This is Part 11 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 10 here). Today I’ll cover The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7) and The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10).
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.
The main point of theses parables was to rebuke the Pharisees by contrasting their self-righteous condemnation of sinners with God’s joy in seeking and saving the lost.
Apparently, the Pharisees were muttering among themselves (Luke 15:1-2), which in the original Greek indicates an extreme form of grumbling and complaining. They considered themselves to be perfectly sinless, but according to their own legalistic traditions they could become unclean simply by associating with known sinners. Therefore, the Pharisees were greatly offended to see Jesus hanging around with sinners.
In addition, these weren’t just any sinners, but the worst of the worst⸺tax collectors. In First Century Palestine, the Roman occupiers would hire Jews to collect taxes from their fellow Jews, so tax collectors were considered traitors to the nation of Israel. Furthermore, Jesus didn’t merely associate with tax collectors, but He welcomed them and shared meals with them. That level of intimacy would have been tantamount to treason in the eyes of the Pharisees.
Thankfully, God doesn’t have the same condescending, judgmental attitude that the Pharisees had, or else we would all have to earn our own salvation before God would associate with us. Instead, God is patient and merciful, and He seeks us out while we are yet sinners (Romans 5:8). Jesus uses these two parables to beautifully illustrate God taking the initiative to seek and save lost sinners (Luke 19:10). Notice that both the lost sheep and the lost coin are incapable of saving themselves and therefore require a Savior.
Parable of the Lost Sheep
During that era, people living in a small village would pool their sheep into a single flock, and one of the villagers would shepherd the collective flock. If a sheep managed to wander too far from the flock and got lost, the shepherd would then be obligated to go and find the lost sheep. He wouldn’t say, “Oh well, we still have 99 sheep left.” That sheep might be the only thing that a poor family owned, and they might not be able to survive the loss of their only sheep.
Jesus asked the Pharisees to imagine themselves as the shepherd whose sheep was lost, which must have been extremely uncomfortable for them since they looked down upon shepherds. The Pharisees would have been forced to admit to themselves that they too would have gone after the lost sheep, although in their case it would have been financial pragmatism that drove them more so than love of neighbor. After all, sheep cost money and the Pharisees loved money (Luke 16:14).
The Pharisees would have understood the shepherd’s joy at recovering a lost sheep as well as the joy of his entire village. At that point in the parable, when the Pharisees had totally bought into the setup, Jesus made His spiritual point:
“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.”
God is by nature a personal, loving being (1 John 4:16) who goes to extreme lengths to seek and save lost sinners. He feels compassion for us because we are all helpless and defenseless like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), so it gives Him great joy to rescue us. He displays extraordinary patience by withholding His wrath even as we continually sin against Him (2 Peter 3:9), and He was even willing to subject His own son to the pain and humiliation of crucifixion in order to save us (John 3:16 and Hebrews 12:2).
God’s joy at saving sinners stands in stark contrast to the self-righteous and condemning attitude of the Pharisees. The Pharisees cared more about sheep than they did for their neighbors, and as Jesus pointed out, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12)
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees with His sarcastic remark about the “righteous persons who do not need to repent.” The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), so there’s no one who’s righteous and does not need to repent. The Pharisees had fooled themselves into thinking that they had kept the Ten Commandments, and unless they were convinced of their need for a savior, they would not turn to God in penitent faith. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Parable of the Lost Coin
During that era, a woman might receive a dowry from her father when she married or a dower from her new husband. In either case, the money she received was supposed to provide her with some financial security in case her husband died and she became a widow. The amount of money didn’t have to be a lot to be significant, because people at that time mostly bartered for the things they needed.
In this case, the woman in the parable had ten Greek drachmas, each of which was roughly equivalent to a Roman denarius, or a day’s wage for a laborer. That amount of money was significant, but not so significant that the woman could afford to lose one-tenth of its value without flinching.
Once again, Jesus posed a rhetorical question to the Pharisees, forcing them to imagine themselves as a woman. This would have been extremely offensive to them, because they considered women to be inferior to men. Yet the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, would have had to admit that they too would have searched carefully until the missing coin was found.
The woman was so happy at finding her lost coin that she couldn’t wait to tell all of her friends about it. The greedy Pharisees would have easily identified with that sentiment, and that’s when Jesus’ parable moved from the physical to the spiritual:
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Why is it that even the angels join in the celebration when a sinner repents? Certainly they rejoice because that’s one less sinner who must suffer the eternal wrath of God in Hell. The angels in Heaven always see God’s face (Matthew 18:10), meaning that they take their cues from His reaction, and God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32 and Ezekiel 33:11).
Even more than that, the angels are cheering God for being such a kind and merciful Savior (Revelation 5:9). Any Christian will admit that it’s a true miracle that after all we’ve done to offend Him, Jesus would willingly take the punishment that we deserve and instead give us a crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8). There’s not a single man-made false god who would suffer the same indignities from humans and then respond by volunteering to take their punishment. Only the true God of the Bible is deserving of all praise, glory, and honor.
Again, the infinite love that God shows for humanity is the polar opposite of the disdain that the Pharisees had for their fellow humans. In their hearts, they had to admit that they would do nearly anything to find a measly coin, but they did nothing to help sinners find salvation.
Jesus tells a very similar Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew’s Gospel account, but the meaning is actually quite different. This is a perfect example of why it’s so important to study the context of a passage before drawing conclusions.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:12-14)
In Luke 15, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees and rebuking them for not having the same compassion for sinners that God has. The emphasis there was on God’s extreme joy in saving the lost.
In Matthew 18, Jesus is addressing His disciples and rebuking them for arguing over which of them was Jesus’ favorite. The emphasis here is that God cares equally for all believers and does not play favorites (Acts 10:34). Jesus even prefaced this parable by saying, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Notice that Jesus used the word “one” to emphasize that every single Christian is equally valuable to Him. Verse 6 makes it clear that “little ones” refers to Christians.
This version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep was sandwiched in between a warning not to lead Christians into sin and instructions on how the Church should deal with a Christian who’s engaging in habitual sin. Therefore, the point is that God loves all Christians so intimately that He’ll notice if even one of them starts to wander off into sin, and He’ll go after that wayward Christian to return them to the fold.
Where People Go Wrong
In one of the worst cases of Bible twisting that I’ve seen, pastor Joseph Prince actually teaches that the Parable of the Lost Coin contains a hidden principle on tithing. This false teaching comes from a sermon entitled “God’s Best-Kept Secret On Tithing—Can You Take It?” In it, Prince claims that God has kept this principle hidden from the Church for thousands of years because of spiritual immaturity. But now God has chosen to reveal this principle to Prince via direct revelation. Prince claims that:
- The woman in this parable represents the Church.
- The coins represent money, finances, currency, or prosperity.
- The one lost coin out of ten, represents a loss of one-tenth (i.e. the tithe).
- Silver represents redemption.
- The lamp represents revelation.
According to Prince’s alleged revelation from God, this parable means that the Church has lost the principle of tithing, which began with Abraham. As a result, the Church has not been prospering like it should, and not just financially either, but holistically. Although Christians have been redeemed by the curse as a result of Christ’s death on the cross, our money has not been redeemed and is still under the curse. Therefore, God has given Prince this new revelation to share with the Church: God wants each of us to tithe 10% off of our gross income to the local church so we can remove the curse from the other 90% of our money and receive God’s full blessing.
I don’t see anything in the context that leads me to believe that Jesus had the principle of tithing in mind when He told the Parable of the Lost Coin. Yet Prince claims to have received this new interpretation directly from God, so maybe that means that I’m also wrong about the Parable of the Wandering Sheep in Matthew 18⸺God does play favorites. Maybe we should amend Jesus’ statement about John the Baptist to read:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet
whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven [my homeboy Joseph Prince] is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11 Joseph Prince Version)