow one had slipped out and gotten lost.
Probably these coins were drachmas. In Jesus' time, the Greek drachma was silver and approximately equal in value to the Roman denarius, a typical day's wage for a farm laborer. So losing this coin was more than a sentimental loss, it was also a significant financial loss.
In Jesus' world, the houses of the common people usually consisted of one room, often windowless and dark. The room was rarely swept, and a piece of money falling on the dirt floor could easily be covered by dust and rubble. Even in daytime, the inside of the one room was dark and dreary. The only light would come in through the open door, so a candle of lamp had to be used.
So this woman lights a candle and looks carefully around the simple furniture. But she sees no sign of silver. She removes the furniture, takes her broom, and begins to sweep. Every spot, every corner is swept clean.
Suddenly, with a rush of joy and relief, she sees a tiny glow of metal in one corner. She picks up her beloved coin, rubs it on her sleeve, and care fully places it with the other coins.
She has found that which was lost, and she rejoices, calling for her neighbors to come and celebrate with her. Apparently she had been so concerned about her coin that she had told them about it. Now they must be involved in the joy of the find.
But what about the coin? The coin did not know it was lost. It was the housewife's carelessness that caused it to be lost. And it was lost at home!
How we grieve for our children who have turned away from God. Have we sent them on that journey by our careless ways, our neglect of spiritual guidance, our lack of love and caring? What a tragedy to be lost in the midst of one's home and not know where one is! What a tragedy to be lost in the midst of one's church family and not know it.
What about those of us who come to church each week? Is it possible that we ourselves are becoming indifferent? Discouraged? Careless? Do we still study the Bible daily? Do we still pray? Do we simply take part in church activities and functions planned to encourage and support us in our walk with Christ? Have we become like those Timothy describes—"having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:5)? Are we perhaps about to drop to the floor and roll across it, ending up in some dark corner of the church where we will lie in what is a state of effective lostness?
"The lost coin represents those who are lost in ... sins, but who have no sense of their condition. They are estranged from God, but they know it not... even those who are indifferent to the claims of God are the objects of His... love. They are to be sought for that they may be brought back to God."5 We can reach out to these through prayer, friendly contacts, and encouraging words, giving them help when it's needed.
Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)
Then there's the story of the prodigal son, the lost boy. Here is a son who rebels against all he has been taught. He knows the rules but doesn't want to live by them. He knows right from wrong but resents parental restrictions.
In the time of Jesus' story, fathers, while still alive, sometimes divided their property among their sons, even though a father was not obliged to do this. According to Mosaic law, the eldest son was to receive a double portion of his father's estate. The younger sons would receive a single portion each. In this case, because there were only two sons, the elder son would receive two-thirds and the younger would receive one-third. In such a case, however, the property was to remain intact until the father's death.
So here comes the younger son, demanding his portion now. In essence this young man is suggesting that his father should die so that he can inherit what he considers right fully his, or at least give him his share immediately.
When we rebel, we usually go as far away from home as possible—so it was with the prodigal. He takes the proceeds from his inheritance and travels to a "far country." There he lives a high life until his money is gone and his friends along with it. In a land of famine, he is forced to work in a pigpen. The prodigal literally sold himself to a man, probably a Gentile who had little to offer him and who knew nothing of God.
He is hungry and no one cares. No one offers him food or shelter. For the moment, his ambitions in life are no higher than the swine's. He is reduced to extreme hunger and to longing for the pods he feeds to the pigs.
And so the young man faces reality and begins to think of home, where even his father's servants have it bet ter than he does. He is afraid of the reception he might receive if he goes home and wonders how he will be received. He hopes he may at least become one of his father's well-fed servants. So he decides he will go back and throw himself on his father's mercy, ask to become just one of the servants, and accept the results.
So he journeys homeward, bare foot and in rags, without that special ring that tells others he is part of a wealthy family, a ring he probably sold so that he could continue enjoying the good life.
And the father shows his love by his actions. He covers his son's embarrassment with his own robe, then calls for the best garment, the signet ring, and shoes—all signs of belonging to the family. Thus the young man is welcomed back into the family. The father not only demonstrates his love as he provides for the needs of his son but honors him with a feast.
This son represents those who have deliberately turned their backs on God. They choose to live as they please. They go as far away from God and church as they can get. They become absorbed into a way of life that is contrary to everything Christian. We usually think of them as being teenagers or young adults.
Even though they have "left," they may still be found on our academy and college campuses, seeking an education that will afford a prosperous lifestyle, while ignoring the God who wants to be a part of their lives. They are hard to reach, and it's only as they "come to themselves" that they turn back to God.
And so in Jesus' story, the prodigal returns, planning to ask that he simply become one of his father's servants. But the father doesn't give him a chance to finish that request. Instead, he receives him as a son. The son acknowledges his sin, and the father orders his servants to prepare a banquet.
But then there's a twist in the story, as it takes a direction different from the other two parables in Jesus' repertory. Here comes the elder brother from the fields, where he has been working to extend the wealth that would one day be his. He hears the music and feasting. "What's going on?" he asks. And when he learns that his father is giving a party for his despicable younger brother, he refuses to participate.
He probably feared that his father would not only take the prodigal back but give him another portion of inheritance, thus diminishing what the elder brother would receive.
The older son had served his father for what he thought would be his reward. As he speaks to his father, he seems to imply that his lot in life has been difficult. He has not been "merry" in serving his father, devoting himself slavishly to the work of the estate. So it is not surprising that in speaking to his father about the his brother's return, he sarcastically calls him "this son of yours," thus refusing to acknowledge his own brother.
And so the story closes with the father outside, pleading with the older brother to come in and rejoice with the family. In this pleading, Jesus describes His own pleading with the scribes and Pharisees. He loves them as much as He loves the "publicans and sinners."
We do not know the full end of the story. It is left to our imagination, and perhaps that is best, for Jesus had used the second part of the parable to tell the rabbis of their own refusal to acknowledge those who followed Him as brothers and sisters in the faith.
The lost sheep knows that it is lost and needs only to be encouraged and gently guided back to the fold. Friendly contacts, encouraging words, help in times of need, that phone call to invite them back—all are important. But most of all, we must find ways to lead them to fully accept the Shepherd.
The lost coin knows not that it is lost. It does nothing to save or find itself. But even as the woman sought diligently until she found her coin, we must seek and find those who have become lukewarm and do not know they are lost. We must begin by praying for them and for ourselves. We must search them out, surrounding them with love. We must encourage them, involve them in Bible study and positive activities so that they come to worship God and to know Him as their friend, their source of joy, and the one who empowers them to meet each day as it comes.
The prodigal son doesn't care that he is lost. He is caught up in life and rebels against the rules that are intended to guide him. The prodigal represents those who have deliberate ly turned their backs on God and do not even think of Him until they are in serious need or trouble. Someone has said that some men never look up until they are flat on their backs. That is the position in which the prodigal found himself.
These prodigals must make the first move. Like the father, we are to watch for them, pray for them, and be ready to run out to meet them, and with loving care bind their wounds, feed them, and rejoice with them because they have chosen to return home. We must accept them as they are, rejoicing that they have chosen to reach out to us.
Will we do this? Or will we be like the older brother, rejecting those who have been in a far country, who have turned their backs on God and His children? "God might have committed the message of the gospel, and all the work of loving ministry, to the heavenly angels. He might have employed other means for accomplishing His purpose. But in His infinite love He chose to make us co-workers with Himself, with Christ and the angels, that we might share the blessing, the joy, the spiritual uplifting, which results from this unselfish ministry."6 May God help us all as we reach out to reclaim lost members and bring new ones into the family. As this church looks for ways to reach out and touch the lives of others, may we be ready to celebrate with them as we welcome them home.
1 See The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary on Luke 15:1.
2 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 185,186.
3 SDABC on Luke 15:2.
4 SDABC on Luke 15:4.
5 White, 194.
6 White, Steps to Christ (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1892), 79. Italics added