Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

136. Lost and Found (Luke 15:1-10)*

The parable of the great supper had put the contrast between those invited who asked off, ond the poor and miserable who were brought in from the streets. Luke's record goes on immediately to tell of this parable translated into reality. That previous chapter (a man-made break, let it be remembered) concludes with: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." And now: "there were constantly drawing near to him all the publicans and sinners to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured." Not content to "make excuse" against their own acceptance of the gospel, they "murmured" (Gk: strongly and continuously) because others whom they despised were finding comfort in the lord's message. It was "murmuring" which had so often provoked the divine disgust of Israel in the wilderness. Why did they not think of this? Instead, they tried to "shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; they entered not in, and them that were entering in, they hindered" (Ml. 23:13; Lk. 11:52).

Notwithstanding, the people they despised kept on coming to Jesus, knowing well enough that he did not despise them. The ranks of the publicans provided Jesus with an apostle, and with patterns of prayer (18:10) and zeal (19:2) ond faith (Mt. 21:32).

It may surely be surmised that "eateth with them" implies at least one big feast comparable to that sponsored earlier by Matthew |Ml. 9:9,10). Perhaps Zaccheus was present, eager to hear every word and yet chafing at being unable in such a number to make more close personal contact with Jesus (lor how could he talk to them all individually?).

Nor was the criticism valid, that "this man receiveth (welcomes) sinners, and eateth with them;" for Jesus rejoiced in their coming to him os penitents (v.7), not as unregenerate sinners. So in rebuke of their hypercriticism he told two simple and very charming parables.

The Midrash has an apocryphal story about Moses going off into the wilderness to look for a lost lamb. When he found it, it was so exhausted that he carried it back on his shoulder. Pleased with this action, the angel of the Lord promised him that he should have the care of God's own sheep, Israel.

On an earlier occasion (Study 116) Jesus had used the same illustration to emphasize the duty of seeking reconciliation with an estranged brother. Now he used it again, with suitable differences of detail, to teach the virtue and obligation of finding and recovering any member of the flock of God who is lost.

"What man of you . . .", he began, thus stressing that if an ordinary shepherd will undertake such a search, how much more ought not he, the Son of God! David the shepherd had done this, fearlessly slaying the lion to recover his lost lamb. Then, at the very least there must be unflagging search, not just in the hope of finding, but "until he find it" (contrast here the "if so be that he find it" in the earlier version of the parable; Mt. 18:13). The prophet Ezekiel's censure of the false shepherds of Israel harps time and again on their blameworthy neglect-they had "not sought that which was lost" (Ez. 34:4,6,8,11,12,16; Ps. 119:176).

This silly sheep hardly knows it has a shepherd. It knows how to lose itself (without even knowing itself to be lost), but not how to find itself or its way back. In a later parable, the prodigal only "came to himself" when at the crucial time Providence brought hard circumstances to bear on his witless ways.

The rest of the flock in the wilderness are not without resources. Even there, there is enough grass to deter them from wandering. Did not Jesus feed the five thousand in a desert place where there was much grass (Mt. 14:15; Jn.6:10)?

When the lost sheep is found, the shepherd does not drive or lead it back, but carries it on his shoulders (Is. 53:6; Ex. 28:12), glad to have recovered it, and not grumbling about the toil involved. Back home, he invites his friends to share in his rejoicing, and without indulging in any grumble about having to carry itl "Even so," concluded Jesus, with an irony which bit deep, "there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentence." It may well be pondered whether there is any joy in heaven over 99 such persons.

To be sure, the Pharisees were in need of repentance as much as any. Much more than most! Their very smugness made them less attractive to Jesus than one of these despised sinners who was altogether genuine and sincere in his aspiration for a new life. It was, this contrast, doubtless, which caused Jesus to frame his parable in a way not at all according to ordinary shepherding. What shepherd would leave his ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness whilst he went away to find the missing one? But this detail was necessary in the parable to bring out stark and clear the relative worthlessness of the Pharisees who assessed themselves as the finest and safest of the flock.

According to the interpretation supplied by Jesus himself, the "friends and neighbours" represent angels. They who sang and shouted for joy at Creation (Job 38:7) and at the New Creation (Lk. 2:13,14) are now made just as demonstratively joyful over the reclaiming of one despised sinner. Perhaps the ascension of Jesus is implied by this detail, and especially by its future tense: "joy shall be in heaven." And this picture is powerfully filled out when the Apocalypse describes the Lord's ascension, his receiving the Book of Life, and the heavenly anthems which acclaim the fruits of his devotion and redeeming work (Rev. 5:7-14). But even in the days of his flesh Jesus spoke his parables out of knowledge of what takes place in heaven.

Whilst this parable was primarily a justification to the Pharisees of his receiving of publicans and sinners, it was also doubtless intended as an exhortation to the ecclesia to bend every effort to reclaim any lost brother, and, when success attends such efforts, to rejoice unfeignedly, for the finding of a lost sheep is not merely a restoration to membership of the ecclesia but to the kingdom of God (1 Pet. 2:25).

Having taught this lesson so pointedly, why should Jesus need to say it all over again in the parable of the lost coin? The reason appears to be in order to emphasize that whilst a sheep can only be lost outside the fold and away from the flock, a coin may be lost whilst it is still in the housel Also, this second parable is addressed much more pointedly to the ecclesia that was to continue the work of its Master. For, like the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs 31, this woman is a fitting figure for the church betrothed to Christ, the synagogue of the Lord —each coin was a drachma, the equivalent of the half-shekel of the sanctuary (Ex. 30:12,13); and it took ten Jews to make a synagogue. Otherwise there is no numerical significance, for the three parables of Luke 15 have one sheep out of a hundred, one coin out of ten, one son out of two.

The ten coins were probably worn as a necklace. The drachma was no longer in common circulation in the time of Jesus. So either these were temple coins (thus filling o similar role to that of a crucifix on the neckchain of a devout Catholic), or else they were o wedding ornament, a token of betrothal.

The frantic eagerness of the search may be imagined. Losing one sheep out of a hundreds bad enough; losing one coin out a treasured ten is much worse; losing one son (which of them!) out of two is a massive tragedy.

Certainly the best way to find the missing coin would be to sweep the entire house, even though it would mean raising a dust. The symbolism of these details, suggested by the Lord's parable, carries its own lesson. And as the woman swept, she doubtless blamed herself ceaselessly for the loss of something so valuable. It was precious because stamped as belonging to the King;) bore his image and superscription. And her gladness was because 'I have found the piece which I had lost,' not, as in the preceding parable, 'I have found my sheep which was lost.' The discerning reader will have no difficulty in seeing how right such variations and such details are.

Only the genius of Jesus could weave so mudi subtle and forceful significance into such short stories.

Notes: Lk. 15:1-10

What man of you . . . ? But would an ordinary shepherd leave the main flock to look after itself whilst he made long search for the lost one?

An hundred sheep. If there is any special meaning in this hundred, perhaps it suggests holiness: Gen. 33:19; Ex. 27:9; 38:27; 1 Kgs. 18:4; Is. 65:20; Dt. 22:19; and nine occurrences in Ez. 40,41.
Friends and neighbours. Different classes of angels? In v.9 the words are feminine!
Shall be. Then why "is" in v.10?

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