Lost Sheep, Coin, Son
Looking for the Lost
Luke 15: 1-32
Have you ever lost something that was really valuable to you? Perhaps a pet? The door was left open, or it broke its tether, or it dug under the fence and escaped. When you called its name and looked for it, the pet was gone, never to return. Or maybe it was an item that was precious to you: a watch, a ring, jewelry, or your car keys. You thought you knew where it was, but when you went to find it, the item was missing.
Or more tragically, the thing lost was a person: a spouse, a child, or a grandchild who succumbs to addiction, mental illness, criminal behavior, or just bad choices. You do all in your power, but in the end, you are powerless over the forces that swallow up your beloved and take them from you.
I often think of this when homeless people come to the church asking for help, especially if they are mentally ill, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or have just been released from prison. They were somebody’s child once, but they are lost to the family now. Last spring during the beginning of the pandemic, a young man who had been released from prison camped out in the woods behind the church. I would see him periodically and speak to him. One day Larry Coleman called me unexpectedly. He was driving by the church and saw fire trucks! The homeless man had started a small fire to keep the bugs off himself. Unfortunately, the fire got away from him. Thankfully, someone in the neighborhood must have seen the smoke and called the fire department. I jumped in my car and made my way to church as fast as I could. When I arrived, the fire trucks were gone, but the police had detained the young man. The officers were truly kind to him. They encouraged him to return to his home community, but he said no one would welcome him. I told him he could not stay on our property anymore. He gathered his few belongings in a wool blanket, threw it over his shoulder, and set off. As he departed, he said to himself over and over, “Nobody cares about me. Nobody cares about me.” It was heart-breaking.
In Luke 15, Jesus links three stories together about lost things or people. In the first story, a shepherd loses one of his sheep. He is a person of modest means. His flock numbers just one hundred animals. But shepherds knew their sheep individually and called them by name. The one sheep’s absence did not go unnoticed. That one sheep was valuable to the shepherd. He did not say to himself, “O well, I still have ninety-nine sheep.” He secured his remaining flock in the wilderness and went out in search of the missing animal.
In the second story, the woman of a household realizes she has lost a silver coin. She too was a person of modest means. She had managed to save up ten silver coins with which to provide for her family. A silver coin was the equivalent of a day’s wage. The woman does not say to herself, “O well, I still have nine coins. The other one will turn up eventually.” No! She lights a lamp, sweeps the floor, and turns the house upside down until she finds the valuable missing coin.
In the final and best- known story, a father’s son decides he has had enough of life on the farm. It is a prosperous establishment, but he wants to see the city’s lights and sounds. He impudently demands his inheritance even though his father is still alive. With the money in hand, he sets out to see the world leaving his father and brother to attend to the mundane matters of running a farm. Neither the father nor the older brother pursues the foolish youth, but the father watches for his return.
Jesus told these stories in response to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees. A crowd had gathered to see and hear Jesus and seated on the front row were tax collectors and sinners. These were bad people. They were dishonest, degenerate, and dangerous. These people were not simply present in the crowd; Jesus received them. The word Luke employs implies “welcoming.”
These were the kind of people my Grandmother Clark (my mother’s mother) would have labeled as B.O.S – Below Our Station! My grandmother was a “Virginia blue blood” who traced her heritage back to the colonial period. Furthermore, she was a Presbyterian minister’s wife. “Below Our Station" meant that a person was inferior socially and morally. They were certainly not the kind of people you would want your Pastor socializing with. After all, bad company corrupts good morals.
But Jesus would have disagreed with my maternal grandmother (God rest her soul.), and he disagreed with the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus was certainly more akin to the scribes and Pharisees than he was to the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus shared their zeal for God’s law and the kind of life total obedience to God’s commands produces. But these stories are about more than drawing the line of demarcation between the righteous and the wicked. Jesus had a different mission to accomplish. He said of himself, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). The three stories are about an often-overlooked aspect of repentance, and they offer a corrective to those who believe they need no physician.
Repentance is at the heart of the season of Lent. Repentance is turning away from disobedience to God’s law and turning towards God in contrition and faith. But there is an odd thing about repentance; people rarely repent willingly!
The sheep did not say to itself, “I better get myself back to the sheepfold, or I am liable to get eaten alive out here." The coin that fell on the ground and rolled away did not roll back eventually on its own steam. And even the younger son who did return home did so because he was out of other options.
After squandering his inheritance with dissolute living, which apparently included prostitutes, he was penniless. Moreover, a famine struck the land where he resided, and he was hungry. He was forced to take a menial job as a field hand feeding pigs. Assuming he was Jewish, feeding unclean animals was the lowest possible vocation. He was so hungry that the pig slop started to look appetizing to him! No one cared about his plight or offered him any food to fill his growling stomach. It was only when he was starving to death that he realized his father’s hired hands had plenty of food and to spare.
As a result, he set about concocting a pious speech that would convince the old man to take him back. He said to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'” He must have rehearsed the speech repeatedly with all the sincerity he could muster as he made his way home. There is a huge difference between genuine contrition and mouthing the right words to manipulate a person into giving you what you want. Starvation is what drove the young man home. His repentance was suspect to say the least.
No. As a rule, people do not repent willingly. Unless the shepherd had gone looking for the sheep, it would still be bumbling about in the wilderness. Unless the woman had diligently sought the coin, it would still be covered by the dust of the dirt floor or hidden in a nook or cranny. Unless starvation had forced his hand, the prodigal son would still be in a distant country. When we are lost, we need God to come looking for us before we can truly repent. Before we can come to repentance, God must seek us out.
And that is the wonderful news of these three stories. As Saint Ambrose, the fourth century Bishop of Milan, wrote, “Who are the father, the shepherd, and the woman? They are God the Father, Christ, and the Church.” You see, God has lost something unbelievably valuable to the divine self. God has lost his creatures to sin, evil, and death. God’s response is not, "O well, I will just make some new creatures.” God has an absolute will, an unrelenting desire to seek and save the lost.
If you have never believed it before, believe it today. You are valuable to God. You are precious in God’s sight. God cares so much for your welfare that “when you were sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,” he sent his only son to be born for you, to live a sinless life for you, to die for your sins, and to rise again from the dead for you. God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth, repent, and trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
But this is not a grim determination on God’s part. I hope you noticed the motif of joy that recurs in each of these stories. The salvation of the lost is the joy of heaven. God wants nothing more than to carry you on his shoulders back to the safety of the sheepfold. God wants to pluck you out the darkened corner like the coin. God wants to throw his arms around you, kiss you, dress you in a robe fit for royalty, spread a feast for you, throw a raucous party with dancing and singing, and celebrate your return. God delights in nothing more than saying, “My creature was dead, but now it is alive. My child was lost, but now is found."
These stories invited the scribes and the Pharisees to adopt Jesus’ perspective on the lost. Instead of labeling people as “below our station” socially and morally, instead of calling them dishonest, degenerate, and dangerous scum, we are asked to see such people as lost and in desperate need of finding.
God’s kind grace has placed us in the company of Jesus, the scribes and the Pharisees, the shepherd, the woman, the father, and the older brother. We are justified by grace through faith. We believe the good news that Jesus died for our sins to deliver us from judgment. We believe that Jesus rose from the grave to deliver us from death. We desire to conform our lives to God’s good law. We are in the father’s house. We have a seat at the Lord’s table.
But we are surrounded by people who are horribly lost. And it is not just the mentally ill, addicts, criminals, or the homeless. They are just a tiny fraction of the people who sit in darkness needing the light of Christ to shine on them.
Jesus is relentless in seeking and saving the lost. His wandering ones are precious to him. They are valuable in his sight. He has compassion for them. I do not know if you noticed in the parable of the prodigal son, but the father saw the prodigal from a distance, ran to meet him, embraced him, and kissed him. The younger son did manage to recite his pious speech, but the father ignored it and immediately called for the slaves to bring the best robe and clothe him, put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, kill the fatted calf, and make merry. The father did not upbraid the prodigal for his immoral behavior and financial ruin. Instead, he showed him compassion without limits.
Let us join our Savior in compassionately welcoming all kinds of people into the kingdom of God. The more the merrier. The greater the variety the better. “For I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance” (vs., 7).
All glory be to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!