Lost Stuff (Luke 15)

For my daily quiet time recently, I read the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, respectively (Luke 15).

I’m sure many of you know the stories. A shepherd leaves his flock in search of one lost sheep. A woman turns over her house to find one lost coin. A son takes his inheritance, leaves his father and brother, and squanders it, only to come to his senses and return to his father in humble repentance.

The lesson of the parables is that God and his angels are happy over one sinner who repents. And that’s why Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners: he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus told these parables because the Pharisees were challenging the company that he kept.

There are things that I don’t understand about the parables. They’re about repentance, but the lost sheep does not repent. Neither does the lost coin. They are passive characters (except, of course, the lost sheep exercised his free will when he left the flock). The only truly active character in the first two stories is God. And that’s only heightened by certain interpretations of the lost sheep parable, which suggest that the shepherd had to break the sheep’s legs to bring him back into the fold.

But I have a slightly hard time going with a Calvinist interpretation of these parables: the type that says they’re about God forcing sinners to convert by transforming their inward inclinations. The lesson seems to be that God’s happy when sinners turn to him. Would he be as happy if he’s orchestrating their whole turning to him in the first place? I can’t see the angels shouting, “Oh goodie! God’s making someone believe in him. One more soul has been forced into the kingdom!” But I can see them rejoicing about one sinner who voluntarily turns to God, after God has sought him out.

I also wonder how the sinner is lost. God knows where he or she physically is. In that sense, the sinner is not the same as the lost sheep and the lost coin, for those parables present the objects as being lost to God. God can’t find them, which is why he has to search. Maybe the sinner is lost in the sense that he doesn’t know his way, as the sheep in the parable ventures into unfamiliar territory and is probably glad to see his shepherd when he’s discovered. But how are we as sinners lost to God? When we are sinners, we are absent from any real relationship with him because of our spiritual alienation. Could it be that God misses us? And perhaps he’s searching for some part of us that can respond to his love. But I know that sounds really Arminian or Charles Finneyish, so I’ll stop there, at the risk of further offending my Reformed readers.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the lost son is the one who actively decides to return to his father. The dad doesn’t even search for him, even though he may have watched for his return day-in and day-out. Jesus was on the look-out for all kinds of sinners, and he hung around them to teach them the ways of God. In that sense, he was searching. And, yet, the sinners needed to accept him and his message. They had to repent. And so, in terms of salvation, God played a part, and the sinners played a part.

I kind of vary on whom I identify with in the parable of the prodigal son. In my post, Matthew 9:9-12: Jesus Eats with Sinners, I sympathize with the tax-collectors and sinners rather than the Pharisees. The reason is that there have been times in my life when the people around me seem SO perfect, whereas I, by contrast, look like a big-time screw-up. That’s why I like Jesus reaching out to the screw-ups of his day, the “out” crowd. But, this time around, I somewhat sympathize with the older brother in the parable, the one who’s upset that his father is celebrating the younger son’s return. He says to his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”

I’d be mad too. The younger son has a lot of audacity showing up. And it’s amazing how some people just seem to get breaks, regardless of how bad they’ve been. Here’s the older son, slaving day in and day out, doing what he’s supposed to do. But does he get a thank you?

I resent the way that the bad boy gets what he wants (and more). And that’s how it often is in real life. The bad boy gets the girl. That was always the way it was in high school: nice guys finish last. There’s something attractive about the bad boy. Remember that Seinfeld episode in which George pretends to be the bad boy to get that one girl? And Bill Clinton can screw up royally, yet people forgive him because they like the bad boy.

As I read these parables, I thought about the movie, The Emperor’s Club. It’s about a teacher at a prep school who tries to reach out to a rebellious teenager, the son of a U.S. Senator. The teacher is Mr. Hundert, and the student is named Sedgewick. Here’s Robert Ebert’s description of a crucial part of the plot:

“After a rocky start, Sedgewick begins to apply himself to his work–not so much because of Hundert as because of dire threats from his father, the no doubt thoroughly corrupt U.S. senator (Harris Yulin). When final exams are written, Sedgewick has so improved that he finishes fourth. But because Hundert wants to reward that improvement, and because even for him a rebel is more attractive than a bookworm, the professor takes another long look as Sedgewick’s paper and, after much brow-furrowing, improves his grade and makes him a finalist” (The Emperor’s Club).

Mr. Hundert liked the bad boy better than the more deserving student, who did what he was supposed to do. But, to his credit, he was also trying to reach out to the rebel, to encourage him to become better. And he comes to regret that decision. The Emperor’s Club kind of subverts the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

This is just thinking out loud. I know how I’m supposed to feel about these parables. I should be glad that God shows grace to sinners in the first place. And, ultimately, all of us are bad boys (and girls). But God doesn’t want us to stay bad. His goal is for us to become good.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Lost Stuff (Luke 15)

  1. Steven Carr says:

    ‘God is happier over one sinner who repents than over 99 who do not need to repent.’

    Luke 15:7

    I’m struggling over the 99 who do not need to repent.

    There is me, obviously.

    And James.

    But who are the other 97?

    They must exist, because Jesus would not lie about there being 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.


  2. Steven Carr says:

    Jesus also ate with Pharisees.

    But he usually stormed out if they did not give him water to wash his feet with.

    Or if they gave him water to wash his hands with.

    They didn’t understand that Jesus could not be expected to spread the word of God with dirty feet.

    He could forgive people for crucifying him, but not for giving him water to wash his hands with or no water to wash his feet with.


  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    I was actually going to write a post about that, called “the bizarre guest,” or something like that. I don’t have much of a problem with what you mentioned: Jesus didn’t walk out just because they didn’t wash his feet; rather, that one woman was bathing his feet, and Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees for not doing so. But, in another scene, the Pharisees ask Jesus why he doesn’t wash his hands, and he just blows up: he gives them a long sermon about how they do things wrong.

    Your first question is a good one, especially since Christianity holds that all of us are sinners to begin with.


  4. Steven Carr says:

    Jesus didn’t complain that the other guests had also not been given any water.

    You can see how this sort of thing could have happened.

    If you were told that somebody was coming to dine, and that they did not wash before meals, would you make sure there was water ready for them to wash with?

    It would have been quite easy for somebody not to have been informed that the prohibition applied only to hands, not feet.


  5. James Pate says:

    Some of it may have been a matter of politeness–servants washed guests’ feet. That’s why it was a surprise when Jesus was doing so at the last supper (in John). I don’t think Jesus was throwing a tantrum about not getting his feet washed, though. He just pointed out that the woman showed him a courtesy that the Pharisees had not.


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