Luke chapter 15, one of the best known and best loved chapters of the Bible, having left its mark on Christian art and Christian hymnody, is composed of three parables, all devoted to the same general theme. Two of them are short and they are followed by the more elaborate Parable of the Prodigal Son. Were the last parable not already famously titled “The Prodigal Son” the three parables would probably be called “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” and “The Lost Son, (or, better “lost sons”),” further emphasizing the similarity of theme. This morning we will consider the two short parables with which the chapter begins. As we read them consider this: there is nothing like this in the literature of the other world’s religions and nothing like it in the literature of human philosophy. You have here distilled the genius and the glory of our Christian faith: the message of the God of love seeking lost sinners.
v.2 The opening words of the chapter are the introduction to all three parables. Tax collectors were despised both because they assisted the hated Romans in their administration of conquered territory and because they enriched themselves as the expense of their fellow countrymen. “Sinners” referred to people judged to be immoral in their behavior or plying trades that were considered by the religious people as incompatible with obedience to the law. Indeed, so concerned were the Pharisees to preserve their moral purity by keeping themselves separate from such people, they would not even teach them the law. [Bock, ii, 1299] Eating with such people was even worse because it implied acceptance and recognition. They viewed Jesus’ conduct as an encouragement of loose morals; he saw it as action of God himself. [Caird, 180]
Peter, later, in his remarks to Cornelius and those gathered in his house in Caesarea — this in Acts 10 — refers to this practice of ostracizing non-observant people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Speaking to a house full of Gentiles he said, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation…” That is the exact spirit on display here in Luke 15:2. These Jews are contemptuous of a man who would jeopardize his purity in this way.
v.3 The question is rhetorical. They would all agree that any shepherd would do this.
v.4 The Jewish scholar C.G. Montefiore noted the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teaching. The rabbis taught that God would welcome penitent sinners, but it was not part of their understanding of salvation that God would take the initiative; that he would himself seek out sinners. [Morris, 255] There is no rabbinic equivalent to these sayings about God seeking lost sinners.
As always the Lord took his illustrations from common life. Sheep are gregarious animals that do not ordinarily separate themselves from the flock. But in a mountainous district it can nibble its way apart and be unable to find its way back.
v.6 The shepherd doesn’t come home grumbling at the extra work the lost sheep required of him. He is delighted to have found the animal, so much so that he shares his joy with others. We don’t necessarily need to believe that every time a lost sheep was found there was a party in the village. It’s a parable, a story with a point. The point is to describe God’s joy when lost sinners are found.
v.7 Further illustrating the wide gulf that separated the Lord’s perspective from that of the Pharisees, there is a Jewish saying from the period that reads, “There is joy before God when those who provoke him perish from the world,” [Edersheim in Morris, 256] but no teaching about God seeking the lost and rejoicing to find them.
v.8 A coin could easily enough be lost in the dark and windowless house of the ancient near east, all the more if there were straw on the floor, but the woman won’t rest until she finds it, even if it means turning the house upside down. [Caird, 180] Here the emphasis falls on how determined the woman is to find the coin. [Bock, ii, 1303]
v.10 It is worth noting the confidence with which the Lord Jesus spoke of things that happen in heaven! He was someone who knew what heaven was like and what went on there. He knew what makes for happiness in heaven! [Caird, 181]
The Pharisees and other religious leaders were put out with Jesus, grumbling about him among themselves — visibly enough so that the Lord could observe it — because he showed such eager interest in people they thought were unworthy. Now, to be sure, they knew that they too were “sinners” in one sense; they sinned from time to time, though they thought it possible, as we will read later in Luke, to live a life virtually without sin. But Jesus was welcoming, consorting with, helping, even sharing meals with notorious sinners, like the immoral woman of Luke 7:39, and with traitors, like tax collectors, the scum of the earth. Zacchaeus, whom we will meet in a later chapter, was such a man, as was the disciple Matthew, also called Levi, whom we met in Luke 5. Jesus was doing what they would not do; his behavior violated their canons of conduct for a truly righteous man.
As you know, the Lord commented upon and contradicted this spirit many times in the Gospels but never so famously as here. And what we are taught here is that the Pharisees were not simply in error because they looked down on some others. What we are taught is that they fundamentally misunderstood God and his nature, salvation and its nature, and themselves and their nature. The grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes disclosed a total failure to grasp the human predicament and its only possible solution.
But to understand the Lord’s point here requires appreciating the rhetorical device he employed to make it. As soon as you start to think more carefully about what Jesus said, questions surface in the mind. Here we read about tax collectors and sinners. We would never categorize people in that way, though we appreciate that the scribes and Pharisees did. But Jesus seems to work with that category himself. Clearly — no one disputes this — the lost sheep and the lost coin are metaphors for tax collectors and sinners, the kind of people the Pharisees despised.
What is more the Lord says here that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. We didn’t know there were people who didn’t need to repent. Clearly the Lord’s point here is not all that it may seem.
What, indeed, of the ninety-nine sheep who are not lost? What of the nine coins that did not go missing? We encountered this same way speaking earlier in Luke 5:31-32, where Jesus, again responding to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees over his associating with tax collectors and sinners; said:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Could he possibly have meant that the scribes and Pharisees were spiritually healthy and didn’t need a physician? Were there people so righteous they didn’t need to repent? And here in Luke 15, could he possibly have meant that the scribes and Pharisees were the ninety-nine sheep that were not lost and so didn’t need a shepherd to go seeking after them? Surely we do not think that the Lord was agreeing with the Pharisees’ judgment that these people were far more sinful than they and was only adding the thought that, therefore, he had to take special measures to bring them to salvation, something he didn’t need to do for the scribes and the Pharisees? Surely he wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were already in but that he wished to bring these others in as well? The fact that the Lord seems to be agreeing with the Pharisees here has led some commentators even to suggest that the ninety-nine are angels. Who else could they be, since presumably all men are lost sinners needing salvation?
No, that was not his meaning. We know from all the terrible things he said about the Pharisees and the scribes, about their unbelief and their hardness of heart, that they were men who were not righteous and had not found God’s salvation, no matter how sure they were that they had. Read his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 or the terrible woes he pronounces against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and you will see that he hardly thought of the Pharisees as righteous men who already possessed God’s salvation. Remember him saying to his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees they would never enter the kingdom of God. The Lord obviously did not here intend to suggest that the Pharisees were people who were not lost and didn’t need to be sought and found.
What we have here and often in the Lord’s remarks about his countrymen in the Gospels is the rhetorical device known as ex hypothesi. In an 11th century Greek Commentary on Luke by Theophylact we find the explanation that the Pharisees were classed among the sheep that are not lost according to the hypothesis. What is meant by ex hypothesi is that a statement is made “according to certain assumptions” or from a certain viewpoint or according to a certain hypothesis.
The assumptions here are those of the Pharisees: that they are righteous, that they are saved, that God approves of them but does not approve of those people they look down on. The hypothesis is that the Pharisees don’t need to be found. That isn’t what the Lord thought, but that was very definitely what the Pharisees thought. It was their point of view. In Luke 5 the Lord was not saying that the Pharisees were actually well and didn’t need a doctor; the Lord’s point was that they thought they were well and didn’t need a doctor and so long as they thought that, Jesus could be of no use to them. Here it is the same.
Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ grumbling and speaking according to their assumptions. It is a subtle device but its subtlety is what makes it so powerful and memorable. The ninety-nine are the Pharisees, to be sure, but they are not the saved, the truly righteous, but those who think themselves saved and whose self-righteousness renders them indifferent to Christ and arrogant toward others. The Lord spoke as if he accepted their viewpoint when he obviously did not. And everyone knew he did not. And the reason he did so is precisely because by doing so he so powerfully and memorably exposed the problem with their viewpoint, the fatal error that was keeping them from God and from salvation. They didn’t think they needed a seeking God; they didn’t imagine themselves to be lost; they had no thought of a Redeemer who came into the world to die in their place for their sins. The saved person in the Lord’s parables is the one who is lost and then found; those who are not genuinely lost in the parable are not those who don’t need salvation, they are those who don’t think they need salvation. The Pharisees would, of course, have seen themselves among the ninety-nine, but that was the fatal index of their peril. They were lost but didn’t know it and no one is as lost as the person who doesn’t even know that he or she is lost.
For the Pharisee, as for most people in the world at that time or at any time — certainly in our time — salvation, if there is such a thing, lies within a person’s power to achieve. It is a predictable, manageable calculus of opportunity and effort. And the reason for that is invariably the same that the Pharisees would have given. People have no sense of either the holiness of God, the terrible furnace of the divine justice, or of the immensity of their own sinfulness, or the yawning chasm between them. Sin is made innocuous by any number of factors. The Pharisees did so in their day by an elaborate system of organizing sin into greater or lesser transgressions and by a system of countervailing merit. If one avoided the really serious sins, if one never murdered anybody and so on — which they thought quite easy to do — and made up for the little ones by works of merit — again, entirely within the normal person’s ability — one could safely make his way to heaven and that without any extraordinary investment of effort. They knew that the Bible said that God is angry with the wicked every day. But they imagined that he meant them!
We live in the modern West, where we think little about accumulating merits, few of you have ever actually met a real legalist, someone who has an elaborate theory of demerits and merits and knows how to accumulate merits in sufficient quantity to counterbalance the demerit of his moral failures. We’re not thinking like that in the modern West, but we have become past masters at excusing sin, blaming it on others, or defining it out of existence; that is, if we continue to believe in sin at all. The result is a society full of Pharisees. In fact I wonder myself if there has ever been a society on the face of the earth as self-righteous as the one in which you and I live today, revoltingly self-righteous. Every survey reveals the same spirit: we look down on others, but are blind to our own faults. We congratulate ourselves on our moral goodness in eerie defiance of our lack of moral goodness. A survey reported in the Washington Post a few years ago found that 94% of Americans think themselves “above average” in honesty. In other words, we are a nation of liars and especially liars about ourselves. From another survey we learn that 90% of divorced people believe the break-up was the other spouse’s fault. We are a people who have become masters at blaming others for our own faults. And on and on it goes.
We are a people soaking ourselves in fornication and pornography; we are becoming a society of potheads and drug addicts; we are more likely to be unfaithful rather than faithful to the promises we made when we got married; we have come to accept virtually without a twinge of conscious millions of aborted babies; enormous numbers of babies born out of wedlock; and unprecedented levels of divorce. We are a people whose gods are money and pleasure. Fewer and fewer of us care to worship God or give him thanks for our lives. Be we take it as a matter of course that we are morally good.
We are a self-congratulating people with, as any objective observer can easily see, very little to congratulate ourselves about. But our confidence in our own goodness is not the result of the fact that we work so hard to be good. In our culture the righteousness is assumed. It is the working hypothesis. And there is virtually no thought in our time — you never hear, alas very often you never even hear it in so called Bible believing churches, that God is going to judge the wicked, that our sins are an offense committed against the maker of heaven and earth. We do not concern ourselves with our sins. We do not consider them a present danger.
And so it was among the Pharisees. This is why the Pharisees had no interest in Jesus and why the tax-collectors and sinners couldn’t get enough of him. The first group didn’t see the need; the second knew only too well that they were lost and needed God to find them.
Already early in the 20th century, it was becoming obvious to thoughtful people that Americans were going to have the same problem with the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Pharisees had had with it. In his book Christianity and Liberalism, first published in 1923, J. Gresham Machen, the Princeton professor of New Testament and champion of biblical Christianity in its contest with theological liberalism, wrote words that seem eerily prophetic about our time.
“The fundamental fault of the modern church is that it is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin… But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than he.” 
Machen was saying that fundamental to the Christian faith, to any true understanding of the gospel, is the recognition that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart. And what breaks the heart is the recognition of everyone’s own sinfulness, an admission of the guilt, the liability to punishment that is ours because of that sinfulness. The sad fact but the first fact about our lives is their moral failure and the next is our accountability to God for it. Machen went on to say, “A new and more powerful proclamation of the law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law.” Let the law teach a man his comprehensive moral failure by holding him up to the mirror so that he can see what he really is and what he really does and does not do, and Jesus Christ will suddenly make all the sense in the world to him.
According to Jesus and the entire Bible man’s fundamental problem is not that he is finite as some say, or that he lacks knowledge as many say nowadays, or that others are not treating him with the proper respect as we hear all the time today, or that he is a helpless and meaningless cog in a vast, impersonal machine, whether natural, political, social, or economic, a machine over which he has no control and from which he cannot escape. None of that is man’s real problem according to the Bible or, for that matter, according to any honest observation. Man’s fundamental problem is that he is so bad; he is a sinner who disobeys God, dishonors his Maker with his thoughts, words, and deeds, violates God’s commandments, fails to show proper gratitude, and likewise treats his fellow human beings selfishly, pettily, or worse. Worse, he is a hypocrite: he poses as if he were so much better than he is. Man’s problem is not first and foremost not even that he doesn’t live as he ought to. Man’s problem is that he is an inveterate sinner and so he is liable to be punished for his constant failure to be good, punished by God his just and holy judge.
Most Americans don’t believe this. Indeed, many who say they do, don’t really believe it; at least they don’t take seriously the prospect of God’s judgment. In fact most of them at bottom find the idea of divine punishment, or divine retribution simply incredible. They may find it repugnant as well. Their acquaintances don’t take their moral failures seriously, so why should God? Their society and culture has never taught them to take moral failure seriously. Why should they? They think too well of themselves to imagine that God does not as well. To be sure this is less the conceit of other peoples in the world today than it is of the effete, comfortable, pleasure loving cultures of Western Europe and North America. Since this pride is the default position of the human heart, it will be overcome only by powerful forces and in a culture that confirms men and women in their pride, that excuses their sins and never speaks of the offense they are to God, it is absolutely to be expected that there will be few who will face the dark truth about themselves, all the more when those who know that dark truth are themselves unwilling to speak of it. Indeed, in our culture, in our time, the surest proof that the shepherd is seeking and finding a lost sheep is that, against the grain of his or her times, against the whole run of every influence that bears down on his or her life, a person nevertheless comes to realize his or her sinfulness and guilt before a holy God.
Francis Schaeffer was once asked the question: “What would you do if you met a really modern man on a train and you had just an hour to talk to him about the gospel?” He replied,
“I’ve said over and over, I would spend 45-50 minutes on the negative, to really show him his dilemma — that he is morally dead — then I’d take 10-15 minutes to preach the Gospel. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God.” [Cited in Will Metzger, Tell the Truth, from Death in the City, 70-71]
It is only when a man or woman grasps the mettle of his or her problem that Jesus Christ becomes supremely interesting and important to him or to her. It is only when he realizes that he is lost that it becomes life itself to him to learn that God seeks and saves the lost. To say that a person is lost, you see, is a compliment. To be lost is to be valuable, to be the object of God’s interest. In the Lord’s parables here the lost get much more of his attention than the ninety-nine or the nine that were not lost.
It is this sense that even a very sinful man is precious to God, that a sinful woman genuinely matters to him, that never rises in the heart of the proud, the self-confident, and assured. They assume that as a matter of course; it is a commonplace, not a discovery. There are but these two kinds of people in the world, Pascal observed: “the righteous who believe themselves sinners, and the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.” To which group do you belong? Your view of others, your treatment of others, your conversation about others is, as it was here, one of the best ways to tell.
The Lord’s great dispute with the scribes and Pharisees was not about the nature of God, not about the Bible, not even about the way of salvation, at least not in the first place. His dispute with them was about sin, their indifference to it, their unwillingness to see how much they sinned against God, how deadly sin is and how impossible it is for man to remove his guilt or to escape the power of sin. Until they were put right about that the way of salvation was closed to them because they didn’t believe they needed what Jesus had come to give them. Like the false prophets of the OT they treated the wound lightly; they proclaimed peace when there was no peace. Their superficial view of their own sin kept them from understanding everything else: that God was a God of love who seeks the lost, that human sin and guilt required a perfect and infinitely valuable sacrifice to remove, and that salvation was, therefore, and had to be a divine gift and not a human achievement.
So long as the Pharisees thought so well of themselves, so long as they indulged their pride and their self-righteousness, they would never understand why God would seek sinners, and it would never occur to them that there would be joy in heaven and among the angels over one sinner who repents, or, as Luther put it, that the conversion of sinners causes Te Deums among the heavenly hosts. No Pharisee would ever have written Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” It would never have occurred to him to write such a hymn. There wasn’t anything amazing to them about salvation: it was, like so much else in life, do this and that and get this and that in return. All very pedestrian really.
But angels, who know the reality of sin and judgment — they’ve seen half of their company cast down and reserved for judgment in hell and not a one ever redeemed or called back to life — angels, I say find a seeking God, and the loving God searching for lost sinners simply breathtaking. As Charles Wesley has it in one of his hymns:
Angels in fix’d amazement
Around our altars hover,
With eager gaze
Adore the grace
Of our eternal Lover.
I think I may have told some of you before a story that John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” told in a letter to his friend Thomas Scott, the famous Bible commentator. It concerned a friend of Newton who, though an Anglican minister, was a complete rationalist in divine things, a moralist, as uninterested in a supernatural gospel as the Pharisees had been. He never thought of salvation as being lost and then found by a God of love who sought him and brought him home rejoicing.
But one day this man was reading his Greek New Testament and he came upon the word that Paul uses in Ephesians 3:8, the word translated “unsearchable” in our English translations. You remember Paul refers there to the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” That word suddenly brought him to a standstill. It occurred to him that Paul thought that Christ and salvation were unsearchable, which is to say past wonderful. He realized that he had never thought any such thing. Salvation had always seemed to him, as it had to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, an ordinary thing: do some not terribly difficult things and all will turn out for the best.
But here was Paul, who obviously knew a great deal about salvation, speaking of heights and depths and unsearchable riches where he had found everything plain and simple. Paul found mysteries where he had found none. Paul had found a mighty love, a seeking God, a Savior who gave himself for sinners. This man too had used the words of the Bible in his work as a minister — gospel, grace, faith, and so on — but he realized that Paul must have meant something quite different by them than he did. That line of questions led this man to a reexamination of the teaching of the New Testament and finally to embrace Jesus Christ as his savior from sin and death. The seeking shepherd had found another of his lost sheep.
The Pharisees couldn’t understand why Jesus associated with “sinners” or why heaven rang with shouts of joy over sinners who repented because they never saw themselves as lost and so never saw salvation as God seeking the lost to save them because they could never save themselves. They never saw salvation as the work of a mighty love!
The next time we encounter Jesus with a tax collector, a man by the name of Zacchaeus in chapter 19, we will hear him say, not in a parable but directly: “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. [Bad all the way through and down to the bottom.] Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed.” [Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 97-98]
You can, like the Pharisees, comfort yourself in your own goodness, but sooner or later the truth will come out. What then? If God knows you’re a tax collector and sinner, what good will it do for you to protest that you’re not. There is only one solution for your helplessness: someone who can help. Jesus Christ is that someone and he is the only someone. He promises to save all who come to him admitting that they are lost. That is the Christian faith and that is the good news.