The Parable of the Lost Sheep challenges the Pharisees judgemental attitude towards those who go astray. Jesus equates the joy of the woman who found the lost coin to God's rejoicing over a sinner who repents.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep challenges the Pharisees judgemental attitude towards those who go astray. Jesus equates the joy of the woman who found the lost coin to God's rejoicing over a sinner who repents.
Hello, and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 4. We're going to deal with two parables, 'the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin'. We're studying in Luke 15, and our text is Luke 15: 1 - 10.
Introduction and Recap
We seem to have spent much time in Luke's Gospel in this part of the whole life of Jesus and this is because Luke has focused a lot of attention on this fascinating period where Jesus is moving away from Galilee. He's left Galilee after three years of successful ministry and he's heading south for Jerusalem. Luke gathers a lot of material to describe this extensive journey that involved stopping and starting in different places. It probably took several months. John adds some supplementary material, which we saw in Series 8, that described a couple of private visits to Jerusalem but the real focus in Luke's Gospel is that Jesus is going to make a very public visit to Jerusalem, which will be his final visit. He's never going to go back to Galilee. He's heading to Jerusalem and he's heading to a major confrontation with the religious authorities. I've emphasised these points frequently in recent episodes, because every time we come back to the text, it's always important to re-orientate ourselves towards the context. You may have heard all the episodes of Series 8, and be very familiar with me emphasising these points, or you may be just coming to this particular episode, hence, the repetition to make sure we all understand the context and the significance.
As Series 9 starts, the journey is getting closer to Jerusalem, the time's getting shorter and the sense of anticipation is getting greater; the sense of conflict is getting more intense - the conflict between Jesus, his disciples, his message of the Kingdom and his identity as the Messiah on the one hand, and on the other hand, the religious establishment in Jerusalem, which is feeling more and more threatened as Jesus' popularity seems to be growing in the central and southern districts of the country, particularly in Judea, the area immediately surrounding Jerusalem in the south. Large crowds are following him - people who have never had the opportunity to see him when he was in Galilee because he was living too far away; they never made the journey. Now he's coming a bit closer to them, they're making a big effort to come out. Large crowds, and large numbers, are inferred, by the comments that Luke makes from time to time to suggest what's actually going on in the situation. For example, in Luke 12: 1, ‘A crowd of many thousands had gathered and people were trampling one another,’ - an example from a little further back in our text.
As well as this sense of conflict, we've also got quite a lot of teaching about discipleship. The radical nature of Christian discipleship is laid bare in these sections. We've had an example in Luke 12 of a number of different teachings from Jesus about different aspects of discipleship, speaking up, identifying yourself as a Christian, not becoming materialistic, being faithful and watchful, and being willing to face division - even in your family - as a result of your faith. All these themes come out in terms of discipleship. In the last episode, Jesus very explicitly talks about the cost of being a disciple and invites people to ‘take up their cross’. In other words, take up the reality of suffering and rejection that you may face because of your faith. These are some of the themes that have emerged in this particular period of Jesus's life and ministry.
Jesus is emphasising that it's the outsiders very often who are going to become the insiders; the last are going to be the first; and the first invited, or offered, salvation, are going to go to the back of the queue because they missed their opportunity. He's constantly saying, in this period, that it's very important to take up the opportunity that is given by Jesus at this particular time, for the Jewish community. For the nation, it's a critical moment. Jesus emphasises that outsiders are being given the opportunity and are often much more willing to respond. Some examples from the text would be the fact that it says, on one occasion in a recent episode, people from the north, south, and east and west will meet again in the Kingdom of God, and those who should be there from the Jewish nation won't be there. That's a reference to all the Gentile nations coming to salvation. Then, in the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14, we have the fact that the poor and the marginalised are invited to the banquet when the first invitees refuse their invitation and they go off and do their own things. The poor and the marginalised are going to come in, the Gentiles are going to come in.
In this particular passage, we find that the socially marginalised, the tax collectors and sinners, are gathering around Jesus as we shall see at the very beginning of this passage. This gives you a little context, some of the themes, some of the emphases, some of the feeling of what's actually going on at this particular stage of Jesus's ministry. Let's read the opening two verses together. Luke 15: 1 - 2,
‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”Luke 15:1-2, NIV
Those Who Came to Hear Jesus
This is a familiar theme. We've seen it before in other contexts. We've seen the religious leaders in opposition to Jesus. Time and again recently in the texts, we've seen very strong opposition from the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. We even saw, in a recent episode, an occasion when a Pharisee invited Jesus to his home, and after some tense discussion with other Pharisees and other Teachers of the Law, who Jesus challenged, they got outside his house, and as soon as they got out, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were criticising Jesus publicly to the whole crowd. The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are in opposition to Jesus. Bear in mind, as we've often said, they've already made the decision at the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, that Jesus is a false messiah, coming under false pretense, probably operating under the power of demonic forces, and needs to be eliminated from the nation of Israel. They've already made the decision. Their opposition is clear.
The other factor of interest here is that tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. We need a quick reminder of what we mean by this expression ‘tax collectors and sinners’, which is often used in the Gospels. Tax collectors appear at different times. In fact, even one of Jesus' followers and disciples, one of the twelve, Matthew, or Levi, is a tax collector by profession. He's given up that work in order to follow Jesus. Tax collectors worked for the Roman authorities, or for their associates, depending on which part of the country they were in, and they were responsible for collecting tax. Very often, it was customs tax for goods travelling along the road and they would often be positioned to take collections there. They had some minimal amounts that they had to give over to the authorities and if they got any more money from taxation than what they owed to the authorities, they could keep it for themselves. They were often very rich, very unpopular, very unscrupulous. ‘Sinners’ is usually a statement that speaks of women who are involved in prostitution. It can have a reference to men particularly who are involved in black marketeering and financial manipulation, things like that. The expression, ‘tax collectors and sinners’ carries with it the sense of those who are irreligious - they may be poor, they may be rich but they are not honoured in society; they are unpopular. The prostitutes were not popular; the black marketeers were not popular; the tax collectors were very unpopular. These are people on the outside. They are not seen in synagogues very much. They were considered to have broken the Law of Moses, to be irreligious and disrespectful of God, and disrespectful of the religious leaders. That's the context of what we are talking about. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had a particularly low opinion of tax collectors and sinners. They were shocked, they were horrified, they were scandalised at the thought that Jesus should welcome sinners, and even eat with them, socialise with them, get to know them, become their friends. They found that really abhorrent - something they really couldn't understand because it seemed to go quite against the traditions of their religion.
This reminds us actually that something very similar happened when one of Jesus' disciples was called, Matthew, as I mentioned a few moments ago. I'm just going to read a very few verses in Matthew's Gospel that describe his calling. Matthew 9: 9 - 13. We've studied this passage in an earlier episode, but it's very interesting that exactly the same theme comes up.
‘As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13, NIV
This is a very similar context to the situation we're describing. They were really offended to think that Matthew threw a party, invited his friends, other tax collectors, other sinners, black marketeers, maybe prostitutes, maybe other shady characters in the community. They had a big meal, and Jesus actually went to the meal with them and started speaking to them. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law outside were just horrified! They thought what on earth is going on here? This man has got all his priorities wrong.
Jesus Teaches in Parables
Exactly the same thing happens here at the beginning of Luke chapter 15: 3 says, ‘Then Jesus told them this parable’. Who is the ‘them’? The ‘them’ is primarily the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. The self-righteous religious leaders are being challenged by two parables that Jesus tells. Parables are stories with symbolic meanings, usually with one main theme. They're not allegories, where every detail has a representation in real life. They clarify the truth for genuine believers and they hide the truth from the sceptical and unbelieving in a strange way because they're already so resistant to the ideas of Jesus. Two very well-known parables are part of our text: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Parable of the Lost Coin. We also have, following on from there, a related parable, the Parable of the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son, which is going to be the subject of our next episode. These are well-known stories, and this is a very popular chapter in the Gospels, and rightly so, because it contains some wonderfully important material. Perhaps it's worth noting here with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, even before I read it, we encounter this in another context in Matthew 18, which appears in Series 7 and Episode 8. In Matthew 18, the story is told in the context of believers who wander off and need shepherds to bring them back to the church. Here the focus is a little bit different. This is about unbelievers, people who are lost, and need to find Christ for the first time. That's the implication given by the context. Here is another interesting example of material that appears in the Gospels in different contexts, and as I've said on a number of earlier occasions, when we have material reappearing and being reused by Jesus in different contexts, that's simply because that is exactly what happened in his ministry, and happens in the life of anyone who is a teacher. As all teachers will quickly know, things get repeated in different contexts to make the points you need to make to the people you need to make them to. Verses 3 - 7,
‘Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn't he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”’Luke 15:4-7, NIV
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
We've come across the image of the shepherd and his sheep a number of times in the Gospels. Jesus is the good shepherd, John 10. We've seen this parable in Matthew 18, for example, so I need to remind you of some things that I've stated in other contexts, just in case you haven't remembered them, or haven't been listening to other episodes. Shepherding in Israel needs to be understood. The country was open - very few enclosed fields. Shepherds looked after their sheep by following them around in the daytime and bringing them together in sheepfolds with stone walls at night time, to protect them from wild animals and other danger. Shepherds would work in teams and it was more of a way of life than a job. They tended to be social outsiders but they had an important job. They needed to fend off wild animals, fend off thieves, and be sure that they could account for all their sheep. It required constant attention, constant vigilance, and as you counted your sheep coming into the sheepfold in the evening, if you noticed there was one missing, you'd do so by counting almost certainly, and then you have a question, shall I go and try and find the sheep? Of course, with other shepherds available to look after the sheepfold, you could go and devote your time to finding the lost sheep. The overwhelming concern of the shepherd in this story is to find the lost sheep, and a willingness to sacrifice himself in the process. It takes time, energy, and travel. You can get very weary. It's hard to find sheep in some terrains. At the end, we notice that the lost sheep is the one who needs to repent. This is an unbeliever. That's the theme.
We also think of the fact that Jesus himself describes himself as the good shepherd in John 10: 11, which we've studied in an earlier episode.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’John 10:11, NIV
There's something of the heart of Jesus in this story. The human shepherd reflects the divine shepherd, and all of heaven is excited and delighted and thrilled when one sinner repents, when one sheep is brought back to the flock and into the sheepfold. The story is fairly straightforward. It is very powerful and it challenges the attitudes of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. Their attitude was to be judgemental of those they considered irreligious and lost, outside of the official religious system of Judaism. They looked down on them, considered them immoral, second class citizens, irreligious, not worthy of attention, perhaps even beyond redemption. Jesus challenges that fundamentally, by saying that if somebody is lost, like a lost sheep, this should evoke in us a feeling of compassion for their situation, a feeling of desiring to use our resources and our time to go and find them, and to go and help them. That was not the case with the Pharisees. They didn't lift a finger to go and help those who were outside of Judaism, those who were not functioning as religious Jews. No, they criticised them; they judged them; they were legalists; they divided people into those who followed the rules and those who didn't. Whereas, the shepherd here didn't divide people up in that way; he didn't divide his sheep up in that way. He was interested in every sheep and he wanted to go and find the one that was lost.
The second parable makes a similar message by using a different metaphor and a different life situation, but a very vivid and important one, verses 8 - 10,
‘“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn't she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”’Luke 15:8-10, NIV
The Parable of the Lost Coin
I love this simple little story. Women usually managed the household and very often that included managing the finances. Money, in those days, was in the form of coins and we have 10 silver coins mentioned here. There weren't banks in any official sense to put the money in. There were, of course, moneylenders and people who offered to secure your finances for you by looking after them, but they had no official status and there was a great risk involved in the process and often they were very corrupt. Most people kept their valuables, and their money in particular, in the house, or even buried it secretly in the ground in an inconspicuous location, as Jesus describes with the Parable of the Treasure in the Field in Matthew 13. That's an example of something similar. In this case, the woman keeps her coins in a safe place in the house. She has 10 silver coins. They're actually 10 drachma coins. We've come across these before; they appear at various times in the text. Another example would be Matthew 20: 2, where they appear in a parable. A drachma in those days was approximately one day's worth of a labourer's wage.. Most people were paid daily for their labour, so with her, 10 silver coins would represent about 10 days worth of work, or perhaps nearly 2 weeks' worth of income. When you lose one of those, you are losing the equivalent of the money you might earn in a single day, so that you can calculate what that is in your economy, in your society and in your currency. You imagine losing that amount of money. It's not like losing a small little coin out of your wallet or your purse. This is a substantial amount of money. People lived very simply. Many people lived by labouring, and mostly that was day labouring by men, who would bring their money home. Very often it would be the wives who would look after the money. In the psychology of the story, we also have the risk of conflict with the woman's husband, so the anxiety over the loss of the coin is not just the monetary value for the family, but it's also the relational risk because her husband could be angry that money he earned had been lost. It brings to mind the intense emotions that we sometimes feel when we lose something valuable, like people I've noticed in our country when they lose their smartphone and they mislay it somewhere! That is a very big dramatic moment. Intense emotions are brought about by that moment.
The woman makes very intense efforts to find the coin. She's sure it's somewhere in the house. She remembers putting it away somewhere, storing it, and she's very relieved when an intense search turning over all the furniture and all the clothing and all the things in the house, reveals that the coin is there hidden away. She's so happy. She wants her neighbours to know about it; she wants them to come round to rejoice with her together. Jesus said that rejoicing is like the rejoicing of the angels and God himself when a sinner repents and turns to Christ.
These are pretty vivid examples, and they are of course from everyday life. Looking after sheep and goats was a very fundamental part of the economy of ancient Israel as an agricultural economy. The story of the coin in the home and the woman's search for it would be a story that many people in ancient Israel would understand, as they'd always had an issue with being secure with their money. Where would they keep their valuable money, and keep it safe from theft and loss? It was a tricky thing to do. No banks, no storage companies, storage depots and security guards available for the ordinary person in Israel in those days. You had to look after your valuables yourself, and it was often difficult to do that.
As we come to the end of our episode, we've looked at two quite familiar parables but they tell us something really wonderful about God, about salvation and about Jesus Christ, the good shepherd. Jesus' heart is that people should be found and should be saved. He wants his message to go everywhere; he wants people to respond to him and his heart is for the outsiders. We mentioned earlier in the narrative, in the earlier passages, in the chapters just before this, Gentiles mentioned from all the nations of the earth. We see the poor and the needy and the destitute mentioned and now we see the tax collectors and sinners mentioned. These are outsiders, and outsiders can become insiders in the Kingdom of God. That is the amazing truth! No one is outside, no one should be judged as unable to receive the salvation of Christ. That kind of salvation is open to every single person. Nothing can prevent us from coming to our salvation in terms of our social backgrounds or ethnic background.
There's tremendous joy in heaven over the salvation of people when they turn to Christ and they become found by him. The woman's joy at finding the coin was tremendous - she just couldn't keep it to herself, she had to go out of the door, knock on the neighbours' doors and say, ’Come, come round, have some celebration food and drink with me because I found this coin. I was so worried about it, but now I've found it.’ The shepherd was so joyful to see one of those beloved sheep found still alive, not been killed by a wild animal, not injured beyond the ability to live, just lost and needing to be found. This compares very starkly with the attitude of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law whose hearts are hard, whose attitudes are really hard. They have been corrupted by legalism and the belief that in order to please God you have to obey many many religious laws; they can even make those laws, and then impose them on other people, and can judge other people when they don't live up to their standards. Jesus has already, in earlier episodes, condemned these attitudes wholeheartedly. This is not true religion. This is not true Christian faith. This is not the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus offers a way for the most vulnerable: very simply, to say we're lost, we need help, we've made mistakes, got it wrong, are in need. Please help us! The wonderful thing about the God we worship, our Father in heaven, and about the Lord Jesus Christ, is that they will always hear the cry of the genuinely needy and humble person and they'll come and bring salvation to that person. They come and live within him through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is the sheer wonder of the parables of Luke 15.
In our next episode we'll see an even more dramatic example of that same love of God for the outsider, or the marginalised - the person who completely failed in life, when we look at the Parable of the Lost Son or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I look forward to sharing that with you in the next episode.