Everyone has a story about getting lost. Whether it be wandering off in the mall at and young age and turning to mall security for help, failing to find the way from home to the library, or driving the wrong way down a bus lane in a remote area on a late night. Even if you’ve never been physically lost, you’ve no doubt lost something – a favorite toy as a child, your keys, your trust in someone. Perhaps you’ve even lost your sense of who you are.
Jesus knew about the unshakeable sense of being lost that all people get from time to time. In today’s passage, Luke 15, we find three of Jesus’ most famous parables: the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. The context? The religious leaders don’t like the crowd that is gathering around Jesus - or the fact that Jesus seems to welcome this audience of “low-lifes”, in their estimation.
Put together, the similarities and differences between the three stories Jesus tells so clearly illustrate the different aspects of what it means to be lost – and found again.
For one thing, there are different levels of lost-ness in these three stories. In the first story, the action depends entirely on the woman searching; a coin cannot help being lost, nor can it know that it is lost. The coin’s utter inability to help itself in any way demonstrates our complete dependence on God, as expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a grace of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (NIV).
In the second story, the sheep does wander off, but it doesn’t have much intention of rebelling. It just takes a wrong turn. It may know that it is lost, but it cannot know where the shepherd has led the flock, or how to get back “home”. This story feels gentle and sweet, as the shepherd tenderly cradles the lost sheep in his arms and throws a party for his neighbors just to celebrate the return of livestock. The lost sheep recalls the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Though lovers be lost, love shall not.”
The most famous story, however, and the most detailed, is undoubtedly the Prodigal Son. In this story, the lost thing – the son – leaves very intentionally, rebelling against his father and demanding the inheritance that he would have otherwise received only after his father’s death. The father doesn’t go out and find him – instead, the son feels his own need for his father after his money runs out and his friends abandon him. He gets homesick for his father, like St. Augustine, who writes that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
In the story of the Prodigal Son, his father waits patiently instead of searching, like a parent keeping the light on until a curfew-breaking child comes home. The father seems to know that his son must come home on his own – but as soon as he does, he’ll be there with open arms to welcome him.
No matter the story, being lost is never a pleasant state to be in. Jesus wants his audience to understand clearly: it is miserable, and scary, and lonely to be lost. We have all been separated from God by sin, lost to death and purposelessness and the temporary things of the world.
But that doesn’t have to be the end. We can come home.
We all know what it’s like to feel lost, true. And we all know what it’s like to yearn to go back home. Jesus’ message is simple: because God so loved the world, you can be found again.
- The beginning of this chapter tells us not only that Jesus was eating with “sinners”, but specifically tax collectors. Tax collectors were considered particularly bad sinners if they were Jewish men who worked for the Romans. They were considered traitors, complicit in the oppression of their own people, taking money from them for the pagan overlords, and sometimes taking a little extra for their own pockets. While it’s easy to admire Jesus accepting such people from a distance - today’s tax collectors are not viewed the same way. Who do you think would be modern equivalents to these tax collectors? Who are the lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons of today?
- Would the religious leaders today be uncomfortable with Jesus accepting them?
- Attached is a link to a long poem called “The Hound of Heaven,” which imagines God as hunting the sinner. What do you think of this interpretation? https://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/HNDHVN.HTM
- An aspect of the parable that merits more attention is the plight of the older son. Why doesn’t he come in to the party at the end of the story? What kind of person is represented by the older son? What can we learn from him? Keep in mind Luke 15:2!
- Is it possible to be so lost that you cannot be found? Is there a level of lostness that God cannot or will not reach out towards, or is that a self-imposed limit?
- Some people struggle with the words of Hebrews 6:4-8. Does this passage suggest that there is a “point of no return” where it is no longer possible to be saved? Does reading the further context of Hebrews 6, especially verses 19-20, give any hopefulness to this passage?
- In theology, the study of how a person gets “saved” - and what they are saved from! - is known as Soteriology. The famous hymn “Amazing Grace” gets at the heart of Protestant soteriology: “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” Here are some soteriological questions that arise from the three parables Jesus tells:
- When it comes to our ability to get ourselves back home to our Father, are we more like the coin (completely helpless), the sheep (mostly helpless but able to recognize we are lost), or the son (able to get ourselves home once we decide to stop rebelling)?
- What did the lost son do to deserve that kind of love from his father? How does that relate to our relationship with God?