Could there be a worse scenario for a parent than to have one of their children missing? I guess there could be something, but it’s hard to fathom (and who really wants to try?). But suppose one of your children was gone. You can only imagine the gnawing emptiness that would be yours. Every waking moment that child would be on your mind. As your other children comforted you and helped in whatever way they were able, you would be pleased by their efforts. Their support would be no small thing but neither would it diminish the sense of loss you had.
That’s the story we’re given in Luke 15:11ff. It is the third and final story Jesus tells in response to the complaint of the Pharisees and teachers of the law that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (v. 2). Luke, who features the table prominently in his gospel, has shown Jesus eating with all sorts of people: sinners and tax collectors (5:29ff); Pharisees (7:36ff, 11:37ff, 14:1ff); and close friends (10:38ff). He tells us in 15:1 that, “The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” Note they were not eating—they were there to listen to Jesus. This shows that Jesus’ approach (to welcome, build relationships and call to repentance) was superior to the Pharisee’s approach (call to repentance, then welcome and build relationships). There was nothing left for them to do but “mutter” (v. 2).
But there was something left for Jesus to do and He shares with them three stories in an effort to help them see the heart of God that values rescue even more than righteousness. The first story captures this well as the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that is missing. Why would someone do that? Because the ninety-nine are “safe” and the lost one is not! This is precisely why there is more joy over finding the lost sinner than the ninety-nine who don’t need to repent.
The mathematics of grace are astounding, aren’t they? Does God put any value on ninety-nine righteous people? You know He does! The Scripture is full of texts from Psalm 1 to the Sermon on the Mount that teach us this. So however we understand Jesus here, He’s not minimizing righteousness.
What He is doing is maximizing the importance of rescue. This becomes even clearer in the story of the two sons. The father is pleased with the presence and righteousness of the older brother (though as with all righteous people he’s not without some issues of his own). He withholds nothing from him but tells him “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 32). The father’s righteousness is mature and complete—he looks at the unrighteous (in this case his younger son) and longs for his rescue. The righteousness the older brother displays is immature and incomplete because his thoughts are dominated by resentment rather than rescue.
We would feel the same way the father did if our lost child was found, wouldn’t we? If one of our other children went into a pout about all of the fuss and attention given to the rescued child, we would say something like he did. The difference (and it’s rather astounding) is that God feels this way about every person on the planet. He is in pain over their lostness and wants nothing more than to rejoice over their rescue.
This speaks volumes to churches, leaders, and disciples about our tendency to become smug and self-satisfied with “business as usual.” To have the heart of our Father means there is always an emptiness there as long as there is anyone who is away from God!