The Prodigal Son
Big Idea: Heaven rejoices over repentance so Jesus seeks lost people
I wonder just how much of a parent’s life is spent hunting for things their children have lost? Parents, what do you think? 30%?
This week Rachael and I were hunting for a tiny piece of lego that our daughter Elizabeth had lost from her new set. It was missing and she needed it to finish the next step of the build. We suggested just moving on and seeing if it turned up. We suggested replacing it with a similar alternative. But nothing would do apart from exactly that one missing piece.
So we began to hunt. The table. The floor. Under the chair. And then through our other lego to see if we could find a match. Perhaps you’ve met our lego collection but if not, suffice to say, we do have a piece or two. The good news here is that eventually Elizabeth discovered she’d already put that piece onto the model, just in the wrong place - cue much rejoicing from her and an opportunity for her searching parents to grow in grace!
But do you know what it’s like to have something go missing, something precious to you? You know it’s somewhere - can’t just have disappeared - but it’s not where it should be. How long have you spent searching for something like that? The photo you know have somewhere. The missing shoe. That crucial piece of paperwork you need to complete the form. The homework for tomorrow that you mislaid.
Jesus knows what that’s like: to be missing something, something precious to you.
We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke, Luke’s biography of Jesus, for over a year now here. We’re taking it bit by bit so we really have chance to think about what each section has to teach us, and to consider who this Jesus is that it’s showing us. Today we come to a section where we see Jesus getting hassle for hanging out with the wrong sort of people - at least according to the goodie-goodie religious types grumbling at him.
He responds with three stories about how much God wants those people back and how happy he is when he gets them. We’re going to take on the first two of these stories today because they are very similar, giving us two chances to see the same thing. We’ll look at the third next week because in that one Jesus takes things to another level.
Jesus’ first two stories tell us about things which aren’t where they belong - they’re lost - but someone misses them enough to go look for them. And when they’re found and safe home everyone gathers to rejoice. What does this have to say to us today? Well, let’s read together first, and then we’ll dig in and see.
Rachel’s going to read for us this morning and we’re in the book of Luke and if you have one of these blue bibles we’re on page _______. We’re looking at chapter 15, that’s the big 15, verse 1 which is right at the big 15, page _________. Chapter 15 verse 1.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I 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. “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? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Goodies and baddies
Goodies and baddies
Before we dive into these two parables, these short stories Jesus uses to make his point, just a moment on the context: what leads up to this encounter? what’s gone before that we should be aware of? If you were with us last week, you’d have heard Caleb helping us consider Jesus’ serious words about just how costly it would be to choose to follow him. Keep that in mind as we meet our cast of characters. Jesus has just been speaking about the cost of discipleship.
So on the one hand we have these “tax collectors and sinners”. Taxes are never popular but in Jesus’ time and place there was pretty much no-one more despised than tax collectors: working for the invading oppressors, the Romans, they squeezed money out of their own people to pay to the enemy - and they got rich in the process! You can see that wouldn’t make you so popular, right? And sinners? That’s people who don’t measure up to moral and religious standards. Law-breakers. Baddies. But it also carried a sense of being an outsider in the religiously charged world of that day. Failing to keep the rules - whether deliberate or just because you were foreign - made you an outsider, a sinner.
These “tax collectors and sinners” are gathering around Jesus, gathering around him to hear - and they’re probably considering following him since Jesus has just had to warn them to count the cost first.
And set against them there are these “pharisees and teachers of the law”. Pharisees were the ultra-goodie-two-shoes of the day. Keeping every religious rule to perfection. Knowing their bibles back to front and inside out. Utterly committed to their religion, they were seriously impressive and well respected. These “teachers of the law” or scribes are experts in religious matters - particularly in Jewish religious writings. People who know what’s what and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong.
So basically we’ve got baddies v. goodies. And the goodies are miffed because Jesus is hanging out with the baddies. That just doesn’t compute. “He should be hanging out good people like us. What’s he doing spending all his time with those people instead?” And you’ve got to feel for them at least a bit.
So Jesus tells these three stories - a lost sheep, a lost coin, and one more for next week. Cliff-hanger! You’ll have to come back! These first two have a lot in common: lost sheep, lost coin. Let’s unpack them a bit.
Missed and sought
Missed and sought
What’s the first thing we should notice in these stories? Something’s lost - not where it should be, not where it belongs. But actually it’s more than that - something’s missed. See you could lose one of a hundred sheep and just write it off. One sheep no longer in the flock. 1% loss - oh well. Not so bad. You know Shaun did always have a bit of a limp anyway. You could lose one of ten coins and just shrug. Oh well. Still got my nine. But it’s not just that something’s lost - it’s missed.
The shepherd misses the lost sheep - we know because he goes after it. And he doesn’t just go after it - he goes after it until he finds it. The woman misses the lost coin - we know because she lights a lamp and sweeps the house - we know because she searches carefully until she finds it.
In both cases, Jesus speaks as though this missing and pursuing is a no-brainer, an automatic, obvious response to the situation. See that in v4 and v8? Suppose this happens, says Jesus, then don’t you do that? The answer is “well of course you do.” That’s how it’s written. Jesus is saying it’s totally obvious that when you find you’re missing something precious, you go after it.
So first thing: missed.
Restored at a cost
Restored at a cost
Second thing we should notice? These are stories of restoration, stories where what’s lost and missed is returned. The lost sheep is found and brought back. The lost coin is found and put back in the purse. In particular when we’re talking about sheep, we get the detail of v5. Finding the lost sheep, joyfully its hoisted onto shoulders and carried home.
Do you wonder why he carries it? Perhaps they just didn’t have sheep-leads in those days. Or sheep dogs for that matter. And given it had gotten itself lost once he wasn’t willing to take that risk a second time. Or perhaps the sheep is injured and unable to walk - or just paralysed by terror and not going anywhere by itself. Jesus doesn’t tell us - but he does tell us it’s carried home.
Now I don’t know how many sheep you’ve carried on your shoulders but I suspect that number is round about zero. Worth imagining for a minute what that’s like, what that means. Sheep are not tiny creatures - and it’s a sheep here, not a lamb; different word - not tiny nor particularly hygienic, especially when terrified. So picture putting something relatively large and relatively smelly up on your shoulders and then just walking all the way home. That’s dedication so it is.
With the lost coin we don’t get the same detail on restoration - instead we get more detail on the cost of the search, the energy expended in sweeping the whole house and searching carefully. In both cases we have restoration of what’s lost and missed - restoration at a cost.
Second thing: restoration.
Third and, you’ll be glad to know, final thing: these are stories of rejoicing. When what’s lost and missed is found and restored there’s rejoicing. In fact this note of joy is probably the strongest note in this whole section we’re looking at. There’s joy at finding a sheep, gathering community to rejoice, joy in heaven, then gathering to rejoice about a coin, and joy in heaven again. That’s a lot of joy for just a few verses!
And it’s worth noticing who’s rejoicing: the actor at the centre of the story certainly is. v5 there’s joy hoisting the smelly sheep up on shoulders. v6 and v9 both the man and the woman call their friends and neighbours together to rejoice with them - so the one doing the searching and finding is rejoicing. That makes complete sense.
But there’s a striking thing here: in both stories they want their friends and neighbours to rejoice with them. Just one sheep, 1%... Just one coin and it’s “hey! everyone! come and celebrate! time for a party!”
Rejoice don’t grumble
Rejoice don’t grumble
What’s going on here? Jesus’ primary audience is his critics, these goodie goodies. The parable is addressed specifically to them - see that in v3 “Jesus told them this parable”. See that in v4 “suppose one of you”. They’re miffed that he’s hanging around with the wrong sort of people. He tells them when what’s lost and missed is found and restored there’s rejoicing - and not just rejoicing: everyone is called to join in the celebration. Everyone. He’s looking right at them when he says that.
Jesus is casting these baddies gathering around him as the thing that’s lost, as the thing that’s missed. He’s the one doing the searching, hunting intently for them, ready to carry them back. His big point is heaven rejoices when just one of them is found and restored. Just one, and there’s a party in heaven. That’s why Jesus keeps such “wrong” company.
The one searching and finding and restoring calls his friends and neighbours, his community to rejoice with him when it happens - not to grumble like these guys are. Jesus wants the gathered community to rejoice just like heaven rejoices when the lost are found.
What does that have to say to us, here today? Well, if you’d think of yourself as part of Jesus’ community, part of his church, then he calls you to join him in rejoicing when the lost are found - and not to grumble when he goes mixing with the “wrong sort of people” in his search for them. If you don’t like the company Jesus keeps, he is speaking to you right here - so please listen.
But honestly I expect many of you will be thinking “well, duh! Of course you rejoice when one of God’s missing children is found and brought home.” I expect many of you will be totally happy to see Jesus rescue all sorts of different people: undesirables, outsiders - let’s face it, people like you and me. At least in theory - until they start showing up at your church.
Seek with God
Seek with God
I want us to think about two more audiences before we’re done today, though. Those goodies are there, listening to Jesus - but so are the disciples, Jesus’ committed followers who have left everything to join him and learn from him. They’re with him, listening, overhearing - and being challenged.
Perhaps here today you’d think of yourself as one of Jesus’ disciples? I hope many of you do. What would these stories have meant for Jesus’ disciples as they heard them? What do they mean for those of us who would put ourselves in that category? They show us just how much God misses his children, just how committed he is is to going after them, to actively and earnestly pursuing them. They explain why Jesus pursues his mission as he does, why he goes to all sorts of people. And they challenge us to join him.
Remember where we started? Our daughter Elizabeth was missing something - and so we, as her parents who love her and care about her, joined her in seeking it. And we rejoiced with her when it was found. Well do you love God? Do you care what pleases him, what causes him to rejoice? He’s missing things which are precious to him. Much more precious than a silly piece of Lego. He’s missing his own living, breathing children - made in his image, treasured by him, enough that He would give everything in pursuit of them - going all the way to death, even death on a cross.
What does it say if you don’t care that he’s missing what he treasures?
What does it say if you don’t join him in seeking what he’s lost?
What does it say if what’s so important to him just doesn’t make the cut in your busy life?
Jesus explains to his first disciples what he’s doing and why in these parables. He take them with him as he pushed on in this search throughout his life and all the way to his death. And then he passes this urgent commission coming straight from the Father’s heart on to them: as the father has sent me so I am also sending you - John 20:21.
Share God’s heart. Seek with Him. If you don’t know what that means for you, here’s how you can move forward: come join us this evening. In our evening gatherings we’ll dedicate time each week to thinking through how this looks in real life - and then challenge one another to actually go do it. Why not join us, at least for a test-drive? This is God’s heart, his passion, his priority.
Know you’re loved
Know you’re loved
Finally, one more audience Jesus is speaking to: these baddies, the tax collectors and sinners. The outcasts, the undesirables, the ones everyone would have seen as far from God. Maybe, just maybe, that’s you here today. Maybe people would say you’re the wrong sort of person for church, the wrong sort of person for God. Maybe you yourself can’t imagine that God would have anything to do with someone like you. And maybe there’s good reason for that too.
Jesus speaks this parable in front of these tax collectors and sinners and do you know what it says to them, to you?
Someone misses you - enough to come after you.
Someone cares about you, just one among so many, unremarkable and unimportant though you might seem - someone cares about you enough to pursue you. To pursue you with intensity. With persistence. Through difficulty. No matter the cost. Someone’s coming to find you.
Perhaps that’s exactly what’s happening right here and right now. Perhaps even today you can feel God’s love for you as he draws near? When you look back, you can see he’s been pursuing you, and now, right now, he’s here. Jesus is telling you that he’s come for you, to pick you up and carry you back to where you’re meant to be. You’re the one who’s going to be brought home - and God and all his people will rejoice.
If that’s you, what should you do? Notice in explaining both parables, Jesus repeats exactly the same description of what causes all this rejoicing: “one sinner who repents”. It’s old fashioned language but it tells you what you need to do now: repent.
What does that mean? Change your mind. Change your path. You were going one way and now it’s time to go another. Admit that you were in the wrong place, living the wrong way. Accept that Jesus has taken care of that - dying in your place so you don’t have to; putting an end to all the wrong in your life that was hanging over you. Commit to starting to go his way - with his help ‘cause it won’t be easy. Repentance is the road home, a road to walk with the one who loves you.
If that’s too much too fast, or you just want to talk to someone about this why not speak to the person you came with or whoever’s next to you - or you can come find me and I’d love to help you think this through. If Jesus is calling you home today, don’t miss it.
Missed. Sought. Restored. Rejoicing.
Let me pray and then I want to give you just one minute to reflect on what Jesus is saying to you today by his Spirit through his words.
So what is Jesus saying to you today? silence