Lost and Found
Stories for sheep, coins, and father's sons
Luke 15:1-32
Text is from the New Revised Standard Version 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

verses 1-3

verses 4-7

verses 8-10

verses 11-32

Jesus and his Tax Collectors and Pharisees

        Along the way of Jesus' "Journey to Jerusalem (which began with Luke 9:51),  we come to this chapter which has been called "the heart of the third gospel" (L. Ramaroson, cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 1071). Here is sounded loud and clear the theme of God's love and mercy for sinful human beings. The three parables Jesus tells here are, except for the first (15:3-7), included nowhere else in the gospels. They are peculiar to Luke's account, part of a larger section (15:1-19:27),  which has been termed "the Gospel of the Outcast" (T.W. Manson, cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 1072). God cares about those whom others tend to despise and condemn.
        Indeed, in the proverbial "tax collectors and sinners" we have on one side of Jesus those most in need of love and mercy. They want to hear more. On the other side are the also-proverbial  "pharisees and scribes," who likewise need love and mercy, but... The stage for the three parables that follow are set by an offhand comment. How we hear what Jesus says in response to that comment depends upon which side of him we sit. The challenge of listening to the Word is to sit on both sides - to hear as though we are the tax collector, the sinner, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son (who, of course, we are), as well as to listen from the perspective of the pharisee, the scribe, the 99 sheep, the 9 coins, the older brother (who, likewise, we are). At the same time, can we keep focused upon the shepherd, the woman, the waiting father - upon Jesus?  Indeed!

  {1}     Now all    the tax collectors and      sinners were coming near to listen to him.
  {2}             And the Pharisees       and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
                            "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
  {3}                             So he told them this parable:


The Shepherd and his Hundred Sheep

       This is a risky parable. Is it really a rhetorical question with which Jesus begins it? Would a shepherd really leave the rest of the flock? The modern concept of "triage" demands of prioritization of needs. You can't save everybody, otherwise nobody is saved. A shepherd risks losing everything (unless, of course, there is a very good sheep dog or another shepherd to remain behind). In this image do we have a picture of Israel, that one of ninety nine whom God has been "going after" since its formation in the wilderness? If so, the image shifts and other characters are included.
         Note that in the parable the shepherd does all the work - seeking, finding, carrying, rejoicing, and creating a community of joy. What did the sheep do, besides wander off? Place this in tension with the theme of repentance that follows. There is "joy in heaven" over the "one sinner who repents." In Matthew 18:12-14, this element is missing. The concern there is with not causing children (believers) to stumble, as well as with reaching out to reconcile those who sin against you. Here there is an element of "double seek" included - the lost sheep is found and the sinner turns in the right direction. Both are important, though the stress here is upon the prior. One wonders, as the story closes, if the "ninety-nine righteous persons" really "need no repentance."

  {4}     "Which one of you,
                        having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
                                does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
                                        and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
  {5}                                         When he has found it,
                                                        he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
  {6}                                 And when he comes home,
                                                        he calls together his friends and 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.


The Woman and her Ten Coins

         The question beginning this parable is, indeed, a no-brainer. The risk is not in the seeking after the lost coin, but in identifying with the one who seeks - a woman, perhaps a poor woman. Certainly, if God is connected with the shepherd above, then what about with this cleaning woman? As before, it's the woman who does all the work in the parable - lighting the place, sweeping, searching carefully, finding, and creating a community of joy. Likewise, as with the story before it, the element of repentance is included. An inanimate object (the coin) does not turn toward the one who searches for it. But sinners can. This story is told only here in the other gospels, as is the case with the parable which follows.

  {8}     "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
                        if she loses one of them,
                                does not light a lamp,
                                              sweep the house, and
                                              search carefully until she finds it?
  {9}                               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 in the presence of the angels of God
                                                        over one sinner who repents."


The Waiting Father and his Two Sons

         The challenge of a familiar story such as this is to listen for something new each time we hear it. Of course, in a post-modern (post-Christian?) age, we can't assume all have heard it. The stage is set above with an offhand comment: Jesus "welcomes sinners and eats with them." How you hear this parable depends upon whether you sit with the tax collectors and sinners, or the pharisees and scribes. Though it seems obvious, don't quickly associate one camp with the younger brother, and the other camp with the older. It may be so, but Jesus tends to flip stories around on us, thus tossing our world upside down. Furthermore, this story is not like a television program which resolves a problem in an half hour. At its end, we are left wondering what will happen now. That's precisely where we enter the picture - how will we, prodigal or faithful, respond to God's love and mercy?
         What title do we give to this tale? The Prodigal Son? The Two Brothers? Or, like with that marvelous collection of sermons by Helmut Thielicke, do we call it the story of "The Waiting Father"? (1959, Harper & Brothers). All apply, for we can clearly see ourselves in both sons. Furthermore, we catch a glimpse of God in the father. Note that here, as opposed to the preceding two parables, the one who "lost" the son to a distant country did not leave behind the ninety-nine and go out to find the one. No, he stayed home, but his eyes never left the horizon, and when he saw his son in the distance, he raced out and met him half-way. Here the tension between seeking and repentance culminate. However, please notice that the father pays no attention to the "words" of contrition. It's the act of turning that brings joy. If anything, the father later seeks out and finds the older brother who, it must be said, is lost in his own far country.
         Interestingly enough, theologian Karl Barth heard something else in this parable. "We do not do justice to the story if we do not see and say that in the going out and coming in of the lost son in his relationship with the father we have a most illuminating parallel to the way trodden by Jesus Christ in the work of the atonement, to His humiliation and exaltation" (p. 23, Church Dogmatics IV:2, 1958, T&T Clark). Unlike the prodigal, our Lord didn't demand his inheritance from God, but still he left for a "far country." There he lived and died as a servant (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The homecoming of the son of man brought great joy in heaven, and created a community of joy on earth - the church (which holds out open arms to tax collectors and sinners, as well as pharisees and scribes). How, then, do these stories turn us?

{11}                 Then Jesus said,
            "There was a man who had two sons.
{12}             The younger of them said to his father,
                            'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.'
                                    So he divided his property between them.
{13}                                     A few days later the younger son gathered all he had
                                                                                         and traveled to a distant country,
                                                                            and there he squandered his property
                                                                                                            in dissolute living.
{14}             When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout 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 to his fields to feed the pigs.
{16}                                             He would gladly have filled himself
                                                            with the pods that the pigs were eating;
                                                                    and no one gave him anything.
{17}         But when he came to himself he said,
                            'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare,
                                                        but here I am dying of hunger
!
{18}                             I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands
."'
{20}         So he set off and went to his father.
                           But while he was still far off,
                                   his father saw him and was filled with compassion;
                                              he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
{21}                                                  Then 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 slaves,
                            'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him;
                                                   put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet
.
{23}                                                     And get the fatted calf and kill it,
                                                                        and let us eat and celebrate
;
{24}                                 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again;
                                                     he was lost and is found
!'
                                                                      And they began to celebrate.

{25}     "Now his elder son was in the field;
                        and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
{26}                         He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
{27}                                 He replied,
                            'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf,
                                        because he has got him back safe and sound
.'
{28}                                         Then he became angry and refused to go in.
                                                        His father came out and began to plead with him.
{29}                                                         But he answered his father,
                            'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you,
                                                              and I have never disobeyed your command;
                                                   yet you have never given me even a young goat
                                                                            so that I might celebrate with my friends
.
{30}                                 But when this son of yours came back,
                                                                    who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
                                                                                you killed the fatted calf for him
!'
{31}                                                         Then the father said to him,
                            'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
{32}                                                 But we had to celebrate and rejoice,
                                        because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life;
                                                                                he was  lost  and has been found
.'"


Other resources on this passage can be found at  "The Text this Week."
15:11-24 is retold in hymn format in the old song "Far, far away from my loving father."

comments 2001 Peter L. Haynes

sermons on Luke 15:1-10
sermons on Luke 15:11-32

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