It’s happened to every one of us at some point – maybe several times. You’ve misplaced some crucial document and it is now needed, or you’re unable to find something of yours that is costly – perhaps difficult if not impossible to replace, and you’ve searched high and low. At one point you begin to despair, certain you’ve exhausted every possibility. And then it turns up, or someone finds it for you. The wave of relief that comes over you is amazing, right? Now let’s ratchet it up a few notches. You’re at Disney World, and for all of 20 seconds you’re distracted, but it was long enough for your five year-old to have wandered off into the midst of tens of thousands of people. Yikes! And then there’s the enormous relief you feel when you spot them. Wouldn’t you agree it would be preferable never to have to feel that kind of relief – just to avoid the crisis altogether?
This morning we’re going to learn, not only about the value of finding lost things, but about the value of having the right values. Please turn in your Bibles to Luke chapter 15.
Have you ever had it happen that in the process of searching for a lost thing, you find other things you had either forgotten about, or had considered long gone? Suppose the unexpected find exceeded even the thing being searched for… Going after a stray sheep has more than once yielded far greater dividends, as attested to by a young Bedouin boy living in southern Judea named Mohammed, who, tracking a stray sheep, threw a rock into a cave (ostensibly to scare it out) and heard the sound of something break and went inside to investigate. The result was the single greatest discovery of ancient artifacts in the history of mankind: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Have you ever had to deal with someone so hostile towards you that you literally had to weigh every word you spoke, lest they purposely twist the meaning? That is characteristic of what it means when we say someone has an evil eye (cf. 11:34) – it means they have it in for you. Nothing you can possibly do will lessen their hostility, let alone win their friendship. Such an attitude, Yeshua told us, leaves a person in complete darkness.
Rabbi Loren has been walking us through the Gospel of Luke, and it is apparent by now that the Pharisees and the Torah Teachers were resolute in their opposition to Yeshua. They were not following Him around in order to gain wisdom from Him, or to re-evaluate their priorities. These men weren’t on a fact-finding mission, they were on a fault-finding mission. It was their hope to catch Him in something He said in order to discredit Him or worse.
So now they see all the so-called “low-lifes” coming to Yeshua, and these religious leaders are indignant. You have to wonder whether in some sick, twisted way, they were actually glad to have something to complain about; any excuse to level an accusation against the righteous Son of God, whose magnificent teaching and whose gentleness toward the weak served to highlight their own harsh, lifeless form of religion and their indifference to the needs of others. Tax-collectors (who were regarded as the ultimate traitors of the day) and the irreligious felt they could approach Yeshua. His welcoming of them was not an affirmation of their sinful lifestyle, but in fact was the catalyst that led such people to repent and follow Him. It was from tax collectors that we got a Matthew and from sinners that we got a Mary Magdalene. This is what Rabbi Paul had in mind when he wrote, do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?1 These Scribes and Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t understand the heart of the Father.
“These men weren’t on a fact-finding mission,
they were on a fault-finding mission.”
3 So He told them this parable, saying, 4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?
The expression what man among you… means that this is just plain common sense; and suggests that they are lacking it. Today we use other expressions like: give me a break, or you’re kidding, right?, or gee, d’ya think? (or my all-time favorite: Duh!). In any case, it was intended as a rebuke, since the truth of this should have been apparent to them. Yeshua’s audience understood shepherding. They understood that sheep are prone to wander off and get lost, and they don’t generally find their way home. They have to be pursued. A good shepherd goes after the stray.
It didn’t matter that it was just one lamb out of 100. Earthly wisdom says: “It’s a small loss, and probably not worth the risk”. Aren’t you glad God didn’t think of you that way? He says, “No! I’m going to retrieve the stray sheep!” Now let’s make sure we are clear about something: the sheep are a metaphor. This is about you and me, who, like sheep, are so prone in our sinfulness, selfishness and stupidity to wander away from good pastures into dangerous places. In spite of this, we are precious to God who considers us worth all the trouble in the world to redeem. He goes after the strays. Sad to say, these Scribes and Pharisees were harsh, self-centered “shepherds” (religious leaders) whose indifference to the flock and contempt for the strays was something roundly condemned by God through the ancient prophets.2
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 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 which was lost!’
Found! That’s the most important thing and the cause for great rejoicing; how far the sheep strayed is immaterial. The owner was determined to search until it was found. And when he finds that wayward sheep, it is not beaten. It is not berated, is it? No. In fact, he shows affection, carrying the sheep on his shoulders and maybe even singing for it as they return. Sheep are unique in the way they imprint vocal signatures on their brain, and they respond to the voices of their shepherd as to no other sound on earth. And see how the owner isn’t content to rejoice alone; instead he feels compelled to share his joy with his friends and neighbors. Those who are truly his friends would naturally rejoice with him. Even if it was just one sheep, their hearts are glad because his heart is glad. What kind of person would be displeased? And now Yeshua completes the metaphor.
7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The late beloved Messianic Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim cites a saying of the rabbis that reads (literally) “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.”3 What a stark contrast between the vindictiveness of Pharisaic religion and the determination on God’s part to bring sinners to repentance.
And what a picture of activity in Heaven! Those who have depicted Heaven as a pleasant but boring place have it all wrong. Every time a sinner turns from his ways and comes to God through faith in Messiah Yeshua, they are whooping it up there. On that Friday evening in March of 1981 there must have been a hundred or more people who, along with me, took the invitation to follow Yeshua, and who can begin to fathom the joy in Heaven that night? But we’re told there is more joy in Heaven over even one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. What I want to know is: who are those 99 people? Are there really any righteous people who need no repentance? I may not be an outlaw biker, but when it comes to this, I’m definitely a 1%er. I’m the stray. But our God searches out the strays – diligently, consistently and successfully.
To reinforce that truth, Yeshua goes on to give another analogy.
8 Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The silver coin was called a drachma, and it represented a day’s wages; so this isn’t a trifling matter. It represented for the woman a substantial portion of what she had worked to save. There are people right now lamenting that a significant portion of what they had saved through investments has been lost in the downturn of our present economy. Maybe you can identify with the determination she had to find that coin in the house. She knew it was there – she hadn’t spent it.
And how big is a coin relative to a house? The floor of an average home in ancient Israel was made of packed dirt. Can you see how easily a coin might get covered up with dust or dirt, or fall behind something. So the search is for one very small but prized object in the midst of a very large area. This is a big world, and you are comparatively very small, but you are treasured by God, and He will search you out until you are found! Now in this example we shouldn’t stretch each detail too far, or we will end up thinking that God lost you like the woman misplaced the coin. What Yeshua is stressing in this analogy is the issue of your worth to God and His determination to find you (assuming you belong to Him – the coin did belong to the woman). He will find you, no matter what it takes.
“This is a big world, and you are comparatively very small, but you are treasured by God, and He will search you out until you are found!”
Notice again the desire to share in the joy of having found what was lost. One sinner who comes to his senses and repents – turns to Messiah Yeshua, brings joy to those who dwell in Heaven. God’s priority is the salvation of human beings. If our hearts are beating with His, that will be our priority, too. Is it yours?
And now the third of the three parables, the most emotionally evocative of them all.
11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
We’re not told why the younger son wanted so badly to have his share of the estate and strike out on his own, but he certainly struck out. He had come to take the love and food and protection of his father’s estate for granted. Bear in mind that what the son did wasn’t normal behavior; it was highly disrespectful – akin to saying, “I don’t want to wait until you die, I want my inheritance now!” The father wasn’t obligated to concede to the demand, but he gives the foolish son what he asked for. The younger son has not only alienated himself emotionally from the family, but departs for a foreign land. It is a clear picture of what exile is like – being far away from the place of blessing and safety. Maybe loose living was the objective of the younger son in leaving his father’s house, or maybe it was just the inevitable result of foolishness. Either way, he bankrupted himself.
14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
The exile to a distant land was bad enough, but it was a self-imposed exile; he had made his choices. Now it is compounded by famine. When we remove ourselves from God’s covering, we subject ourselves to uncertain and even perilous circumstances. Sometimes I think we take the blessings we have in Yeshua for granted. We start riding the fence; seeing how close we can get to the world without getting burned. I know several people who have followed the example of the prodigal son, and they’re still in “exile”.
Remember, we are talking about Yeshua the Jewish Messiah telling a parable to a Jewish audience. And He says the young man was so impoverished that he took whatever job he could get, and the job was feeding pigs. Imagine that – a Jewish boy feeding pigs! Today it might not seem so bad, since there are plenty of Jewish boys feeding on pork. But we are meant to understand in historical context that this young man has fallen on disastrous times. He has completely hit rock bottom. It doesn’t get worse for a young Israeli than that he’s somewhere in a distant land, flat broke, having to work for a foreigner, feeding pigs for a job, and longing even to eat what the pigs were eating. His employer took advantage of his helpless condition, and wasn’t paying him – even the carob pods he was feeding to the pigs started to look pretty good. There is actually a rabbinical saying, “When Israel is reduced to (eating from) the carob tree, he becomes repentant.”4
17 But when he came to his senses…
There needs to be an honest admission. “I have screwed up my life completely. It is entirely my own doing. I’m not going to point the finger of blame at anyone or anything else; I’m not going to blame my circumstances.” In other words, the prodigal finally came to the place of acknowledging the foolishness of his choices, beginning with the decision to leave his father’s estate, and that he had only himself to blame for his pathetic situation. That’s called coming to your senses.
17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father.
He came to his senses, and he acted on what he knew was true and right. He turned around and came home. This is more than a change in philosophy. This is more than intellectual acknowledgement of wrongdoing without a change in lifestyle. He turned. The same Hebrew verb (t’shuvah) that is translated “turn” is also translated “repent”. Repentance isn’t defined by feeling bad about your sin. It means you turn away from that sin. You leave that way of life behind. And so he got up and returned to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The father saw him from a great distance. Do you know why the father saw him from a long way off – because the father was always watching for him! That’s the heart of God! And notice how delightfully undignified the father is – he runs to greet his son! There are no pretensions of pride. The father didn’t stand aloof and say, “Oh, look who’s finally figured out he was a dope! Well, if he wants forgiveness, let him come to me and beg me to forgive him.” There was none of that! With reckless abandon the father ran to his son and threw his arms around him. The son probably didn’t look very good or smell very good, given his most recent employment and the long, long journey he had been on. It didn’t matter. Who cares about such things when someone you love returns home?!
The son is quick to confess his sin against his father and against God. Have you noticed that instead of the word “God”, reference is made indirectly by use of the words “angels of God” and “heaven”? It was a common and reverential way of speaking about God in ancient Israel, lest we inadvertently ascribe to God motives or emotions of a human quality, which are impure, whereas God’s love is perfect.
There isn’t any downplaying of the son’s folly and sin (“this son… was dead”), but the overwhelming joy at his return overshadows it, and a great celebration ensues. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us!” So yes, he had sinned, but he has repented and returned, and now it’s time for celebration! But not everyone was happy.
25 Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 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.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in;
At first blush, we’re inclined to say, “Good grief, why the attitude?” We wonder why the older brother is so bitter and resentful. We identify with the younger brother because “all of us like sheep have gone astray” and we identify with the Father, because of his love for and welcoming back of the prodigal son. But more of us suffer from the older-brother-of-the-prodigal syndrome than we’d like to admit. This parable has been interpreted in many different ways over the ages. Many theologians have interpreted the older, resentful brother to be Israel, and the younger brother, the wild prodigal, to be the Gentiles. At one time you could have certainly made the case; Rabbi Paul spoke of God bringing salvation to the Gentiles in order to make Israel jealous.
Suppose I told you that today the brothers’ identities may have reversed; that the shoe is now on the other foot. It might surprise you to know that some Christians actually resent the modern re-birth of the nation of Israel. I’ve met Christians (even some pastors!) who are dismissive of the movement of Jewish people coming to faith in Yeshua; who look with distrust and disdain on Israel; who are quick to find fault with the Jewish people and some even go so far as to say things like “Since the Jews rejected Jesus, (never mind that Jews were the first evangelists for Him!) they are out of the picture now, and the Church has replaced Israel.” Is it possible that some in the Church are the resentful, belligerent older brother? Listen to what happened next:
and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
The first problem with the disconsolate older brother was that he felt he had to earn the good will of his father, whereas the truth is that the father loved both sons, regardless of their good or bad “works”. Yes, the prodigal rebelled, and as a result forfeited – for a time – the safety and generous provision he once enjoyed on his father’s estate. But this could never destroy the love of a father for his son, not even one so wayward.
The second problem with the older brother was that he had allowed bitterness to govern his feelings about his brother. Rather than pity his younger sibling the inevitable woes that accompany godless living, the older brother saw himself as morally superior, and resented the fact that ‘walking the straight and narrow’ didn’t seem to get him any greater reward than the one who spurned their father (and blew half the inheritance monies).
Even if he felt his grievances were legitimate, was it really too much to hope that he might restrain his anger for the sake of his father, who was overjoyed that his wayward son was alive and had come to his senses and returned? We witness in the father’s plea to the older sibling yet more humility. Just as the father did not consider it beneath him to go running to greet his returning prodigal, he was not too proud to go out to the older son and beseech him to celebrate with them.
Yeshua never did quite finish the story, and I have to believe it was intentional. The end of the story for each of us is yet to be played out. It comes down to whether you are willing to admit your own resentments and wrong ideas about “rights” and to do your part to heal broken relationships. It comes down to whether you are willing to repent of self-righteousness, to welcome those who may have hurt you, and who are only recently coming to their senses and returning home, and to come join the festivities that are even now in progress. The parable may end in joyous reconciliation or in bitter isolation. It’s your call.
But know this for certain: God seeks out the strays. And I, for one, am grateful that He doesn’t give up His search. He will go as far as is necessary, and in fact we know He already went to unimaginable lengths, and great personal cost, to retrieve us. He sent His Son Yeshua, to give His life in our place; taking the punishment that we deserved; dying so that we might live. Aren’t you glad God sought for us? Aren’t you glad He succeeded?
1 Romans 2:4
2 See, for example, Ezekiel 34:2-10
3 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah © 1971 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, pg. 256 (quoting Sifre, Friedman ed. pg. 37).
4 Edersheim, pg. 261 (see also footnotes)