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.Luke 15:7
Today we get to think about two of the most beloved and familiar of all Jesus’ parables: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10).
I have been thinking this week about what makes these parables so popular. Is it because we are grateful to have been found by Jesus? Is it because we are grateful to know that Jesus is still searching for those who are lost, including some of those we love? Is it because we are afraid of getting lost again, as we go through the trials and tribulations of this life, and grateful to know that our shepherd will never give up looking for us?
Maybe it is for all of these reasons and more. But certainly one of the things that makes all of Jesus’ parables worth thinking about is that they all have more than one meaning. And that is true of these two parables. So let’s revisit these beloved parables today, and be reminded of what they would teach us.
The Lost Sheep
The first of these parables is of the lost sheep. So, imagine you are a shepherd. And you have 100 sheep. You’re in the wilderness – which can be a pretty scary place. It is your job to defend those sheep against the animals and other threats of the wilderness. And now imagine that one of those 100 goes missing. What are you going to do? Leave the ninety-nine to go search for the one? Or cut your losses and make sure the ninety-nine are safe?
Jesus tells us this parable in such a way that it sounds like it’s perfectly obvious that the shepherd would go in search of the one. But is it really? Is that really the best thing to do? I suspect that anyone with any common sense would say, wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be better to make sure the ninety-nine are safe than risk them all to go in search of the one who’s missing?
Jesus tells this story for a reason. The Pharisees and other religious experts have been complaining about how much time Jesus is spending with known sinners – people that obviously are not trying to please God. These people clearly have no interest in living by God’s teachings, so why is Jesus spending time with them? Wouldn’t it be better to cut his losses, and spend time with the ninety-nine who are actually trying to obey God’s teaching? To encourage them and help them live a more righteous and God-pleasing life? Why leave the ninety-nine, in other words, to go after the one who is lost?
In response to this, Jesus tells the Pharisees and religious experts this story. A parable which seems simple enough, but as always, has more than one meaning. Because this parable is not just about why Jesus is spending time with the sinners. It’s also about the simple fact that we are all sinners. We are all that one lost sheep. We all need to be found by Jesus.
Who Is the Lost Sheep?
We can see this is the case by looking at how Jesus concludes this story. He says to the Pharisees and religious leaders:
“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.”
Who needs no repentance? Who is completely without sin? The Pharisees should be able to answer that one. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, the grand total of people in the history of humanity who have needed no repentance – excluding Jesus of course – is exactly zero. There is no righteous person. There is no one who needs no repentance. Everyone has sinned. All of us have fallen short of the mark. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, the tax collectors, the sinners, and each and everyone of us.
We are all lost. The Pharisees should know this. They know their Bible. They should be able to remember what Isaiah famously said:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
We have all gone astray. We are all the one lost sheep. Just like sheep, we are occasionally tempted by that patch of grass that looks a little greener. We leave the flock. We go astray. We get lost. That’s what sheep do. That’s what we do. We are all like sheep who have gone astray. None of us, in other words, are the ninety-nine. We are all the one lost sheep.
And if we are ever tempted to be like the Pharisees and religious leaders, and judge other sinners, it is good to remember that we, too, are lost without Jesus. We’ve just been found by him that one more time. In fact, I really think that there is one and only one difference between the one sheep who is lost and the ninety-nine who are not: The ninety-nine have been found one more time than they have been lost. That’s all.
Isn’t that why we are here today? Because we have been found one more time than we have been lost. And how thankful we are that our good shepherd has searched and found us yet again. And maybe that is why this parable is so beloved. Because we know that without Jesus, we would all be lost.
But there is another reason why I think this parable may be beloved, and that has to do with what the shepherd does when he finds the lost sheep: “He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”
It is the very picture of grace, isn’t it? There is no judgment here. No punishment. No harsh words. There is simply a shepherd who rejoices that he has found his sheep who was lost. And he can now carry that sheep home, back to the flock. And if that isn’t a picture of grace, I don’t know what is. And that is exactly what Jesus does for all his lost sheep. For all of us. He lays our sin and our brokenness and our lost-ness all on his shoulders, on the cross, and carries us home. And heaven rejoices.
A Sheep Who Repents?
“Just so,” Jesus concludes, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”
But here we get a bit of a mystery, don’t we? How can a sheep repent? This particular sheep got lost. The shepherd went and found him, and placed him on his shoulders and carried him home. Where is the repentance? What does Jesus mean? Is he just throwing the Pharisees a bone here, acknowledging that even though he is hanging out with sinners, he is still going to ask them to repent of their sins? Maybe. But as always with Jesus, there are probably multiple meanings here.
Repent is a word with multiple meanings, of course. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, it means to change one’s mind. To look at the world differently. And isn’t that what Jesus is asking of us all? Not just the lost sheep, but those who think they are found? Aren’t the Pharisees themselves being asked to repent? To begin thinking about God’s grace and mercy and passion for the lost differently?
Who is the sinner who needs repenting? Who is the sheep who is lost? Who isn’t? And wouldn’t heaven rejoice as much over a Pharisee who begins to understand grace, as over a sinner who repents of their sin? And maybe it’s all the same, at least in heaven’s eyes. Repenting of our sin, and understanding grace. Yes, the Parable of the Lost Sheep has many layers of meaning for us all.
The Lost Coin
But what about the other parable told in this gospel reading? The parable of the lost coin? Why would Jesus tell two different parables with the same meaning? Or do they have the same meaning?
This story of the lost coin is a little different, isn’t it? So, what’s different about it? Well, it features a woman, not a shepherd. A lost coin, not a lost sheep. But still, a search for what has been lost, and joy when it is found.
One of the details in this story that captures my imagination is the lamp.
“What woman,” Jesus asks, “having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
These coins are obviously valuable. Some have suggested that perhaps they represented this woman’s dowry, or at least her savings. Losing even one of them could have been disastrous. So, obviously she is going to search for this lost coin. And the first thing she does is to light her lamp.
Lamps are mentioned quite a bit in the Bible. God’s Word is a lamp, as Psalm 119 reminds us. Jesus is the light of the world, as he tells us in John’s gospel. We are called to be light to the world, as Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel. So this lamp, to me, is not an insignificant detail. And what might the lamp represent? God’s Word? Jesus? You and me? And I’m thinking that the answer is yes, it represents all of these things. What helps find the lost coin? God’s Word? Yes! Jesus? Yes! You and me? Yes!
You see, the first parable, of the lost sheep, seems to equate Jesus with the shepherd. But this parable, of the lost coin, seems more likely to equate the woman with us all. We can all go in search of the lost coin. We can all light a lamp, or be the lamp that lights the way for another.
Remember the old saying? – “You may be the only gospel that someone reads today.” You may be one the shepherd sends. You may be the woman in search of the coin, or you may be the light that helps find that lost coin. And how much joy will there be when the coin is found! When even one sinner repents.
And that sinner might be you. And it might be me. If not today, then tomorrow. And as long as we know that we are lost without Jesus, then we are ready to be the light that can help find the lost coin. All we have to know is that we have been found one more time than we have been lost.
We are here today because that is true. We have been found one more time. Placed on the shoulders of the good shepherd, and carried home. Now, it is time to join Jesus in search of those who are lost. We who have been found again are sent in search of the lost. And we dare not rest until every child of this earth knows how beloved they are to God. Until that glorious day, let’s light our lamp and get to work. To the glory of God. Amen.