There are few images more familiar to those of us who grew up in evangelical churches than that of Jesus with a lamb around his neck. From VBS lessons on flannel boards ( Yes, I know this dates me, but for you youngsters, they were the forerunners to the Smartboard) to illustrated children’s Bibles, this sentimental image shaped the imagination of many a young American Christian. The image is Biblical of course and is taken primarily from the parable in Luke 15 in which Jesus asked his listeners to consider the mindset of a shepherd that had lost one of his sheep. Would he leave the lost sheep to perish? Never. Rather said Jesus, “He would leave the ninety-nine and search until he found the one lost sheep and bring him home.” Now I have no idea whether or not a typical shepherd would in fact leave his ninety nine sheep, exposing them to the dangers of the wild and go after the one. But Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” and as was his way, he turned the prevailing logic of his day on its head and in his “foolishness” revealed the infinite wisdom of God.
As was often the case, Jesus told his parables in a context of controversy. On the occasion of this parable in Luke 15, the Pharisees and Scribes, who were continually offended by his flouting of their traditions were once again standing with arms folded, brows furled, grumbling amongst themselves; this time over Jesus’ choice of company. This perhaps more than anything else got under their skin for in their minds Jesus had gotten everything backwards. Those who were at the center of the cultic life of Israel, he ignored or worse, he rebuked. On the other hand, those on the fringes, ostracized by the elites, he embraced. From lepers and demoniacs to tax collectors and “sinners,” Jesus defied the social norms of his day; touching them, healing them, and eating with them. As they stood complaining about his audience of losers, Jesus told them three consecutive parables all reiterating the theme of heaven’s joy over the return of that which was once lost. A lost sheep, a lost coin and finally a lost son were the object lessons Jesus used to challenge the twisted perspective of the “righteous” of the day and to expose their false views of themselves and of God.
A Tough, but Necessary Admission
It is difficult for any of us to admit that we are lost. It takes humility and self examination. The Pharisees certainly would not make such a concession. In their blindness they thought they saw clearly and like a stubborn husband before the days of the GPS, who refused to listen to his wife tell him to stop and ask for directions, they refused to admit that they needed help. And hence they could not get their minds around Jesus’ ministry. If he really was the messiah certainly he would pow wow with those who had been working so hard to prepare the way by their meticulous concern for the law. Yet Jesus said that he had come to “seek and save that which was lost” and given their self assessment, this left them on the outside looking in. With bitterness they watched Jesus give the rabble such attention and heard him say that “there is more joy in heaven when the one lost sheep is brought home,” or when one sinner repents in other words, then over the ninety nine healthy and “compliant” sheep.
If only they could have seen themselves as they really were, as lost sheep, sickly and in need of rescue, then they too could have enjoyed the celebration of Jesus and all of heaven. It is here that we learn a valuable lesson, namely that seeing ourselves rightly is a necessary prerequisite for enjoying the celebration of heaven. As with the Pharisees, it is our tendency to over estimate our righteousness and under estimate our sinfulness. We tend to compare ourselves to others even if sub-consciously, rather than judging ourselves against the infinite holiness of God. In doing so, we find that there are always people worse than we are, keeping us from ever having to reckon with the true depths of our sin. I had a friend just say to me the other day, “I may not be the best guy, but I am certainly not the worst.” So what? God is not going to judge you over against the “worst” guys out there. He did not say, “be holier than the worst among you.” Rather He said, “Be holy as I am holy.” Until we come to grips with this reality we will continue to justify ourselves and overlook our failings, blind to the truly desperate state of our lost condition. For a quick status check of ourselves, we need only ask whether or not we are continually shocked by the riches of God’s grace and kindness to us. For as Jesus knew, until we admit and recognize our lostness, we will never appreciate the fact that we have been found, God’s grace will never seem amazing to us, and our praise will be tepid at best.
Hence he told these three repetitive parables. Repetition in the Bible is an important tool used to add stress and emphasis. When Jesus wanted to drive a point home to his disciples he said things like, “truly, truly, I say to you” or “Simon, Simon, Satan wants to have you” or “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me.” The Seraphim around the throne in Isaiah 6 and the four living creatures on Revelation 4 are singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” When we read repetitive words or phrases in the Bible it is as if the text is in bold print and our attention is to be on heightened alert. Therefore when Jesus piles up three consecutive parables about our lostness, we must sit up and pay attention. In the three parables of Luke 15, Christ not only forces us to reckon with our lostness, but does so in such a way that we might understand the disturbing depths of it.
The triad of parables begins by comparing us with a lost sheep. The metaphor of sheep is a familiar one to students of the scriptures in representing the people of God. Just as David, the man after God’s own heart, was a literal shepherd, so God made him the shepherd of his people and as such he represented the rule of God himself, the ultimate Shepherd of His people. As the Psalmist sings in Psalm 100, "He is our God are we are His people, the sheep of His pasture." In this particular parable Jesus is drawing on the image given in Isaiah 53 where we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” This is a text which could not be any clearer, making it hard to imagine how the pharisees, who were so studied in the Scriptures, could fail to apply the metaphor to themselves and instead look down their long noses at the poor wretches that had wandered away. Their lostness may have looked different, clean and sophisticated, but they were none the less lost apart from Jesus, the Good Shepherd. “All we…,” Isaiah said. That means pharisees and scribes, you and I. Though it may wound our pride to admit it, we all are to be compared with lost sheep apart from Jesus; at risk of destruction if not rescued.
It is Worse than You Thought
As helpful and necessary as the image of a lost sheep is, it does not ultimately go far enough in describing the true nature of our lostness, for the image of a lost sheep is a sympathetic figure. We are prone to feel sad for such a creature and to be sure Jesus must have wanted to stir the hearts of his critical listeners to have compassion for the lost. But in reality the truth of our condition is much worse and more offensive than can be communicated in such an image and this is where the third parable in the trio plays such an essential role. The story of the lost son, or the Prodigal son as we know it better, sheds a disturbing light on the reality of our spiritual condition outside of Christ.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son, rather than merely wandering off as a lost sheep, approached his dad and demanded that he be given his share of the family inheritance. This share would typically be given at the time of the father’s death of course, and therefore it is here that we begin to feel the weight of the young man’s disgraceful actions. In asking the father for the inheritance now, the boy was essentially saying to his father, “I want it to be now as if you were already dead.” The son wanted his independence; to be out from under his father’s authority. He wanted the Father’s stuff without the Father himself.
As readers, we should have ears to hear in this story echoes of the sin of Adam in the garden. There Satan tempted Adam and Eve with the very thing that the younger son in the parable was after. “Grasp after the fruit and claim your inheritance,” he offered them and “You will be like God.” In other words he tempted man with autonomy; independence from God. No longer would he have to rely upon God for the knowledge of good and evil. He would be able to leave the restrictions of the Father’s house and be his own man. Adam fell for it and in Adam we have continued to fall for it ever since. Like the prodigal son we want the Father’s stuff divorced from any relationship with Him. We dwell in the house of an infinitely wealthy Father who freely gives us of all he has, yet we want out. “Give us the stuff,” we demand. We want a good life, good health, a spouse and children, a good job and the like, but we want it without any of the demands of the Father. Understanding this is essential for seeing the true ugliness of our condition. Rather than being merely lost, we are obnoxious and spoiled rebels against the goodness of our all providing Father. Rather than finding our significance under his authority and in reliance upon Him, we have opted to consider Him dead and to launch out on our own autonomous quest.
From Park Avenue to the Pig Sty
Beyond showing us true disgrace of our rebellion, Jesus does us a great service in this parable by letting us also see the inevitable consequence of this rebellion. It may shock us that to consider that God, like the father in the parable, would actually give the desired inheritance to the ungrateful and self centered son. But, like Paul said in Romans 1, when man stubbornly chooses to worship the created gift over the gift giving creator, God eventually gives him what he wants and turns him over to his base desires. This is an under appreciated and frightening facet of God’s wrath that is worth considering. For generally, when we think of expressions of God’s wrath we envision horrifying images of destruction. To be sure there are such images given in the Bible and one day those more conventional images of God’s wrath will be revealed, but when Paul describes the wrath of God that “is being revealed,” he cites God’s judicial act of turning man over to those things he has chosen instead of his creator. The result, however, is just as devastating.
For, rather than being a fulfilling liberation in which we finally discover the joy of becoming captains of our own destinies, we find that we end up in the pigsty eating the husks of the pig's food. Though it may initially seem satisfying and while the Father’s resources can be exploited for some fleeting pleasure, eventually the well runs dry and the checks begin to bounce. Like picking a flower, you can take the beauty of it with you and have it as your own, but it will not last forever. Eventually it dries up and withers away. Only while it is united to the life giving stem and roots will it live. So it is with the riches of our Father. Apart from Him they go toxic, with brokenness and self destruction being the inevitable results when man untethers himself from the Lord. The prodigal son lived high on the hog for a period of time, but eventually found himself broke and envying the pigs themselves.
Amazing Grace how Sweet The Sound
These parables are not intended solely to expose us for the short sighted, idolatrous rebels that we are, however, rather they are ultimately designed to reveal the incredible character of our God. As you will recall from the story, the young man finally hit rock bottom and began scheming as to how he could regain a place for himself under the Father’s roof. “Certainly,” he thought to himself, “I could never expect him to receive me back as a son. After all I told him I wanted him dead, but I will ask to be taken back as a servant.” And so he determined to crawl back to His Father with his tail between his legs, smelling like pigs, and ask his father to let him be a servant in his house.
We can only imagine returning to our human fathers after such a painful and nasty departure. It is funny, I have used this story as a short evangelistic presentation for several groups of Chinese students over the years to introduce our relation to God and His unsearchable grace. Every time I get to the point of the son’s return, I ask them how they expect the Father to react and they always shout out, “he will kill him!” We may not quite expect that, but certainly we would expect hard words for his rebellious son and quite possibly his turning him away.
We know the story however, and it should never cease to amaze and humble us. The father appears to have been waiting and looking for His son, for when he saw him coming down the road He ran toward him to receive him. Remember, this is Jesus’ depiction of the heavenly Father’s love for the wretched “sinners” that he was receiving. It may be hard for us to conceive of God like this. Could it be that God really cares about us this way? Could He actually be like a shepherd who leaves everything to rescue the one lost? Could He really be like the woman in the second parable who turns the house upside down to find her lost coin? It seems so undignified. Could it be that God does not forgive begrudgingly, but rather delights to do so? For the father in this story, rather than remaining in the house, angrily tapping his foot and waiting with arms folded for the son to approach and grovel, instead threw the dignity of his position to the wind and ran with abandon toward his son throwing himself upon him and kissing him.
Then, as the son fearfully began to get out his prepared lines, it was as if the father did not even listen. After all, He never responded to the suggested deal. Rather, ignoring the young man’s proposal the father shouted to his servants and ordered them to slaughter the fattened calf and prepare to throw a party. He robed his son with new clothes, replacing the filthy garments he was wearing and placed a ring on his finger, restoring him as a son and more incredibly, as an heir. After grasping at the Father’s riches and squandering them, the younger son knelt in humiliation while the father restored him as a full member of the family with all the privileges and benefits they entail. What breathtaking grace; grace that can only be appreciated by one who knows he was so desperately lost but now is found. No one had to tell the Prodigal son how rich the father’s grace to him had been just as no one had to tell the prostitute that fell at Jesus feet weeping and washing them with her tears.
Even White Washed Tombs Are Filled with Dead Mens Bones
But the elder brother was a different story. To him, the excitement of the Father was not only excessive, it was offensive. After all, he had been faithful all these years, never even considering the unbelievably disrespectful choices of his younger brother, yet the father had apparently never even offered him a goat with which to party with his friends. From the fields he could hear the music and the partying, but he refused to come in and take part. As the pharisees thought about the ministry of Jesus, so he found it disgraceful that the father would behave in such a manner.
But this son, could not see what his younger brother was so painfully aware of in himself. For both men were guilty of the same basic sin. They both were more interested in the father’s gifts then they were in the father himself. They both had failed to realize that the real prize was membership in the father’s household. Those who think that they can earn the Father’s inheritance, it turns out, are just as guilty of self centeredness as those who think they deserve it as a birthright. The only difference was that the elder brother cloaked his selfishness in outward obedience which ironically proved to be the more dangerous of the two rebellions, for it was the prodigal that had learned to repent and who was in the father’s house partying.
The Pharisees, like the elder brother, could diagnose the sin of their prodigal neighbors, but their’s seemed innocuous. Therefore they remained outside, at a distance, grumbling with a self righteous disdain for the Father. However, had they been tracking with Jesus’ story telling they would have realized that He was giving them, not the prodigals, the real diagnosis. We must remember that this is the third parable in a series of three regarding God’s search for that which was lost. But what is the lost thing that God goes searching for in the third parable?
Our instinct is to say the prodigal. He was obviously in need of rescue. However, he actually came seeking the grace of the Father, knowing the desperate nature of his condition, realizing how badly he needed the father, regardless of the stuff. Surprisingly it was the elder brother who would not come and for whom the father left the “ninety-nine” at the party in the house and went out to find. The shocking truth of the parable is that the Pharisees, the self righteous, were actually the lost sheep. Many “sinners” ran to Jesus as the only possible hope of a renewed identity, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation with God. The Pharisees on the other hand, confident in their obedience saw little need for rescue. Like the pharisee in another parable who thanked God that he was not like the wretched tax collector, and as such they not only despised the younger brother for his ways but also the father for his kindness.
In the end we must see the story of both sons as the story of us all. There is none among us who is not lost and hopelessly in need of rescue, whether we be the flagrant rebel or the self righteous pharisee. Ultimately, we are all alienated from the Father outside of His house of feasting, whether in the fields of self pity and self justification, or in the pigsty of brokenness and despair. But the good news is that we have a jaw droppingly gracious Father who loves his lost sons enough to seek them out and bring them home. We must not forget after all, that it was God himself telling these parables, having left the glory of His estate to enter the fields and the pigsties of a fallen and cursed world in order to rescue the very ones he was addressing.
He had come to expose the sin of the self righteous, reminding them that in the end nothing can be earned. All that the Father has is theirs freely if they are His sons and daughters and that they are are no more worthy of a party than their “sinful” brothers. At the same time He had come to rescue those who know they have no hope; who know that they have so terribly dishonored the Father and squandered His gifts. To them he offered a new identity, teaching them that, as hard as it might be to imagine, the infinite wealth of the Father’s grace can never be exhausted by our sin. There is no groveling necessary. Full atonement and restoration are freely and joyfully given.
A Song That Only The Found Sheep Can Sing.
In Revelation 14, we are given a magnificent vision of the church standing with the victorious lamb on Mount Zion. It is a picture of the church triumphant in glory having come through the great tribulation. In the vision they are wearing white robes which we are told were made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Here stands an army of those who have had their pigsty stained robes washed clean and new by the costly love of the Father. As this glorious army of forgiven saints stands with their savior, we are told that they will be singing, in thunderous fashion, a new song of praise. But fascinatingly, John writes that the song they sing is a song that no one but the redeemed of the Lord knows. That is, while we who are in Christ, will one day join the choir of heaven which offers perpetual praise to the Lord, there is one song that we alone can sing. While the angels may praise God perfectly for many things, not even they can sing from our perspective, for it is only we who know what it is to have been so lost and yet to have been rescued by His grace; to deserve his eternal condemnation and yet to receive an infinite and eternal inheritance; to have been his enemies and yet be made sons and daughters. Only we, in Christ, can sing "How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure... Why should I gain from His reward, I cannot give and answer. But this I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom." May we sing it thunderously even now.