We know these are not just three similar stories that were grouped together thematically as Luke specifically shows they were given at the same time (vss. 3, 8, 11) in response to the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus ate with “sinners” (vss. 1-2).
In the first parable, Jesus said: “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?” (vs. 4). In the second, he continued: “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?” (vs. 8). And in the third and best known parable we are told that Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country (vss. 11-13). This parable also tells us that when the prodigal son finally returned: “…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (vs. 20), showing that the father had been waiting and looking for his son.
In all three of these parables we are told that when that which was lost was found there was great rejoicing (vss. 6, 9, 32), and the moral of each is clearly that God rejoices in “finding” the lost soul. But these are not just a group of similar parables. Not only were they given at the same time in response to the same situation, with a clear connection between the stories, but also if we look closely, there is another important aspect of what is said.
In the first parable we are told specifically that the sheep that was lost was one in a hundred; in the second parable the coin that was lost was one in ten; in the third parable the son who was lost was one of two. Although each parable makes the same point, there is an additional message in the complete sequence – in all three taken together.
Jesus began by showing that even one of many (one in a hundred) has great value. One hundred sheep would have been a very large flock in ancient Palestine, and one missing sheep might hardly be noticed. Spiritually, the message is clear: God values everyone who is lost – even if they are “only one” of the vast number of humans who have lived. The sequence continues, however, in showing the relative worth of the one of ten coins that was lost. The fact that the woman called on her friends to rejoice with her when the coin was found shows that its value must have been significant to her – probably a tenth of all her savings. In the final parable, the sequence concludes by showing the tremendous value to his father of the one of two sons who had been “lost.” The father in the story is shown as perhaps having been searching the distant road continually, hoping for his son’s return.
In this parable we often concentrate on the uncharitable reluctance of the elder of the two sons to rejoice when the younger one returned. Although that is an important part of the story, we should not forget that the discussion between the father and the elder brother also serves another purpose – to show the great value of the lost brother who was found. The elder brother’s argument is essentially that the father was placing as much value on the young brother as on the one who had stayed faithful – and that argument was in fact accurate.
The parable makes it clear that the elder brother would receive his due reward (vs. 31), but the father replies to him that: “… we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vs. 32).
The three “lost and found” parables Jesus gave were not just repetition for effect. The interlinked stories show successively the value to God of the one who is lost. The sequence demonstrates at its beginning God’s personal attentiveness towards all of humanity and at its end his deeply focused love for each individual. Together, the parables show that no one is too small or insignificant to be viewed as of great value to God, and that every individual who returns to God, whatever their sins of the past, is of immense value – as valuable in God’s sight as any other. The three parables show as clearly as anything in the New Testament not only the joy of the lost being found, but also the loving acceptance with which God views the one who is found.
* For more about the parables of Jesus, download our free e-book The City on a Hill.