The Lost and Found

August 20, 2020

By Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 10:51
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In Luke, chapter 15, Jesus beautifully expresses the heart of God in regard to salvation and restoration. He defends His association with sinners and challenges the attitudes of those who criticized and judged Him by telling three parables with similar storylines—the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. This post will cover the first two of these parables.

The story begins this way: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”1

The Pharisees and the legal scholars were criticizing Jesus for not only eating with sinners, but receiving them as well. They disapproved of His eating with them informally or accepting invitations to meals at their homes, but perhaps even more so objected to how He “received them,” meaning that He showed them hospitality, and it’s possible that He may have hosted meals for them.

The lost sheep

In response to the criticisms voiced by the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus defended and explained His actions in three parables, the first of which is one of the most widely known word pictures from the Bible: “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? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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.’ 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.”2

Jesus’ defense begins with the question “What man of you, having a hundred sheep…” While there are positive references to shepherds in the Old Testament, and God is called the Shepherd of Israel, in Jesus’ day, those who shepherded sheep were automatically classified as “sinners,” as their occupation was one of the trades that were considered disreputable.

Shepherds were often seen as robbers, as they led their sheep to graze on other people’s land; they weren’t allowed to be witnesses in trials; they essentially had the same low status as the hated tax collectors. Jesus’ opening statement was in itself a provocative one, as He’s asking the religious leaders to imagine themselves as shepherds—and sinners—which is not the way they thought of themselves. Jesus’ question is also asked in a manner intended to elicit agreement that every shepherd in such a situation would search for the sheep which is lost.

The lost sheep, even though it was only one out of one hundred, was important to the shepherd. It was lost and needed to be found, and when it was, the shepherd rejoiced. But the story doesn’t end there. “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.’3

The village community rejoices together that the shepherd who was searching for the sheep alone had returned safely, and that the sheep had been found unharmed. The Greek phrasing used to express that “he calls together his friends and neighbors” is sometimes used to describe an invitation to a feast. It’s possible that part of the community rejoicing would be sharing a celebratory meal together. The finding and restoration of that which was lost is cause for joy!

Jesus ends the story with: “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.”4 Jesus emphatically makes the point that God has great joy when someone comes to salvation. “More joy in heaven” would be understood as saying that “God greatly rejoices” over the sinner who repents.

In response to the criticism of His loving interactions with sinners, Jesus drew a word picture to show His Father’s love for all who need salvation, no matter who they are or what class of society they belong to. The Pharisees’ attitude, complaining about Jesus’ fellowship with sinners, is shown as being contrary to the nature and character of God. Rather than seeking out the lost sheep, the Pharisees advocated separating themselves from lost sinners.

This parable, like many others, is presented in the “lesser to the greater” format: If the lowly shepherd will search for and bring the lost sheep to restoration, how much more will God search for and rescue His lost children.

The lost coin

The parable of the Lost Coin is another reflection on the question Jesus asked in the first parable, only this time the main character is a woman. Women in first-century Palestine were considered inferior to men. In both of these stories, Jesus starts off with a bit of shock effect by making the protagonists people who His audience thought themselves superior to.

“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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”5

Most peasant villages at the time were basically self-supporting, making their own cloth and growing their own food. Cash would have been rare, and for this woman, losing the coin was apparently a significant loss. The intensity of the loss is portrayed when looked at in comparison to the first parable, where one sheep out of one hundred was lost. Here it is one coin out of ten.

Poor homes in Palestine generally only had a door and perhaps a few stones left out of the wall near the roof for ventilation, and there was very little natural light in the house. One can imagine the anxiety of the search, sweeping every place where the coin could possibly be with great care, moving furniture, and sweeping over and over again until it is found. In this parable the emphasis is on the diligence of her search.

Upon finding it, she calls her female friends and neighbors together to rejoice over the lost coin which was found. The phrase “rejoice with me” echoes the same words the shepherd said to his neighbors. The woman, like the shepherd, invites her friends and neighbors to enter into her joy at finding what was lost.

Jesus then repeats a phrase used in the first parable when He says, “Just so, I tell you,” or in other translations, “I say unto you.” This phrase is used throughout all four Gospels when Jesus makes an authoritative statement. In this case He uses it to proclaim: “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”6 Joy before the angels,” otherwise translated as “joy in the presence of the angels,” corresponds to the “joy in heaven” described in the first parable, expressing God’s joy at the lost being found.

The woman searching for the coin is an analogy of God’s diligence and effort in seeking the lost. If a woman who loses her coin will search so carefully to find it and rejoice so greatly when it is found, how much more will God search out those who are lost and rejoice when they are found.

These parables shed light on God’s view of redemption and restoration. Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, who criticized Jesus for the company He kept, God seeks to save those who are lost. He doesn’t focus on their social status, their wealth, where they come from, or how religious or nonreligious they are. He seeks them because they are lost and need to be found. He seeks them because He loves them and cares about them and wants to restore them to Himself.

God, through His Spirit, not only makes an effort to find the lost, but He then restores them as well, as seen by the shepherd’s sacrificial work of carrying the lost sheep to be restored to the flock. We can see that sacrificial undertaking in Jesus laying down His life for ours, as He saves and restores us to His Father. And when this happens, God greatly rejoices!

As God seeks out the lost, we are often the tools He uses in that search. One of our jobs as Christians is to share the gospel with those in need. Do we keep an eye out for those He may be leading us to? And when we are face to face with someone in need of God’s love and truth, do we take the steps necessary to witness to that person and to express His message?

Are we willing to be winsome, to show God’s love to all, including the downtrodden, the rough types, those who in today’s world are rejected and looked down upon? Are we willing to mingle with the lost in order to show them God’s unconditional love and salvation?

May we each emulate the nature and character of God in our interactions with those in need of His love and salvation.

Originally published October 2014. Adapted and republished August 2020.
Read by Jerry Paladino.

1 Luke 15:1–2.

2 Luke 15:4–7.

3 Luke 15:6.

4 Luke 15:7.

5 Luke 15:8–10.

6 Luke 15:10.

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