A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son

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.

 

The Good Samaritan

‘And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”’ (Luke 10:25-37)

If any of the parables of Jesus sound like exhortations to good works, surely that applies to the account of the Good Samaritan. The bulk of the story describes the things done by the Samaritan. The contrast between the Samaritan and the two men who should have helped is unmistakable. The concluding words, “You, go and do likewise,” appear at first to be the point of the parable. Commentators generally are content to explain the roles of the priest and the Levite in Israel and explain the bigotry Jews and Samaritans felt toward each other.

After all, Christians are commanded to do good works. We are to love our neighbors and to help them in their times of need. Walking past a person who is hurting, failing to stop and give assistance, is sinful behavior. How could the parable of the Good Samaritan be anything other than insistence by Jesus that we should help anyone who needs our help?

The answer to that question lies in the secrets to the kingdom of heaven. Christians must continually remember that our good deeds do not earn God’s love and forgiveness. Even though we were created to do good things, we are not redeemed by doing good things. The very fact that the man questioning Jesus asked what he must do to inherit eternal life gives away the entire message. An inheritance comes from the goodness of the giver. An inheritance is not earned. (There are cases of a benefactor using inheritances to bribe their heirs or threatening to remove the heirs from his or her will if they did not act a certain way. Those rare cases underline the point that an inheritance generally means a gift and not something earned.) Jesus died so we can inherit eternal life. He left to us the rewards he earned by his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. We have eternal life because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus could have said as much to his questioner, but he knew the man’s heart. Therefore, Jesus first drew the man’s attention to the Law. The man showed that he knew the greatest commandments of God’s Law. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus promises. But the man was honest enough in his heart to know that he had not kept those commandments perfectly. Searching for a loophole, he asks Jesus who his neighbor is. Notice that, in concluding the parable, Jesus did not say, “Who was the Samaritan’s neighbor?” Instead, he asks who “proved to be a neighbor.” That change in wording is significant.

Of the four people in the story, all of us would like to claim that we are most like the Samaritan. We fear and we confess that, at times, we are more like the priest and the Levite. We can identify times that we did not do the loving thing for our neighbors. We have neglected them at times; we have not always been of help to our neighbors. When we look at the parable this way, though, we miss seeing that we are most like the victim rather than the Samaritan or the priest or Levite.

We are victims. The devil and the sinful world have combined to lure us into sin, and they stand ready to accuse us of our sins. Our sins themselves, have beaten and robbed us and left us for dead. All the times that we broke God’s commandments have robbed us of any wealth in the kingdom of heaven. Our sins deny us the right to eternal life. Once we have sinned, we are helpless to save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We lie, bruised and broken, facing death, waiting for someone to help us.

At this time, God’s Law cannot help us. It describes the good things we should do and identifies the sins we have committed, but that information does not take away our sins or the punishment we deserve. Priests and Levites were expected to be good men. The commands of God are also good. His commands tell us why we were made, and they guide us as we strive to imitate Jesus. But, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, even God’s greatest commandments cannot help us once we have fallen into sin. They walk past us. The best they can do is to describe our condition; they cannot change our condition.

Jesus pictures himself as a Samaritan. He takes on the label of a group rejected by the Jews, but he also portrays himself as an outsider. Jesus is above the Law, since he is the source of the Law. He does not have to give us what we deserve. He can be merciful to us, forgive us, and provide for our healing. Like the Samaritan of the parable, Jesus does what is needed to rescue us. The Samaritan cleaned the victim’s wounds with oil and wine—first aid for the first century, before the discovery of modern medicines. Then he put the victim on his donkey, took him to an inn, paid extravagantly for the victim’s care, and promised to do even more if more was necessary to help the victim.

Jesus goes beyond the goodness of the Samaritan. He lives a sinless life, then he bestows upon us the rewards he earned. Even more, he sacrifices his life on a Roman cross to pay our debts in full. He takes the punishment we deserve upon himself in place of the rewards he has given to us. If any more needed to be done to complete our rescue, our redemption, and our healing, Jesus is willing to do that too. His love and his mercy know no limits.

The Samaritan took the victim to an inn. Jesus brings us into the Christian Church. In the Church we continue to receive the care we need to further our healing. The work of the Church is empowered by Jesus. His life and death and resurrection are the coins that pay for our healing within the Church. Yet once we are part of the Church, we are also innkeepers, welcoming others into our midst for their healing.

The man who questioned Jesus asked about what he should do. The parable Jesus spoke depicted each of us as helpless, needing the work of Jesus to rescue us since we cannot rescue ourselves. Why then did Jesus close with the words, “You, go and do likewise”? First, he directs us to strive to obey his commands so we realize that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then we repent, knowing that we need a Savior. Second, now that we have been saved, we strive to imitate Jesus. The same commands that reveal our imperfections also tell us how to be more Christlike in our daily lives.

Indeed, we should go and do likewise. We should rescue victims of violence. We should feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We should help the poor and the oppressed. We were created to do good works like these. Along with that, we should recognize the victims of sin and evil around us. We cannot redeem them, but we can share the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and of his victory over all evil. We can share God’s forgiveness, beginning with those who have sinned against us.

As we do these things, though, we are not earning our place in the kingdom of heaven. That gift is an inheritance given to us by Jesus. He is the Samaritan who has saved our lives and who is still providing for our healing. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven help us to see Jesus as the Samaritan in his parable.

Buried treasure and a precious pearl

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

At first glance, these two brief parables appear to reinforce the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7)—and the greatest commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). After all, these commandments are first and greatest because they are important. God created the universe. He made each of us. He has the right to tell us how to live. He deserves to be our highest priority. Our lives are best when we put God first and put everything else under him. If we could love God perfectly and unceasingly, we would never break any of his other commandments.

Over the centuries, Christians have made many sacrifices for God. Some have abandoned homes and families and jobs to live in voluntary poverty, dedicating their lives to prayer and to the service of God. Others have turned aside from opportunities for wealth and fame to lead careers in church work, receiving only a fraction of what the world would have paid them. Many have gone out on missionary journeys, spending long years far away from everything that is familiar and comfortable for them.

Moreover, Christians have been persecuted. They have been abandoned by family and friends because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They have been driven out of their homes and their communities. Some have been fired from their jobs because of their faith. Some have been imprisoned. Some have been beaten. Some have been killed. They lost everything they had for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

But what of the rest of us? Are we unsaved because we have not given up everything for the kingdom of heaven? If we have not lost money or fame or popularity for the sake of the gospel, does that mean we are not truly Christians? Because we have not been rejected, fired, imprisoned, jailed, and killed, are we barred from the kingdom of heaven?

One of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is that we cannot earn God’s love and mercy and grace. We cannot earn our salvation. Those who try to earn salvation are locked out of the kingdom. Those who plan to stand before the throne of judgment and demand that God give them what they deserve will be denied a place in God’s kingdom, because every one of us has sinned and has fallen short of the kingdom of God.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he told these parables? He did not mean to identify himself as a treasure or a precious pearl. Instead, he calls each of us buried treasure and a precious pearl. Rather than being a treasure purchased by others, Jesus is the man who gives everything he has to claim us for himself.

As treasure, each of us is hidden. We are buried under our own sins and under the world’s evil. With regret we recall the times when we did things God told us not to do. With sorrow we remember the times that we failed to do what God commanded us to do. With repentance we realize that we have not always given God first place in our lives. Other things have been more important to us than God is. We have not loved him wholeheartedly, because we have reserved parts of our hearts for other loves.

Seeing our sin, Jesus decided to rescue us. At the command of his Father, he willingly left his throne at the Father’s side and entered creation. He was born to a young Jewish girl, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The God who knows everything learned how to walk and how to talk and how to read and write. The God who is perfect and almighty grew up to be a man. Even as an adult, he remained in poverty—“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Of course the distance between the Son of God and the richest person on earth is far greater than the distance between the richest person and the poorest person on earth. Jesus humbled himself to be one of us, to be tempted as we are, to face the dangers we face, and to have the same needs we have.

Then, when he had lived a pure and sinless life for more than thirty years, Jesus even surrendered what little he had in this world. When trouble threatened, his friends abandoned him and denied knowing him. Brought into courtrooms, he was denied justice. Beaten, slapped, and flogged, he lost his health. What little he owned—the clothing he was wearing—was taken from him. Finally, after hours of suffering, he sacrificed even his life on the cross.

Jesus gave everything he had to claim his treasure. We were buried in sin, but Jesus paid all that he had to make us his people. Without Jesus we were no treasure, but now with Jesus we are treasure. To him each of us is like the finest pearl, for which he willingly sacrificed all, even life itself. Having paid that price, he says that now we belong to him.

Of course we should make God our first priority. We should love nothing more than him. When we fail to meet this standard, though, we have not lost our place in the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus is not a treasure that we have to find and purchase. The secret of the kingdom of heaven is that Jesus has found us and has purchased us. We belong to the kingdom of heaven, not because of any price we have paid, but because of the price Jesus paid to redeem us.

Introduction to “The Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven,” a study of the parables of Jesus

Jesus liked to teach with parables. Whether it was a brief statement about a camel going through the eye of a needle or a complex narrative about a crime victim ignored by a priest and a Levite but helped by a Samaritan, Jesus spoke in parables to all those who came to listen to him.

What is a parable? A parable is more than a story. Preachers sometimes are told, “You ought to tell more stories when you preach—that’s the way Jesus taught.” Jesus did not use parables to entertain the crowds or to keep their attention. He had something far more important in mind.

Children are taught that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus used as pictures those things that were familiar to his listeners. He spoke about sheep and a shepherd. He spoke about planting seeds. He spoke about investing money. All these ideas were familiar to the people of his time and place. Yet Jesus was not really teaching about sheep or seeds or investments. His parables described the kingdom of heaven.

Strange as it may seem, though, Jesus did not use parables to help everyone understand him better. In fact, he said just the opposite. When his disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, he replied, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:11-17).

In other words, Jesus was speaking in a code. Only people who knew the key to his code could understand his teachings. The parables were ways Jesus could hide the truth in plain sight, knowing that people without the code would not be able to learn or understand the truth.

His disciples had been given the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. What are these secrets? They involve something that prophets and righteous people of the Old Testament longed to see and did not see. They mark the difference between those who are right with God and those who will be condemned by God. They draw the line between those who belong to the kingdom of heaven and those who are outside God’s kingdom.

The key to the code—the secrets to the kingdom of heaven—are the identity of Jesus and the mission of Jesus. Peter and the others knew the identity of Jesus—“the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus clearly described his mission to them—“he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Anyone who recognizes that Jesus is truly God and also truly human knows one of the secrets. Anyone who knows that the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus provide forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and victory over all evil to those who believe in Jesus knows one of the secrets. Those two secrets are the code, the knowledge that allows Christians to unpack the parables of Jesus and discover the true meaning of his parables.

Yet many Christians, even teachers of their fellow Christians, fail to understand the parables of Jesus as Jesus intended. They confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they do not use this knowledge to understand the parables. Instead, when they study the parables, they look for commandments and rules and directions about how to live. They use the parables of Jesus to reinforce the message of the life God’s people should be living. Yet they forget that Christian obedience does not get Christians into heaven. Only the grace of God and the redemption paid by Jesus gets Christians into heaven. No one can do anything to earn salvation or to contribute to salvation—not before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. Heaven is a gift from God, an inheritance passed on to us because of the death of Jesus.

This secret is the code needed to understand the parables Jesus told. In each parable, the student of the Bible must find Jesus. Jesus is recognized by his identity—the one God to whom the earth and everything in it belongs, but also the God made flesh to live among his people as one of them. Jesus is recognized by his mission—to seek and to save those who are lost in sin and evil and death. Redemption lies at the heart of every parable Jesus told. Grace and love and forgiveness are expressed in all the teachings of Jesus.

Some parables are lengthy stories; others are brief sayings. All of them are told within the context of larger messages or conversations. Some of the parables are labeled as such by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; others are recognized by their similarity to those that have been labeled. In the case of sayings, not every list of parables is identical. Which sayings are parables and which are not is difficult to determine. In general, when its message is about the kingdom of heaven, and when it can be used to illustrate the identity and the mission of Jesus, a saying can be considered a parable.

Tomorrow: buried treasure and a precious pearl. J.