Chapter fifteen is probably one of the most well-known chapters in Luke, yet it is also frequently misunderstood. The key to the whole chapter is found in the first three verses. The Jewish religious leaders were unhappy that Jesus spent time with sinners, so Jesus told them a parable. The rest of the chapter is the same parable told three different ways. In this parable:
- God is portrayed by the shepherd, the woman, and the father
- The “sinners” are the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son
- The “non-sinners” are the other sheep, the other coins, and the other son
Notice in these scenarios that the lost items/son were already a part of the group/family but became lost. Something happened so that they had become separated from the group – the sheep left the pasture, the coin left the pouch, the son left the house. Jesus gave this parable to demonstrate to the religious leaders that those “sinners” were still Jews who were born into the promises God made to Israel. However, when he came and offered the Kingdom, not all of them had accepted him, making them “lost” but still sheep, coins, and sons. Ironically, the religious leaders considered themselves to be “in,” yet many of them were just as lost as the sinners they despised, because they were also rejecting Jesus.
This parable is often used today to portray God as looking for unbelievers to be saved. While it is true and can be proved from other Scripture that he wants people saved, unbelievers were never a part of the family from which they could leave. A more accurate principle from this chapter that applies to Christians is that God does not stop “looking” and “waiting” for those who are already part of the family but have wandered away. Sometimes we call these “backslidden Christians.” For those who have not wandered off, we must continue to do the Father’s work cheerfully and celebrate when our wandering brothers and sisters come back, because this makes the Father exceptionally glad (Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20; 1 John 5:16; Jude 22-23).