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 neighbors, 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 neighbors, 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. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Luke 15 consists of a set of three parables, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Together, they describe the process of redemption according to the secrets of the kingdom. The first parable is told by Jesus in a different context in Matthew 18:10-14; it can also be related to Jesus’ words supporting his declaration, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10.
This set of three parables features some important similarities among the stories, as well as significant differences. Each story describes something that was lost but is recovered. Each story tells of a celebration over the recovery, which is humorously excessive in the case of a lost sheep or a lost coin but more appropriate in the case of a recovered son.
Each mentions others that were not lost, but the numbers change. One sheep is lost, but ninety-nine sheep are safe. One coin is lost, but nine coins remain where they belong. One son is lost, but one son stays home. These changing numbers are moving in a direction that should be obvious—we have all sinned, we all like sheep have gone astray, and not one of us has been faithful to God—not one other than his only-begotten Son. Consider the occasion for these parables. Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about this practice. Jesus makes two points relative to the secrets of the kingdom: each sinner is valuable to God and worth saving from God’s point of view; and we all are sinners, whether or not we are willing to confess our sins.
A shepherd goes into the wilderness to look for a lost sheep. The sheep will never find its way home without the shepherd’s help. It is vulnerable to predators and many other dangers. Because he cares about his sheep, the shepherd is willing to explore the wilderness and to do anything necessary to find his sheep and bring it home. In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, enters this world—this wilderness darkened by sin and evil—and seeks sinners so he can return them to the kingdom of God.
Since the first parable describes the work of Jesus, the Son of God, and the third parable describes a loving Father, some Bible interpreters have seen the coin-collecting woman as a picture of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does the work of redemption through his sinless life, his sacrifice, and his triumphant resurrection. The Holy Spirit, though, grants faith in Jesus and moves sinners back into the kingdom of God. A lost coin is even more vulnerable than a lost sheep. It has no hope of randomly wandering onto the path that will lead it home. It cannot even call for help. It can only wait in a dark and dusty corner until the searcher finds it and restores it to its place. We were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—like a lost coin, we could not bring ourselves home. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3), we see the secrets of the kingdom of heaven in this woman. She sweeps until she finds the coin, she picks it up, and she returns it to its place. This is what God the Holy Spirit does for us by speaking the promises of God to us through his Word and by giving us faith in those promises.
The runaway son could not have come to his senses and resolved to return to his father in repentance had not the Shepherd gone into the wilderness to search for him. The runaway son could not have traveled home without the work of the Collector to move him. When people read the parable of the lost son outside of its context, they easily overlook the secrets of the kingdom. On its own, this parable appears to say that we can bring ourselves to God and find our way home again. In its context, we see how God the Father welcomes us home after God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have done their parts in the work of our redemption.
The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his son. This party pictures heaven itself—an eternal celebration of the victory of Christ and the renewal of all creation. The father’s older son refuses to attend the party. He envies the restoration of his brother and resents his father’s forgiveness. This older son is often understood to picture those Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners. But the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have a further surprise hidden in this parable.
The Pharisees and scribes no doubt believed that they had pleased God by their good lives, but we know that to enter the kingdom of heaven one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 5:20). The words the father speaks to his older son may be words that the Pharisees and scribes expected to hear from God. They are not words that God the Father will ever say to those who expect to enter heaven by their own righteousness. Only one person in all history could truthfully say what the older son says: “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Only one person in all history could hear what the father says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Jesus is the one pure and sinless person who deserves to be in the party instead of locked outside of the party. He has paid with his life to open the doors of the party to the many who do not deserve to be there. Unlike the son in the parable, Jesus is not angry to see undeserving people at the party. He rejoices to restore sinners to the Father’s home in the kingdom.
But was Jesus ever outside of the party? For part of one day, he was indeed outside the party. Rejected and abused by sinners, he took on the burden of sin, and even his Father abandoned him. Jesus spent hours in the darkness of judgment and condemnation to spare those of us who deserve judgment and condemnation. While hanging on the cross, he was outside the party.
Yet because he is God, he will not miss the party. Dying on the cross, he has prepared a place for us. Now he is prepared to welcome us alongside his Father. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection. It also promises that with our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we will live in the kingdom forever in joyful celebration of love, life, and victory. The Shepherd has found us. The Collector has moved us. The Father now welcomes us home, for we were dead and are alive; we were lost and are found.