Luke 15 is famous for what is known as the story of the Prodigal Son. It stands alone as a most poignant description of the manner in which God welcomes repentant sinners back into fellowship with Him. Seldom, however, do we probably consider the context that led Jesus to share this most amazing story.
According to the first verse of Luke 15, Jesus had gained a certain kind of hearing among tax collectors and “sinners.” This in itself is very interesting. Jesus, it seems, was especially popular among the unpopular. These were people who were despised and rejected by the main stream of society in that time. They were what we might call bottom-feeders — the social outcasts of society. Among them were the tax-collectors who were despised because they were agents of the Roman government and were generally seen as extravagantly catering to their own interests.
And the “sinners” of Jesus’ day? Well they would be the morally unclean — the ones who felt so badly about themselves that they would turn to anyone who showed them even cheap affection — like the man who says, “…anyone who would have me, I wouldn’t have.” No doubt this class included people like the woman Jesus met at the well in Samaria (John 4), the prostitute who came to Simon’s house (Luke 7), and Mary Magdalene (Luke 8).
The reason, I think, they came to listen to Jesus was that he demonstrated such compassion for people who had suffered so much. He saw beneath the veneer of their false pursuits and touched something at a much deeper level by the attention he gave to them and the manner in which he spoke to them. And they loved it. Here was a man who knew them and loved them anyway sharing truth with them at a level they had never known before.
The second verse of Luke 15 offers a startling contrast to the first verse. It says that while some were drawn to Jesus, others were repulsed by him — due to the attention he gave to the outcasts. These who were offended by Jesus were not the “sinners” of his world, but the religious elite, the ones who supposedly were very knowledgeable about God’s revelation of Himself in the Law. And it was their complaints about Jesus’ attention to “sinners” that prompted Him to tell three stories.
The first story was about a man who, having a hundred sheep, lost one. He felt so terribly about the loss that he left the 99 sheep in the open field and went out on a diligent search for that one lost sheep. And when he found it, he brought it home on his shoulders and told all of his friends about his precious find. The second story is about a woman who had ten silver coins but lost one. So she gave all of her attention to find that one lost coin. And when she found it she called her friends to celebrate. And the third story is about the father who divided his inheritance among his two boys because the younger wanted to have it early. The latter promptly spent it foolishly in immoral living but eventually came to his senses because he was destitute. He decided to humbly appeal for servant status with his father. But the father was waiting for this day and prepared to celebrate his son’s return when he saw him coming. The older brother is not amused by his father’s attention to this derelict brother. But his father insists that the celebration is justified because the dead is now alive again and the lost has been found.
It’s hard to think of a better picture of what Jesus’ life and ministry was really all about — a deep sense of compassion for the ones who felt their lostness most. If we are among those who have come to Christ, undoubtedly it is this sense of our own lostness that drew us to believe and trust Him. And it is this grace of Christ that keeps us.
Just think of how our churches would be impacted by this same kind of compassion and communication for truly lost people. We need to forget about trying to satisfy those who are already found. And despite the cries of protest from them, we need to devote ourselves to connecting with that vast number of unlikely listeners who are desperately needing answers in their souls. If we do, and they come, despite the protests of some, the church will be a place of ongoing celebration because the precious lost have been found!