Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. The candle for this day represents joy. In Chapter 15, Jesus tells three parables that emphasize the joy experienced by finding the lost. These parables come in response to the Pharisees’ grumblings that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” (v 2, NASB)
In the first parable, Jesus draws on one of His most common themes, that of a shepherd and his sheep. The reason this is such common imagery is that Israel was soundly based in an agricultural society. Furthermore, the role of the shepherd goes beyond that level to religious significance, being used regularly throughout the Old Testament to describe God. Here Jesus asks a question that has an obvious answer for anyone in that culture. He asks, “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?” (v 4) He then emphasizes that this is not just a good thing, but a reason for great celebration. Jesus explains his reason for the story when he says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Two things strike me about this parable. First, I have to question leaving the 99 sheep unattended. But as I think about, it seems the emphasis on it being the “open pasture” is the thing of which we take note. This, with the combination of them being identified with the righteous, would seem to indicate that they were safe in the open pasture. But this then takes us to the second question that strikes me when it describes these individuals as “righteous persons who need no repentance.” If I had no other knowledge of scripture, this would seem odd to me, but in light of Romans 3:10, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one'” I really have to question this. My conclusion is that Jesus is using hyperbole, an extreme hypothetical situation, to make his point. He is not saying that there are people who do not need repentance but explaining how important it is to him to reach the lost.
He then presents a second parable to make his point, telling of a woman who lost one of her 10 silver coins. He says that she would “light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it.” (v 8) In modern terms, she would “tear the house apart looking for it.” Again, finding it leads to great rejoicing. And again, Jesus explains that his point is that “in the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (v 10) This carries an even great emphasis if we understand that the coin was 1) about a day’s wages, and 2) the ten coins may have been a dowry often worn as an ornamental headdress.
Jesus finally concludes his teaching on the subject of finding the lost with a parable most commonly referred to as the Prodigal Son. Here we find a rich man with two sons. The younger son decides that he has enough and asks his father to give him his share of the inheritance now. Now while most of us may laugh in our son’s face, and some may consider completely disowning him there for his greedy nature, this father does what to me is unexpected. He agrees and divides his belongings down the middle, giving half to the younger son, as he requested. I think that in this Jesus is emphasizing the point God does not force us to live his way. Instead, if we choose to walk away from God, he will let us. What comes next is no surprise, the young man moves away to live the “highlife” with his newfound wealth.
As we expect, the wealth eventually runs out, and of course, that means that his new “friends” disappear, leaving him destitute. To make things worse, a famine strikes the land. So to survive, he takes a job swilling the pigs. We should take note of the fact that pigs were, of course, considered unclean under Old Testament law, therefore emphasizing how far he had fallen. To make the final emphasis clear, he says that the young man was so hungry, he wanted to each what was being fed to the pigs.
After coming to his senses, the young man realizes that his father’s servants have more than he does. As a result, he decides to go back and ask his father to take him on as a servant.
Here is where things again change. As he approaches his father’s home, “his father saw him (at a distance) and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (v 20) The son tries to tell his father that his remorse, but he is ignored. Rather, his 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.” (Vv 22 – 24) The point here is also clear. Just as God allows us to walk away, he is always waiting ready to embrace us when we return.
This parable, however, does not end with the celebration, but rather with a response of the older brother. Now I think it is important to remember that Jesus is speaking in response to the Scribes and Pharisees grumbling about his hanging out with sinners. Here we find the older son becoming angry as he learns of the celebration being given by his father, in honor of his brother. He goes to his father and says, “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; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” (Vv 29 – 30) I think that it is very easy to fall into this category. When we feel that we have done everything right and yet we see those who have done everything wrong, “repent” and suddenly all is forgiven. For all the work we have done, we end out in the same boat as those who did everything wrong only to turn around.
The father recognizes the frustration being faced by the older son and responds by reassuring him that his reward is sure. But he points out that this is still a reason for celebration. “He said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’” (Vv 31 – 32)
My takeaways from this passage are: 1) A key part of the mission of Jesus was, and still is, to reach the lost. 2) God gives us the freedom to choose whether to follow him or not, And 3) we should not judge the past life of those who were lost, but rather, we should rejoice with Heaven when they are found.