The Gospel of Luke, in chapter 15, has several parables (illustrative stories) told by Jesus to describe how badly God wants for us to be restored to a close relationship with Him. All of the parables tell of something or someone very valuable being lost, the owner determinedly searching for it, and the owner’s joy when it is found. The context is that the self-righteous religious leaders were complaining because Jesus hung out with “sinners” (verses 1-2). Jesus was teaching that God is specifically searching for sinners so that He can recover them.
The Lost Sheep: First, in verses 3-7, the lost one is a single sheep out of 100 sheep in the flock. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the pasture, even leaving them vulnerable while he goes out searching for the one. When he finds it, he carries it home, and cheers to all his friends and neighbors: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!“.
The Lost Coin: The second story, in verses 8-10, is of a woman who has 10 silver coins and loses one of them. (The coins were not just spendable cash; they were a part of her dowry sewn into her headdress and were of great sentimental value.) She turns on all the lights and sweeps the entire house looking for the one lost coin. Like the shepherd, she calls all her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her when she finds it.
The Lost Son: The third and longest parable, in verses 11-24, is the one that we know as the story of The Prodigal Son. The younger of two sons asks for his portion of the inheritance early (a grave insult to his father), then goes out and proceeds to squander it all until he is destitute and starving. He decides to drag himself home and beg for just a job as a servant, with no claim as family any longer. His father must have been watching and hoping for him every day since he left. We know that because the father saw him from a long way off and ran to meet him (cue the running-across-the-field-toward-each-other-in-slow-motion music!). Then the father threw a huge welcome-home party. (In the sequel in verses 25-32, the elder son who had stayed home the entire time was not nearly as enthusiastic.)
The first two stories end with a variation of the same line: “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy … over one sinner who repents.” In the Prodigal Son, the ending line from the father to the elder son is: “…we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.“
Think about those “sinners”, the outcasts who gave the leaders heartburn. They knew that they were lost and needed help. Imagine how welcome they felt when hearing that God was searching for them as diligently as the searchers in the stories! After being rejected by others, they were hearing from Jesus that God still wanted them back.
A friend has a story of “the worst 10 minutes of his life” when his 4-year-old daughter got separated from her parents at a state fair. The parents searched frantically before finding her happily watching a cartoon-character exhibit. What’s notable is that she didn’t know that she was lost! She was happy with the cartoon character; she hadn’t looked around to realize that her parents were out of sight; and she was too young to realize the danger that she could have been in.
The sheep probably didn’t realize that it was lost, either. It was just looking for the next blade of grass, without caring if there were dangerous cliffs or hungry wolves in the area. The prodigal son thought that he had it made, at first. He didn’t feel lost until he got hungry…but he was. And, in probably Jesus’ main reason for telling the stories, the religious leaders who looked down on “sinners” didn’t realize that they were lost also. They didn’t notice that, in their nit-picking over the details of the law, they were entirely missing the point. They had wandered far from the relationship with God that the law was meant to encourage.
As rebellious human beings, we all are separated from our Heavenly Father. None of us can find our way home on our own. We may be well aware of our problem, or we may not have realized it yet. We could think that we are handling life just fine all by ourselves, or we could think that we are in such a mess that we’ll never get out.
In these stories, Jesus is telling us that our Father knows that we are lost and will keep looking for us for as long as it takes. A couple of chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). This also refers back to a 700-year-old prophecy of the Messiah:
All of us like sheep have gone astray,Isaiah 53:6
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
That is the only real difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. Both are sinners who have been separated from God. God has been searching for both. The Christian has simply realized that they are lost, and has decided to accept being found. Only the one difference, but it’s a life-changing one!