In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, the Lord Jesus Christ tells three parables about loss, together with the joy associated with recovering those things which seemed irretrievable: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The chapter begins with our narrator describing the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus’ familiarity with the publicans and sinners who had flocked to hear His discourses and then afterwards invited Him and His disciples to dine with them in their homes. They criticized the Lord’s willingness to associate with those who were, in their estimation, beyond the pale of salvation.
The Unrelenting Sorrow for Sin
The leadership of the Jews was clearly not interested in working with those who had enmeshed themselves in the consequences of blatant sin. Apparently they felt that all that was required of them as religious authorities was to merely point out for the general populace, which of their neighbors was “unclean”, by the standards imposed by their understanding of the Law of Moses. They would not teach or aid in any way those who were degenerates in their eyes.
If one of the fallen were to return to the fold, however, the scribes and Pharisees took no joy in their redemption, but with a sanctimonious face, they frowned upon those who were attempting to conform their lives to righteousness. In their considered opinion, once a person had been classified as a publican or a sinner, there was no help for them. They were corrupt beyond redemption.
The essential point of these three parables has to do with the joy expressed by the shepherd, the housekeeper, and the father at receiving again that which had once been lost, but had been subsequently found. The Pharisees and scribes took no joy in the repentance of a rascal. Jesus basically pointed that fact out and asked them why it was so. The addendum at the end of the parable of the Prodigal Son clearly indicts the Pharisees and the scribes for their lack of natural affection.
The Lost Sheep
Jesus suggested to His critics that the publicans and the sinners were the lost sheep, and that the work of the shepherd is to gather in all those who pertain to his flock. If the ninety and nine are already safely ensconced in the sheepfold, what need is there for the shepherd to stand idly by while the lost lamb welters in the wilderness?
The crucial work of the shepherd is to secure all of the sheep. Ironically, in most respects, the Pharisees and scribes were as lost as any of the publicans and sinners, but they did not perceive themselves so. The publicans and sinners, at least, were willing to listen to the voice of the Shepherd when He came calling for them; the scribes and Pharisees were not. The latter perceived themselves as already within the sheepfold having no need of the offices of the Shepherd, but they did not hesitate to bleat loudly when the Shepherd plied His trade in the wilderness.
The singular principle illustrated by the parable of the Lost Sheep is the joy of the shepherd occasioned by the recovery of the lost sheep. A great deal of time and effort might be expended in an attempt to illustrate the value of the one sheep in the face of the other ninety and nine. From that one sheep might yet come generations of profitable and healthy sheep. The loss of one animal tends to diminish the whole flock; the potential of all is measurably decreased. The shepherd cannot afford to console himself with the ninety-nine that are safe, even when the ninety-nine find his actions reprehensible. That the friends and neighbors of the shepherd might find their associate’s ebullience amusing and perhaps even excessive is fundamentally unimportant to the nature of the parable. It is the very ebullience of the shepherd that the Savior is commending to the Pharisees and scribes.
The Lost Coin
This second parable illustrates the same principle as the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in that it is the joy of the woman who found her lost coin that is of most importance. If in the case of the lost lamb, its absence was the result of the animal wandering off inadvertently, the coin in the second parable is to be diligently sought because of neglect on the part of the woman. The ten original coins constituted the woman’s dowry, that which she would resort to if something were to happen to her husband. One-tenth of her “portfolio” had gone missing and she was frantic to find that tenth.
Given the actual value of the coin, which was about the same as a day’s wage for a laborer, the celebration would seem unwarranted. Yet to the woman herself, the tenth part of all her resources had fallen from her care. The coin was undoubtedly well-secured originally; a small hole in the coin was used to attach the coin with thread to her clothing. It was neglect of the wearing thread that held the coin fast that allowed that portion of her dowry to be momentarily lost. From one perspective, the woman was announcing her carelessness to the entire world by calling her friends and neighbors to her home for a celebration. The point is, however, that her joy was so great and consuming that she was willing to be mildly embarrassed in order to be able to share the story of her loss and happiness with those around her. The embarrassment of the Pharisees and scribes, however, at being associated with any of the “lost” among them, was too much, for they were incapable of perceiving the intrinsic or relative value of any of the publicans and sinners.
That which brings joy in the heavens is not related to some categorical system by which souls are evaluated according to a joy-producing matrix. Every soul is of inestimable worth to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ regardless of the relative value mortal men place upon it. The Pharisees and the scribes held that the publicans and the sinners (and a great number of other strata in their society) were of no worth whatsoever, and when the loss of these men and women to the kingdom of God became apparent, they refused to be moved by their plight and immediately dismissed them as a cause not worth pursuing. A true servant, the Savior implied, would be as the woman in the parable, scouring every corner of her house until she found that person of inestimable worth.
The Prodigal Son
The sobriquet given the younger son derives from Latin roots that mean “drive away, squander” which clearly refers to his bad conduct rather than to spirit of his return. This is the story of a vicious young man, a true prodigal. The theme of the Parable of the Prodigal Son follows in the same vein as the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. The emphasis is on the joy of the father when the recalcitrant boy relents and returns to do that which is right.
The younger son requested a settlement of his inheritance. We are not told specifically how much that would have amounted to, but one might surmise that it was approximately one-third of the total assets of the family. In that day and age, some interpretive schemes for inheritance at any father’s death decreed that the first-born was to receive a double portion; in others he was to receive all. In the case of this parable, it would appear that there are two sons only, and the younger is petitioning for his “rightful” share as an adult. Liquidating family assets sufficient to satisfy the request must have posed significant problems for the father and the other son.
After scurrying off to a far country, the young man soon fell on hard times, indeed. Having squandered all of his inheritance in vicious debauchery, he sought for any employment that he could find. Swineherds were despised above all others in Jewish society. Swine were “unclean” animals according to the Law of Moses. The House of Israel had been proscribed from eating the flesh of a pig and they were enjoined from even touching the carcass of any dead animal. For a Jewish man to have accepted such employment, notwithstanding all of his other violations of the Law, would have been considered a shaming, disgraceful act. Self-discovery was inevitable; the boy would come to his senses primarily because he realized that he had become an attendant to animals which were redolent of his own character and conduct.
The Return of the Prodigal
The cynic will say that the plan of the young man to return to his former dwelling place to be with his family is hardly a statement of repentance. These words proposed by a starving man, says the doubter, are no more than a deliberate appeal to self-satiation, the very problem that began the whole sordid affair. Such a take on the nature of repentance belies a pattern of thinking contrary to the true nature of the principle. Repentance is a process, not an event. It is a turning about in one’s tracks and making the long, slow trudge back to the place where the sinner left the high road to eternity. We may not be pleased with the young man’s motives, certainly the elder brother was not, but the desire to be in an improved situation is a hopeful beginning and even that bleak desire ought not to be despised simply because it is not fully developed at the moment of germination.
The young man is not a complete fool. He knows that he has squandered all that was due to him as a son. The inheritance is no more. But the boy recognizes that in his father’s house there is truth, light, justice, and above all, mercy. He knows his father’s heart and is certain that he will at least have food to eat; he will not starve to death, a certain fate which awaited him in the strange land where he had debauched himself.
The recitation of the younger son’s confession, that which he had planned to say, was cut short by the father’s exuberance. The son is not given the opportunity to say, “make me as one of thy hired servants”. The boy had come for bread, and perhaps for a place to be secure from the evils of the world. If we are inclined to concur with the cynic that the son was merely attempting to satisfy his desire for food and lodging no matter how poor, one must also consider the effect of the father’s ebullience expressed while holding his child in his arms. Could the boy not be positively affected by such an outburst? How would the abject sinner, aware of his transgressions against God and man, react at such a reception from his God and Father at the first sign of a change of heart? Psychologists would refer to this episode as an example of “positive reinforcement”; perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it by its true name, “love”.
The father then proposes a sacrifice in honor of the safe return of his child. Two of the sacrifices under the auspices of the Law of Moses allowed for the consumption of the animal by the participants: the sacrifice for sin (against God and man) and the sacrifice for thanksgiving. In the first, reconciliation between offended parties came about in part by their sitting down and sharing the meal prepared. Generally these preparations were made by the offender. The father here is proactive and humble, accepting the role of the offender, as had been insinuated by his younger son when he had first demanded his inheritance. The offenses against God were laid to rest as the priest and his family participated in the ritualistic dinner. The second type of sacrifice, that of thanksgiving, constituted a formal expression of gratitude for some unexpected or culminating blessing. Certainly, the sacrifice of the fatted calf would have served a dual function in this case.
The Firstborn Son: A Scribe and A Pharisee
The elder son was tending to the affairs of the family’s enterprises. When he arrived home after a hard day’s labor, an obvious celebration was in progress, the sacrificial altar still smoking, and the elder son was in no condition to enter into the festivities. It would take him some time before he could be washed and clothed properly in order to be a participant.
Once he learned what was about, the heir was furious: mercy had robbed justice in his view. If the truth be known, the elder brother wanted revenge. This self-indulgent boy, his younger brother, had almost ruined the family, had steeped himself in the vilest of sin, and was now returning almost as a triumphant hero to the house that he had put in jeopardy, whose residents he had defamed and scorned. The Pharisees and scribes were equally livid at Jesus’ fraternization with the publicans and sinners.
How is it that the elder brother was not as compassionate as the father? The father continually looked for the return of his son out of a deep and abiding sense of love for both of his children. No doubt the elder brother would have preferred to give the boy a sound thrashing rather than accept him back into the fold. How troubling was it to the Pharisees and the scribes to learn that the publicans, sinners, and Gentiles could have a place in the kingdom of God, notwithstanding the fact that they had not respected the Law of Jehovah?
Thus, in the third of the three parables of loss and redemption, the Pharisees and the scribes are convicted of the shallowness of their expectations and their lack of comprehension of the principles of mercy and forgiveness. Why did not the elder brother rejoice at the homecoming of his fallen brother? Why was he not as joyous as the shepherd and the woman? Why did the Pharisees not rejoice at the redemption of the sinners, publicans, and Gentiles? The notion that the wicked could be as precious as the righteous in the eyes of a loving God had never entered into the minds and hearts of these men. Can we not also perceive our eternal part in the redemption of mankind in these stories? Should we not scour the countryside, search every household, and constantly be on the lookout for the souls of lost men? Is this not the whole duty of the disciples of Jesus Christ?
More about “The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son”
“The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son” was written by Paul N. Hyde. The subject is manifestly important to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to every man or woman who seeks to find joy and happiness in this life and in the world to come. If you would like to know more about Mormons with no obligation, please click on the following links: