What Is the Purpose of the ‘Lost’ Chapter in Luke 15?

by Dolores Smyth

These parables may resonate with you because you may be lost in the wilderness like the lost sheep or lost in the darkness of your own home like the lost coin or lost to the desires of the flesh like the prodigal son.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel is a short chapter packed with meaning. In it, we read of the symbolism between lost things of value and sinners, and the symbolism between a community rejoicing over lost things found and the joy in heaven when a sinner repents.

Most of us can see ourselves in at least one of the “lost” parables. Let’s take a closer look at the parables and see how.

Background of Luke 15

Luke opens his fifteenth chapter with a familiar scene in the gospels: Jesus is surrounded by sinners who are eager to hear His words. In this particular scene, Jesus welcomed His listeners to dine with Him (Luke 15:1-2).

In contrast to this group of sinners stood a group of legal experts — Pharisees and scribes — who watched and grumbled against Jesus.

The legal experts implied that Jesus was unworthy of following because He associated with sinners instead of banishing them as “unclean” and, therefore, not right with God (Luke 15:2).

In response to the legal experts’ scorn, Jesus told three parables with one common thread: we must never let life’s obstacles make us lose sight of what holds true value.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

In this parable, a shepherd goes out to pasture his flock of a hundred sheep. Upon noticing that one has wandered off, he leaves the other 99 in search of the lost animal.

When he finds the sheep, the shepherd joyously carries it home and invites his friends to join him in celebrating the successful recovery.

The parable ends by comparing the joy in heaven when a sinner repents to that of the joy this shepherd felt when he recovered his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).

1. God seeks to shepherd us back to him. Jesus’ audience lived in a pastoral society where people relied on animals such as sheep for food, wool, and money.

They understood why a good shepherd would leave his flock alone in the wilderness to go in search of a single stray.

They knew how valuable each animal was and that one stray sheep was in more danger of death than an entire flock, which tended to stay together.

In the same way that a shepherd values each sheep in his flock, God holds dear each and every one of us.

The Bible tells us that God is our shepherd, wanting to tend to our needs and keep us safe (Psalm 23:1). As the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is likewise described as our shepherd (Micah 5:4).

Like the good shepherd who searches for his lost sheep, God seeks out the scattered flock of humanity to guide them back to Him. He offers us His Word as a roadmap and sent us His Son to light the way (John 3:16).

2. Jesus will take the weight of our sins if we follow Him. In Jesus’ parable, when the shepherd finds the stray sheep, he doesn’t scold it but ties a rope around its neck to drag it back to the fold.

Rather, he gently “lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” that his valued possession is coming home (Luke 15:5).

Just as the shepherd carried his lost sheep through the wilderness home, Jesus bore the weight of our sins at His Crucifixion. In doing so, Jesus metaphorically carried us through the wilderness to show us the way back home.

It’s important to note here that Scripture doesn’t assign any greater value to a lost soul than to people who live righteously and never separate from the flock, so to speak.

Rather, when Jesus refers to the joy angels feel when a sinner repents, this refers to the fact that the angels know full-well the ferocity of the spiritual battle and that the scales can be tipped toward darkness for a lost soul.

Therefore, when someone returns to God, the angels are elated by heaven’s victory over evil.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

Jesus told His audience a second parable about a lost coin. Here, in merely three verses, Christ tells a powerful story of something valuable lost and then found.

We learn of a woman who has ten silver coins — each worth a full day’s wage — and that she loses one of them.

Having lost a tenth of her money, the woman understandably panics and turns her house upside down as she searches for the coin well into the night. Once she finds it, she can’t contain her joy and invites those around her to rejoice with her (Luke 15:8-10).

1. The light of truth helps restore those lost in the dark messiness of sin. The silver coin in Jesus’ story became valuable once it was stamped with the earthly king’s image.

Likewise, each human is valuable because he has been made in God’s image, “stamped” with His likeness (Genesis 1:27).

While searching for her lost coin, the woman of the parable lit a lamp and relied on its light to help restore the thing of value.

The woman was undeterred by the darkness or the messiness of the search, clearing away as much dirt as necessary to uncover what belonged to her.

In a similar way, God wants us to use the light of the gospels to diligently cut through the darkness and mess of sin to bring back the lost souls that belong to Him.

The fact that the valuable item is lost within a house will remind some readers that there will be nights spent burning the midnight oil and dealing with the messiness of a spiritually lost family member at home.

2. We’re not meant to keep our good news of redemption to ourselves. Just like the shepherd who found his lost sheep, the woman who finds her lost coin is so thrilled that she invites those around her to share the good news.

This tells us that we’re supposed to share our stories of triumph over sin to encourage others who may be going through similar trials.

The Parable of the Lost Son

Commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, this parable tells of a son who had it all — a loving home, an inheritance, and a future.

Ungrateful for his blessings, the son demanded his inheritance before his father’s death and went off into the world to squander it by chasing earthly desires (Luke 15:11-13).

Soon penniless and hungry, the son took a job feeding pigs (Luke 15:14-15). Such a job was a “rock bottom” position for the Jews of Jesus’ time, who saw pigs as unclean animals.

Realizing that he was financially and spiritually broke, the son repented and returned home in the hopes that his father would take him in as a servant (Luke 15:17-18).

To his surprise, his father welcomed him with open arms and, with much celebration, restored him to full membership in the family (Luke 15:22-23).

1. You’re never so mired in sin that you can’t return to God. Like the father who saw his prodigal son from a distance and ran to him with open arms, God the Father welcomes those who repent with open arms, meeting you halfway to strengthen you as you stumble toward Him for mercy.

2. We’re to have mercy, not resentment, for those who overcome sin. After detailing the return of the young, prodigal son, this parable turns its attention to the father’s pitiless older son.

The older son was a disciplined man who had stayed home and obeyed his father’s every rule. When his selfish younger brother waltzed back home after leading a life of immorality, the older brother angrily resented his father’s immediate forgiveness of him.

While refusing to join in his brother’s celebration, the older son threw in his father’s face all the good deeds that he had done as proof of his moral superiority over his younger brother.

The wise father pleads with his son to look at his brother and see his value, not his sin.

The older son represents the legal experts who had mocked Jesus for his willingness to welcome sinners to the table of fellowship with Him.

The listener is to understand that we’re called to live a life of humility and forgiveness. Those who cling to a life of self-righteousness and punishment instead are the ones who are lost.

What Does This Mean?

These parables may resonate with you because you may be lost in the wilderness like the lost sheep or lost in the darkness of your own home like the lost coin or lost to the desires of the flesh like the prodigal son.

We all fall short of the glory of God but, take heart — Jesus assures us that anyone who is lost in sin can be found and restored to a right relationship with God through repentance!

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