Jesus speaks of his mission in light of the lost in three parables in Luke 15. In each of the parables, Jesus introduces us to a main character. First, in verse 4, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep . . . ?” Then, in verse 8, “Or what woman, having ten silver coins . . . ?” And again in verse 11, “There was a man who had two sons. . . .” The point is not to say that God is a shepherd, a woman, or a father. Rather, Jesus is comparing their attitudes and actions with God’s attitudes and actions. If a shepherd is like this, if a woman is like this, and if a father is like this, how much more is God like this?
So what do we learn about God in Luke 15?
The Lost Sheep
First, we learn that seeks and saves. We see this clearly in each of the parables. Jesus begins with the shepherd—strong, tender, seeking the stray. The parable is reminiscent of Isaiah 40 and the divine shepherd who gently carries nursing lambs, holds them close, and brings them to safety. Our God is active in searching out those who are lost.
In my neighborhood, on almost every light pole, there are signs for lost dogs or cats. When I first noticed these signs, I felt a tinge of sympathy—for the dogs anyway (the cats probably wanted out). But nothing seemed to happen. The seasons changed. The pictures grew faded because of the weather. And yet, many of the signs are still up today. I can’t help but wonder: is anyone actually looking for these animals? Do they expect me to do all the work? Did the owners just put up signs and assume the pets would read them, realize they’re missing, and saunter on home? This is not the way God seeks. The shepherd doesn’t just put up a sign that says, “Hey, I lost a sheep.” He leaves the 99 behind and goes after the one who is missing.
The Lost Coin
In the second parable, Jesus tells the story of a woman who loses one of her coins—a drachma, equivalent to a denarius or a day’s wage. She doesn’t wait for the coin to come to her. She lights a lamp and sweeps the house. She seeks diligently until she finds it. This woman searches for what is lost like a mom, not like a child. I have kids. I know how this goes. One of my boys will come to me and say, “Dad, did you find my iPod?”
And I’ll say something like: “We got you an iPod? What were we thinking?”
Then he’ll say, “Come on, Dad!”
And I’ll say, “Okay, where did you look?” “I . . . I looked on my bed.”
“We have more places in the house than your bed. Why don’t you look somewhere else?”
“Well, I can’t find it. Can you find it?”
“No, you look for it.”
“Why don’t you look for it?”
“Am I your iPod’s keeper?”
Then I go downstairs and see the iPod sitting on the couch, middle cushion, dead center. “Did you look here?” I ask.
“I didn’t think to look there.”
Kids don’t know how to search, but moms do. And they expect everyone else to know how to find things like they do. My wife sometimes plays a trick on me. During the summer, when it’s hot and humid, and my fingers get a little sticky, I’ll take off my wedding ring at night and put it on the nightstand. In the morning, if I forget to put it back on, my wife will hide it and just watch.
“Honey,” I say, “where’s my ring?”
“I don’t know,” she says sheepishly.
“You took it, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know where it is. But I know where my ring is because I love you.”
Of course, she knows where my ring is, but she wants me to look for it. She wants to see that I’m sorry to have lost something so valuable and precious. She wants me to seek it out, to go and find it .She wants me to sweep the house like the woman in Jesus’s parable.
The Lost Son
In the third story, we meet a father. This parable is more complicated, so we need to be careful. We don’t want to overinterpret parables and try to make every detail teach some lesson. I suppose someone could argue that the example in this parable is different because the father never actually goes out and searches for the son. But that would miss the point. The point is that while the son is still a long way off, the father sees him, is filled with compassion, runs to him, throws his arms around him, and kisses his cheek. Like his father, God welcomes home his children. He seeks out prodigals and profligates.
And he’s seeking people in our cities. The university town where I minister is one of Michigan’s more liberal counties. Our church has several hundred members, a nice size but nothing enormous. Our growth has been slow and deliberate. No great revival has broken out. It’s tempting to think that there aren’t many more people left in our area who are looking for a church. That may be true, but God is still looking for sinners here! There is one seeking out the lost more than any of us. That ought to give us patience and it ought to give us love for those who seem (or feel) the most unlovable. Perhaps that person in your life who is so frustrating, so belligerent, or so opposed to everything you stand for is the lost coin God is searching for or the lost sheep he has left the 99 to go and find.
Jesus’s Mission and Ours
You may wonder, what is the mission of Jesus? What was the purpose of his ministry here on earth? How you answer this question will profoundly shape the priorities of your life and your church. Did Jesus come to make people nicer? To get people to recycle? To get a candidate elected? What was his mission?
Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder. Jesus answers that question himself. In Luke 5, Jesus is eating a meal with Levi, a tax collector whom Jesus has just called to be a disciple. Right on cue, the Pharisees and scribes grumble and wag their fingers at Jesus. But listen to his reply: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” That is what Jesus is about. That is his mission.
This means the church better have a category of lostness. We talk about the unchurched, the underchurched, and the dechurched, and all of these terms have a place. But let us not forget this biblical category: lost. People are lost and need to be found.