Part 1: Why these parables were told, the Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin.
(There is a further podcast set lower in the text.)
Luke Chapter 15 English Standard Version*
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.” So he told them this parable: “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 neighbours, 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.
“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 neighbours, 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.”
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. . . “
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother © Parva Press
Part 1 – The reason why these parables were told and the first two parables explored
First, have you noticed the key to understanding this series of parables?
No other writer records the series of parables recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. The Reformers taught that the key to understanding the whole chapter is in the door. The key is the murmuring of the scribes and Pharisees recorded in the opening verses.
‘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.” So he told them this parable . . . ’
The vivid word pictures of the shepherd searching for his lost sheep, the woman searching for her coin, the father welcoming his lost son and the angry displeasure of the elder brother, are all of a piece; a single ‘parable’ answering the murmuring of the scribes and Pharisees. By this series of pictures, the Lord was showing the scribes and Pharisees who he was and why he was mixing with ‘sinners’. He was also showing them, as in a mirror, their own religious but hardened hearts and greatly mistaken reaction to himself and to what he was doing.
Once we have grasped this, we will be saddened when we find these parables divided up and regarded simply as a collection of useful gospel pictures to be used without reference to the murmuring which opens the chapter or to the elder brother at its conclusion. Like me, you may well have heard many talks on each of the first three stories and very few on the elder brother.
Why did Luke think it so important to record the presence of the scribes and Pharisees?
Throughout his ministry, the gospel writers record that the scribes and Pharisees were keeping an increasingly hostile watch on the Lord Jesus. Many of his later, recorded conversations and parables were specifically for their hearing; to show them who he truly was, how they were behaving and the consequences of their rejection of him.
From the start, the religious leaders in Jerusalem had had their attention drawn to the son of Mary. Zechariah, the priest who was to become the father of John the Baptist, was on duty in the temple. As he burned incense, the Lord God assured him that his barren wife would have a son. He was full of doubt and, as a sign, was spectacularly struck dumb. Such an incident would have been drawn to the attention of those in authority. As would his equally spectacular release from that dumbness as, in obedient faith, he named his new-born son ‘John’; a name quite unknown in his family. Filled with the Holy Spirit of God, Zechariah prophesied that the Lord God was about to visit and redeem his people Israel, and that this child, John, would be the Lord’s herald; going ahead to prepare his way.
The godly Simeon had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. As Jesus’ parents brought the infant Jesus to the temple for Mary’s purification, Simeon publicly proclaimed him to be God’s salvation, ‘a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel’. The widow Anna, who spent her life praying and worshipping in the temple, came into the temple at that time and gave thanks to God and publicly spoke of Jesus to all ‘who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’.
When Jesus was about twelve years old Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem. Attention was again focussed on him as he amazed the teachers in the temple by his questions, his wisdom and his understanding. Years later, the religious leaders sent a delegation from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist why he was baptising, and specifically about John’s own role. John drew their attention to Jesus, who was now about thirty years old. He declared Jesus to be the one whose way he was preparing. He also declared him to be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ and, ‘the Son of God’. In the light of his father Zechariah’s prophetic words, these were statements that could not be ignored.
So the Lord Jesus was a marked man from his earliest days and the scribes and Pharisees made sure that they always had representatives present. You can see this official presence in the crowds carefully recorded by the gospel writers throughout his public ministry.
Could he be the true Messiah?
There was an air of expectancy about the appearance of the Messiah and yet there had been many false claimants. Was he, Jesus, the true Messiah? The scribes and Pharisees were sincerely trying to discern the truth. They had seen him heal the sick, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. They had seen him set free captives to demonic spirits and had witnessed the common people flocking to hear his gospel – all of these were signs of the promised Messiah as foretold by Isaiah.
So many of the promised signs had been fulfilled and yet his ministry was, in the religious leaders’ view, ‘irregular’; he was not one of them. Further, he was clearly not the man to fulfil their nationalistic hope of a restored Israel, free from the yoke of Rome. And, perhaps most significant of all, he was constantly suggesting that their own religious leadership fell far short of being faithful shepherds of God’s people. He was, in fact, posing an increasing threat to their dearly held position of privilege and of power.
Here in chapter15, Luke records the Lord Jesus surrounded by the very lowest of society; tax-gatherers and sinners. He was mixing with them and even honouring them by eating with them. How, reasoned the scribes and Pharisees, could a truly ‘religious’ man associate with such people? How could a ‘righteous’ man so contaminate himself? How could the true Messiah of God eat with traitors, fallen women and the like? Their murmuring was not so much a grumble or complaint that he was doing so, but rather they murmured as they confirmed one another in their resolve to reject him as the promised Messiah. Their hearts and minds were hardened against him and they justified their rejection of him as they saw the people with whom he mixed.
‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ The scribes and Pharisees intended this as a slur so that they could discount him, but, actually, they honoured him by drawing attention to yet another of the hallmarks of the true Messiah. The prophet Ezekiel foretold the day when the Lord God himself with his Messiah, under the figure of David, would tend and shepherd his flock – a flock so neglected and abused by his appointed under-shepherds as they grew fat and pampered themselves. (A clerical vice not entirely restricted to Biblical times!)
With the commendable aim, as they saw it, of wanting to please God, the religious leaders kept themselves ritually clean. The Pharisees were the ‘separated ones’ and had the ultimate aim of presenting themselves to the Lord God, ‘perfectly righteous’. So, by their own logic, of course, they could never mix or associate with fallen men and women, let alone eat with them, for they would become ritually unclean; contaminated themselves. However, here before them was the Lord Jesus among the most despised and soiled of society; tax-gatherers for the Roman overlords and fallen sinners; mixing with them and eating with them. The Pharisees would never do such a thing; it would ruin their righteousness! They could accept a penitent sinner crawling to them for forgiveness but to go amongst fallen people seeking their restoration, as the Lord was doing, was offensive to them and quite beyond anything they would consider.
But the Lord Jesus cared about such people; bothered with them (and I for one am grateful that he did, and still does!) The religious leaders had no heart or sympathy for that. Theirs was an exclusive religious club or order – the great danger of the church in any age.
‘This man receives sinners . . .’ Here was the truth of God on the lips of the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord Jesus was bothering with the tax-gatherers and sinners precisely because he, the true Messiah, ‘came to call sinners to repentance’ and he ‘came to seek and to save those who were lost’.
It is into this situation the Lord spoke the three parables of the lost, rescued and reinstated, and the one parable of the elder brother – to show, as in a mirror, the slavish self-righteous attitude of the murmuring scribes and Pharisees.
The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother © Parva Press
Part 1 – Continued, the first two parables explored
The Shepherd and the lost sheep
The picture of the shepherd looking after his flock of sheep was a very familiar one to Jesus’ hearers. The local terrain was open, rugged and at certain times of the year very dry, so the shepherd must constantly lead his flock from one place to the next, searching for the best possible feeding area. The future King David spent much of his youth out on the hillsides looking after his father’s sheep; continually leading them to fresh pasture and with rod and staff, sling and stone rescuing them and protecting them from wild animals. Although in the West, our pictures frequently show a single shepherd with his sheep, Eastern shepherds rarely worked alone, there would be a group of them, as Luke records there were out on the hillsides on the night of the angel’s announcement of the birth of the ‘Savour who is Christ the Lord’. So, when Luke refers to, ‘leaving the ninety-nine in the open country,’ almost certainly the main flock of sheep could be safely left in the care of fellow shepherds or the hired men who were there to help the family member, such as the youthful David. As the owner’s representative, he would be the chief and responsible shepherd and so it would fall to him to give account of the sheep and to lead any search or rescue. On safely recovering a lost sheep, his return, full of joy, may well have been to the men looking after the main flock but, if he was long delayed by the rescue, could have been to the family at home.
What, then, is the relevance of the picture to the grumbling scribes and Pharisees?
The tax-gatherers, with whom Jesus was mixing, were not honourable men but men who made themselves very rich by exacting the tax due to the Romans from their own countrymen – plus as large a ‘handling charge’ as they could . . . for themselves. They were fleecing their own kith and kin to pay the hated, occupying Romans and to line their own ample pockets. Hated, fallen men – regarded as thieves and traitors. And yet Almighty God bothered with them; sent his Son, the Good Shepherd, to seek and rescue men like that.
The Lord mixed not only with tax-gatherers but with socially-outcast sinners of every kind; men and women whose appetite for money or sex – or whose desperate search for relief from the endless, grinding poverty – had caused them to fall. I do not suppose they meant it to end up this way, but, just like the nibbling sheep going from one green tuft to the next, ‘one thing led to another’ until here they were in the gutter of society, social outcasts, lost, despised and in great danger.
‘Which one of you . . . ?’ a call put his hearers in this position, the scribes and Pharisees first but ourselves too, as Luke’s readers. It is as if the Lord were saying, ‘Which one of you – maybe, like King David in his youth, out on the hillsides with a few hired men and personally responsible for the family’s sheep; a hundred of them – which one of you would fail to bother with the one that strayed, would fail to seek and search until you could bring it safely back. Of course you would – and that is what I am doing. And all heaven rejoices over each precious, rescued, restored, repentant person. And will you, murmuring, self-satisfied, self-righteous religious leaders fail to rejoice?’
Would such a picture reach the closed and hardened hearts of these men who so prided themselves in being ‘not as other men’? Had the scribes and Pharisees listened to Moses and the Prophets, on whose writings they were regarded as experts and interpreters, God’s prophet and spokesman Isaiah would have taught them that, before the One with whom we have to deal, all our righteous deeds and efforts are as ‘filthy rags’. Noble and godly Isaiah, confronted with the majesty and glory of the Lord, found himself ruined, lost and undone. He would have taught them that we have all gone astray as lost sheep; that we are all in need of repentance and of the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Before Almighty God, the hard and compassionless, proud and self-righteous religious leaders did need to repent – just as much as the tax-gatherers and sinners they so despised. However, their own preferred but mistaken teaching was that by meticulous law- keeping they could make themselves ‘not as other men’; so good, so religious, so perfectly acceptable before God as to need no repentance – hence the irony of the Lord Jesus’ reference to the ‘ninety nine who need no repentance’.
What is the relevance of Jesus’ picture to us as Luke’s readers today?
We, too, can be like the sheep – prone to wander from the flock of God, from the ways of God and, but for the grace of God, from God himself. Just following our desires, be they fleshly or worldly . . . or wearing the clothes of religion, like sheep nibbling from one good patch of grazing to the next, we, too, can end up very far away and in very great danger.
How many of us have known good folk, friends, colleagues or family members, who have strayed from godly ways. Like grazing sheep, they have been drawn away in the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, a career or, perhaps, power and influence, drink or drugs, until they are so immersed in these that God and walking in his holy ways are long forgotten. I do not suppose for one moment they intended it to end up this way, it was just appetite, ‘one thing led to the next’; just like the sheep nibbling from one green patch to the next.
The Son of God at great cost searched and rescued then and he does so now. He welcomes, forgives and restores straying, lost sheep – could that be one of us? Just as a shepherd is listening for the feeble bleat of a lost sheep, so the Lord Jesus’ ear is open to our cry for mercy and for rescue. Taste and see the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents – far greater than over ninety nine persons who, like the scribes and Pharisees, proudly imagine they need no repentance.
On one occasion a Pharisee invited the Lord for a meal, but failed to give Jesus the customary Eastern courtesies of a kiss, an anointing with oil and foot washing. To the Pharisee’s disgust, a ‘sinner’, a fallen woman, let her tears fall on the Lord’s feet, wiped them with her hair and anointed them. The Pharisee concluded that Jesus was no prophet or he would have known the kind of woman she was. But actually, she was showing her love and faith in the one who alone could rescue and forgive her, a love so conspicuously absent from the Pharisee’s attitude toward Jesus. To the fallen woman Jesus said, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ . . . ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace,’ – and the Pharisees at the table with him were left to ponder the question, ‘who is this, who even forgives sins?’
Consistently, the scribes and Pharisees murmured. But the angels of God, all heaven, rejoice over each sinner who repents; each person who, in Henry Lyte’s words, is, ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.’
The woman diligently searching for her lost coin
“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 neighbours, 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.”
Again we must ask how did this picture speak to the murmuring scribes and Pharisees?
Was the coin part of her dowry, or a coin she wore as jewellery, or just of great value in a society where bartering was the common practice and money very scarce and rarely used? We do not know. But the woman regarded that coin as exceedingly precious and so she spared no pains in her search until she found it – just as the Lord Jesus was doing with these fallen, lost, but exceeding precious people.
Zacchaeus, the little man who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus, was a very rich, chief tax-collector. When the Lord ‘bothered’ with him and went to his house, they murmured, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But after Zacchaeus had clearly ‘turned from his ungodly ways’, Jesus said of him, ‘Today, salvation has come to his house, for he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’
Matthew, the gospel writer, was also a tax collector. After he had been called, he invited Jesus and his disciples for a meal and they were joined by many other tax-collectors and sinners. The self-righteous Pharisees were not slow to question Jesus’ willingness to eat with such people. But Jesus replied, ‘Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’
Can this picture speak to us in our day as Luke’s readers?
Because of its weight and its shape the typical coin will, by its nature, just fall and roll under or behind something that will hide it from view. In the same way, we love to excuse ourselves by claiming, ‘it is just the way I am’ or ‘just the way