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.” – Luke 15:1-10
The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin are basically the same stories. In each, something is lost, searched out, and found. Jesus is making a simple point: He came to search and find the one. He came to restore that which was lost. Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
The truth here taught is just this—that mercy stretches forth her hand to misery, that grace receives men as sinners, that it deals with demerit, unworthiness, and worthlessness; that those who think themselves righteous are not the objects of divine compassion, but the unrighteous, the guilty, and the undeserving, are the proper subjects for the infinite mercy of God; in a word, that salvation is not of merit but of grace.
Since salvation is not of merit, but of grace, God’s heart toward sinners is different than our heart often is. He’s not waiting for them to turn their lives around; he’s out there searching for them to bring them home. He’s on the move, even if they’re stuck in a cave or lost in the floorboards. He is not content to merely find the lost one; he rejoices over its restoration. God searches for and finds the lost, one by one, until all his children are tucked safely in their eternal rooms. Then, he throws a heavenly party. Who would spend such time on one sheep or one coin? It seems excessive, doesn’t it? God’s love is like that: excessive, extravagant, lavish.
The sinners and tax collectors gathered around must have understood Jesus was referring to. They were the lost sheep, the lost coin. Jesus had come looking for them, and they had been found! How many in the crowd had dined with him? How many had he healed? How many had received his smile, felt his touch, been warmed by his presence? And yet it was not to this group that Jesus directed his parables that day. He was not instructing the sinners. He was instructing the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes. The sinners and tax collectors had been found by Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes were still running from him.
They knew the law, but they did not know God. They looked at the letter and found rules to obey without seeing the heart to love. They ventured into the world with their Sunday-best shirt starched as stiffly as possible, Bible in hand, with a smile ready to produce. But their hearts were far from God because their hearts trusted in their good deeds rather than God’s good grace. Their mind was too occupied with obedience to see a need. They were too full of themselves to be needy for Christ. They were lost and needed to be found, but they didn’t know it.
And Jesus was asking them a simple question: how far does God’s grace go? How far does his love stretch? How deep does it plunge? To the worst sinner? To the deepest depravity? To the best Pharisee? To the smartest scribe?
In each of these parables, Jesus includes two characters. The first is that which is lost. The second is the one who seeks. The lost must be found. But in each instance, the lost do not know they are lost. We have no indication the sheep understood his plight. It had no awareness of danger. It thought it was fine. The coin has no ability to see, it cannot understand, it doesn’t think. Each is lost, and each matters so much that the seeker leaves much to find the one.
The one who seeks wastes no time. The shepherd abandons the ninety-nine to look for the one. The woman sweeps the house over to uncover the coin. Time is not mentioned. Cost is not counted. All that matters is the one being returned to the many. And when it is, a party is thrown. It was not the sheep who stayed or the coins in the bank that were the cause of the party. It was the sheep that wandered, the coin that was lost and everyone was invited to rejoice.
The Pharisees and scribes don’t know how to rejoice. Instead, when they see sinners coming to Jesus, they blame Jesus for being too lenient, not for being too gracious. They miss the wonder of his mercy thinking they deserve the party instead.
What about you? Can you rejoice in bad people being made good in Christ? Is there a certain test – designed by you, administered by you, and graded by you – that one must pass to be included in God’s kingdom? The Pharisees and scribes had such a test, and Jesus couldn’t even pass it. Would your test exclude Jesus as well?
Jesus is calling the self-righteous to account in these stories. He’s showing us what his brother, James, said years later, “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13).
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at David's blog, Things of the Sort.