The 3 parables we find in Luke chapter 15 are so magnificent because they teach us about God’s attitude to the lost. In them, we see the tremendous value which God places on lost people, and the efforts he will undertake in order to find them. These stories underline the gracious love of God for undeserving sinners. It’s so easy to become discouraged in our fallen world, full of rebellion and suffering and sin. These parables ought to be a huge encouragement to us, because they are a window into the heart of God, and his heart is one in which there is an infinite willingness to receive messed up people into his family. Yes, there are many forces of evil at work in this world, leading people astray. But there is another force at work, and that’s the power of God himself, who right now is active in the world seeking the lost, saving them, and every single person God saves brings him enormous pleasure and joy. Is that how you think of God? Well, that’s how God reveals himself to us here in Luke 15.
Of course, in each of the 3 parables something or someone is lost. There’s a lost sheep, a lost coin, and in the last parable there are two sons, both of whom are lost. This describes the human condition. Without Jesus as our King and Saviour, everyone is lost. It’s obvious that some people are lost. Think of man queuing up for his methadone, and he’s stolen from most of his family (even his own mother) and so no one wants anything to do with him. Think of the woman whose children have been taken away from her because she can’t stop drinking. Her life is in chaos. She is lost. Think of those who debts are so great they are feeling suicidal and have giving up hope of a normal life. Think of woman with an incurable illness, and is dying, with no sense of purpose or hope in her life. She is lost. Think of the prodigal son, having squandered his money, and without a friend in the world. He’s messed up his life. He’s made terrible choices. He is lost.
But the majority of people are lost and it’s not so obvious, and most don’t even realise themselves that they are lost. Think of the older brother in the 3rd parable. He is respectable and hard-working and probably attends church, and on the outside, everything is going well. But inwardly, he is every bit as lost as his brother. He is self-righteous, bitter and a stranger to God’s love. Think of your neighbour who has a good job, goes on lovely holidays, his kids are doing well at school, and he’s enjoying good health. He doesn’t realise it, but he too is just as lost as the addict, because God has no place in his life, and he has never been forgiven by God. He is lost. Or the woman who is well-liked at work, and goes out a lot socialising with her friends, and loves shopping for new clothes. But she has no real understanding of the meaning of life, what will happen when she dies, and never thanks God for anything. She is lost. The Pharisees Jesus is speaking to are lost, even though they think God must be pleased with them. How wrong they are! They are every bit as lost as those they look down on.
Can we really say everyone without Jesus is lost? ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…’ ( Isaiah 53:6) Perhaps you’re listening now, and you’re not a Christian yet. Then you are lost. You’re lost because you are staying away from your Creator, ignoring how he tells us to live in the Bible, and refusing his Son, whom he calls us all to follow. You might be someone living with Christian parents, and you attend church, and read the Bible sometimes, but you are lost, because at the end of the day you turn to your own way, rather than God’s.
Why does Jesus tell these parables? It’s because the Pharisees come and criticise Jesus for spending time with people they reject and shun and cross the street to avoid, ‘tax collectors and sinners’. We know that tax collectors were hated as they worked for the enemy. They were collaborators with the Romans. They were loathed for selling their souls to the enemy and for preying on their fellow Jews. ‘Sinners’ were those who didn’t go to the synagogue, and didn’t know or care about God’s law, and lived in an overtly immoral way. People like prostitutes, adulterers, drunkards and the lazy who refuse to provide for their families.
1. Two contrasting attitudes to messed up people.
What is the Pharisees’ attitude to such people? They are cold and harsh towards them. They don’t value them. They don’t care about them. And they just can’t get why Jesus would want to spend time with wasters like that! They have an ‘us and them’ attitude. God is pleased with us, and displeased with them. The Pharisees want to keep far away from people like that.
Jesus does the exact opposite. In spite of all their brokenness, he wants to be close to them. He shares food with them, something which shows that Jesus values them and recognises their worth. Jesus is warm and loving towards them. What a contrast!
What’s our response to the broken and vulnerable and lost? Are we just like the Pharisees, keeping our distance? Or are we like Jesus, and we spend time with them, and pray for them, and long for them to come and know God for themselves? What a challenge. Perhaps we are more like the Pharisees than we’d like to think.
God’s heart is all about seeking and saving the lost, and if that is his outlook, then it must be ours as well, both as a church and as individuals.
‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:10)
‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.’ (1 Timothy 1:15)
‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21)
Terry Johnson says: “Jesus was willing to seek out sinners. He was willing to search for them, rub shoulders with them, to interact with them, to persist in pursuing them, that they may be saved.’
2. The lost sheep
Sheep are known for wandering away into great danger. They are short-sighted, in that they go from one bit of grass to the next, oblivious of the danger. They are seldom able to navigate back to the flock. If they become cast, falling onto their backs, then they cannot get up. They are defenceless and can’t even flee quickly from predators. Jesus is saying that people are like lost sheep. They don’t know the true meaning of life is to live for God’s glory so they wander from one thing to the next, whilst all the time they are in great danger. They are unable to save themselves and desperately need a good shepherd to rescue them. A good shepherd will do all he can to find and save that one sheep! If that’s how a good shepherd behaves for a wayward sheep, how much more ought we to search after lost souls, lost people?
In the parable, we are the lost sheep, and God is the shepherd. Even though it is just one person that is lost out of a hundred, God so values the lost one that he searches and searches until he finds it. Because even that one person has enormous value to God. And he loves the lost deeply, and will move heaven and earth to save even one lost person. He will go out to the wilderness, brave cold and heat, and cliffs and gorges and at great personal cost. Friends, this is what God is like. He so loves lost individuals in this world that at enormous personal cost he became one of us, lived in our world, experienced all kinds of suffering, rejection and misunderstanding, and died on Roman cross and all with the express purpose of restoring our relationship with God.
This parable speaks of the enormous value which God places on lost souls. It speaks of his compassion for the broken, the messed up, for those who have made a right mess of their own lives and the lives of others. In Scottish culture there is no basis for the value of the unborn, or the elderly, but as Christians we know all people have infinite value as they have been made in God’s image and are precious to him. Perhaps you need to hear this fact this morning: you are precious to God.
God’s love is not a fluffy sentimental love which sighs from the distance. He rolls up his sleeves and gets involved in our lives. He breaks into our lives, often through hard circumstances or by placing a Christian alongside us who starts to explain things to us. Terry Johnson comments: ‘We are placed in just the right place at just the right time, to hear what we needed to hear.’ God is looking for us. That’s what God is like. Think back to Adam and Eve in the garden. It was Adam who was hiding from God, and it was God who came looking for Adam. It’s always God who takes the initiative, and sadly it’s a pattern that human beings like us hide from God. What a blessed thought- God is actively seeking the lost.
And when God finds the lost there is a party in Heaven. There is rejoicing. There is cosmic celebration. That’s what happened when you became a Christian. That’s astonishing. When the broken and the miserable and the guilty and messed up come back to God, this is a source of huge delight to him. Imagine the tens of thousands of Celtic fans celebrating Celtic winning back the league. Football isn’t really that important, but many of us get excited about it and rejoice when our team wins. As a church, I want to see us rejoicing far more seeing sinners baptised, becoming members of the church, so that we can rejoice along with Jesus and the angels in Heaven!
3. The lost coin
I once lost my wedding ring. I was recycling tins and cans and it slipped off my finger into a large recycling bin. Being chivalrous, I climbed inside the bin to search for the precious object. It meant so much to me. I couldn’t just leave it there without trying to find it. When I found it I really did rejoice. I was climbing out the bin shouting over to Sarah, ‘I’ve got it back!’
In the parable, the woman greatly values the lost coin. It’s a really tough job to find it as the Palestinian houses were dark, with the only light coming in from a circular window, about 18 inches across. To make matters worse, the floor was covered with dried reeds and rushes. It was like trying to find a needle in the proverbial haystack. God is like the woman in this story and people are like the lost coin. He values lost people so much that he will go to great lengths to find them.
The coin will not be found unless the woman goes looking for it and finds it! Lost sinners will not be found unless God goes after them and finds them. It’s God who must take the initiative, as lost people are spiritually dead, and unable to come to God in their own strength.
‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…’ (John 15:16)
‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9)
‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ (1 John 4:10)
In verse 2, the Pharisees and teachers of the law are muttering: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ For them, this is something to criticise Jesus about. For me, and for all Christians, the fact that Jesus welcomes sinners is the best news in the world. Far from being something to criticise Jesus for, it ought to be something we worship and thank him for every day. Jesus welcomes sinners. I’m a great sinner. That must mean he’ll welcome me if I come to him for mercy. This is the good news.
Darrell Bock: “Believers should be engaging the lost in meaningful relationships. Often in a church, however, I see the opposite. We withdraw from multitudes for fear of compromising our testimony. As a result, there is no one around to testify to! Evangelism requires time and energy, like the shepherd’s and woman’s search, in order to capture the lost. Some searches even take years, but our Lord calls us to get out among people and build the relationships that allow us to draw others to God. In our fast-moving, busy culture, developing such relationships can be hard. The best opportunities come from work, school contacts, and neighbours. In each case opportunities exist that can lead to deeper relationships.”
We can go and form intentional relationships knowing it doesn’t all depend on us: God is at work, seeking and saving the lost!