LOST AND FOUND
“Their grumbling triggered this story, ‘Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in all your friends and neighbours saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it – there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than of ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.'” Luke 15:4-7 (The Message).
Jesus’ stories always had a target audience. Sometimes they were used to teach and other times to expose wrong thinking or bad attitudes – especially of His religious opponents. In Hebrew thought, parables were intended, not for information but for identification. Who am I in the story?
This story was one of three, called chain parables. There was a theme running through them, except that the third story had the punch-line. In the first two, Jesus spoke of lost property, a sheep, a coin, of value to the owner. In both stories, the search yielded success – the valuable property was found and the owner called on the neighbours to celebrate. We assume that the neighbours obliged by rejoicing with him or her because there was legitimate cause for rejoicing.
In the third story, something changes; not a sheep wandering away, or an inanimate object like a coin being misplaced, but a wayward son choosing to renounce his father, his family and his heritage and to celebrate his ‘freedom’ by squandering his inheritance with equally worthless hooligans. Of what value was he? In that state, a disgrace to his father and family.
And yet, when he shamefacedly made his way home, his father did not reject him as one would expect, but welcomed him home with open arms, and ordered a huge celebration for the ‘lost’ son who had been ‘found’. But unlike the neighbours in the previous two parables, the elder brother did not value him as a returning lost brother but rejected him as a worthless good-for-nothing. He focussed on his behaviour, not on his intrinsic worth as a son.
And here is the point of the story. It was glaringly obvious who the elder brother represented. The Pharisees had just been criticising Jesus for eating with rejects. They saw no worth in the people who did not ‘behave’ as they did, forgetting that their attitude of superiority was a stench in the nostrils of Jesus, far more offensive than the sins of the ‘sinners’ they despised.
Particularly offensive to Jesus was the contemptuous attitude of those who refused to rejoice over the return of lost sinners. From His perspective it was nothing short of idolatry because they were elevating themselves above people and even above God. They were honouring themselves as the epitome of virtue and writing everyone else off as worthless.
There were two categories of people that Jesus warned about the fires of hell – the greedy and the hypocrite. Of no other groups did He tell stories to highlight God’s attitude to them. Unless they repented, they would be consigned to the garbage dump where worthless rubbish is burned.
The Pharisees thought sinners were worthless but they could not see that their own attitude stifled their potential and made their lives fruitless for God. The returning sinner was welcomed home and came back on track to fulfil his purpose in life. The interlude of his wandering away did not disqualify him from being a son. It only interrupted his fellowship with his father and his growth in becoming a mature son. It was not only an interruption but, in the long run, also a learning experience.
But for the hypocrite there was nothing of value in his attitude, only alienation from the father and the family. This series of stories should have alerted these religious prigs to the very thing in themselves that they judged in others. No wonder they could not rejoice over the return of lost sinners because they had no idea of just how ‘lost’ they were!