The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:3–10) are the first two in a series of three. The third is the “lost son” or the “prodigal son.” Just as in other cases, Jesus taught these parables in a set of three to emphasize His point. To properly understand the message of these parables, we must recognize exactly what a parable is, and why it is used.
What is a parable?
At a basic level, a parable is a short story designed to convey a concept to be understood and/or a principle to be put into practice. This, however, tells us more about the intent of a parable than what it actually is. The word “parable” in Greek literally means, “to set beside,” as in the English word “comparison” or “similitude.” In the Jewish culture, things were explained not in terms of statistics or definitions as they are in English-speaking cultures. In the Jewish culture of biblical times, things were explained in word pictures.
Why did Jesus use parables?
Word pictures do not draw attention to technicalities (like the Jewish law) but to attitudes, concepts, and characteristics. Jesus was speaking a language that all Jews could understand, but with an emphasis on attitudes rather than the outward appearances that the Pharisees focused on (John 7:24). Parables also have an emotional impact that makes them more meaningful and memorable to those who are soft of heart. At the same time, the parables of Jesus often times remained a mystery to those with a hardened heart because parables require the listeners to be self-critical and put themselves in the appropriate place in the story. The result was that the Pharisees would “be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving” (Isaiah 6:9; Psalm 78:2; Matthew 13:35).
By using parables, the teaching of Jesus remains timeless despite most changes in culture, time, and technology. For example, these two parables convey commonly understood concepts like grace, gentleness, concern, pride and others, all of which we can be understood by us, even though the story is over two thousand years old. In Jewish culture character traits are often described in relation to objects that are universally recognized like the regularity of the sun or the refreshing nature of rain (Hosea 6:3). This also explains why poetry is the most common mode of language used in the Bible. In the case of parables specifically, the elements mentioned in them are usually representations of something else, just as in an allegory. However, an overemphasis on a particular detail in a parable tends to lead to interpretive errors. Repetitions, patterns, or changes will often help us in identifying when we should focus on a particular detail.
Why Jesus taught these parables
Let us look at the particular details of these parables. The situation in which Jesus is speaking can be seen in Luke 15:1–2. “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (NIV). Notice that the Pharisees did not complain that Jesus is teaching sinners. Since the Pharisees thought themselves to be righteous teachers of the law and all others to be wicked, they could not condemn His preaching to “sinners,” but they thought it was inconsistent with the dignity of someone so knowledgeable in the Scriptures to “eat with them.” The presupposition behind the statement of the Pharisees, “this man welcomes sinners,” is what Jesus addresses in all three parables.
To understand the significance of the opening statement in chapter 15, we must consider that the Jewish culture is a shame/honor-driven society that used shame/honor in a way that developed a sort of caste system. Virtually everything that is done in Jewish culture brings either shame or honor. The primary motivation for what and how things are done is based on seeking honor for oneself and avoiding shame. This was the central and all-consuming preoccupation of all Jewish interaction.
In the first parable, Jesus invites His listeners to place themselves into the story with, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep.” In doing this Jesus is appealing to their intuitive reasoning and life experiences. As the story completes, the Pharisees in their pride refuse to see themselves as shameful “sinners,” but eagerly take the honoring label of being “righteous.” However, by the implication of their own pride, they place themselves in the position of being the less significant group of ninety-nine: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” There may be a bit of sarcasm in the reference to the Pharisees “who do not need to repent” (see Romans 3:23).
In the “lost coin” parable, the ten silver coins refers to a piece of jewelry with ten silver coins on it worn by brides. This was the equivalent of a wedding ring in modern times.
Upon careful examination of the parables, we can see that Jesus was turning His listeners’ understanding of things upside down. The Pharisees saw themselves as being the beloved of God and the “sinners” as refuse. Jesus uses the Pharisees’ prejudices against them, while encouraging the sinners with one clear message. That message is this: God has a tender, personal concern (“and when he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders,” v. 5). God has a joyous love for individuals who are lost (in sin) and are found (repent). Jesus makes it clear that the Pharisees, who thought they were close to God, were actually distant and those sinners and tax collectors were the ones God was seeking after. We see this same message in 18:9-14. There, Jesus is teaching on attitudes of prayer, but the problem he is addressing is the same as in chapter 15. In 18:14 Jesus provides the conclusion for us: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Patterns of progression in the parables
By identifying things in common in the parables, we can gain context to help us understand the significance of otherwise subtle elements in the story. As the old saying goes, “Proper context covers a multitude of interpretive errors.” 1) The progression of value: in the first parable a sheep is lost, then a silver coin in the next, followed by a son in the third. As mentioned before, part of the power of these parables to reach the audience comes from the shame/honor aspect of their culture. To lose a sheep as a shepherd would be a very shameful thing, a coin from a piece of bridal jewelry lost in her own house would be more shameful, followed by the lost son, which was the worst of all in Jewish culture. 2) The personal progression from seeking after only 1 of 100 sheep, then 1 of 10 coins, then 1 of 2 sons. This shows the scope of God’s personal concern for individuals and would have been of great comfort to the “sinners” Jesus was teaching. 3) A change in tense in each parable regarding the rejoicing at that which was found, from future tense, to present, and then to past tense: “will be more joy” to “there is joy” and finally “had to be.” This may have communicated the certainty of God’s acceptance of those who repent. 4) The progression of earthly references to what the thing was lost in (a subtle reference to sin). The sheep was lost in open fields, the coin was lost in the dirt that was swept up, and son was in the mud of a pigsty before coming to his senses. 5) The relational power of each parable: Poor men and young boys would have related best to the shepherd and the lost sheep. Women would have related best to the lost bridal coin. The last parable dealt with everyone present by dealing with the relationship of a father and son.
Patterns of Consistency in the parables
1) The main character possesses something valuable and does not want to lose it.
2) The main character rejoices in the finding of the lost thing, but does not rejoice alone.
3) The main character (God) expresses care in either the looking or the handling of that which was lost.
4) Each thing that was lost has a personal value, not just a monetary value: shepherds care for their sheep, women cherish their bridal jewelry, and a father loves his son.
Incidentally, this first illustration of the shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders was the original figure used to identify Christians before people began identifying Christianity with crosses. In these parables Jesus paints with words a beautiful picture of God’s grace in His desire to see the lost return to Him. Men seek honor and avoid shame; God seeks to glorify Himself through us His sheep, His sons and daughters. Despite having ninety-nine other sheep, despite the sinful rebellion of His lost sheep, God joyfully receives it back, just as He does when we repent and return to Him.