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Searching for the lost

30 November, 1999

Chapter 15 of St Luke’s Gospel contains three parables about the lost and the outcast. James McPolin SJ interpretes these three parables as as showing that the compassion of God comes to all in the person of Jesus.



The best known parables of the Bible are to be found in Luke, ch. 15, which is the high-point of the entire Gospel. This chapter is called the Gospel of the Outcast and the Gospel for the Outcast.

Table fellowship
The three parables are about the lost or the outcast – one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin and the third about a lost son. the chapter is the heart of the Gospel of Luke because it is the story of Jesus’ compassion for the lost, the outcasts, the sinners.

They are Jesus’ reply to those who criticised him for the table-fellowship he offered ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Lk. 15:2). Some have called this table-fellowship the central feature of Jesus’ ministry.
This is the most characteristic feature of his compassion. Sinners were Jesus’ table companions and the ostracised tax-collectors and prostitutes his friends. His table-fellowship created sharp hostility between Jesus and his Jewish opponents. Jesus defends his table-fellowship as a festive celebration of the return of the outcasts.

These parables about the lost focus on table-fellowship as an expression of his compassion for outcasts and sinners.

The lost sheep
The reason why the tax-collectors and sinners come to Jesus is to hear him. The Pharisees and scribes heard the three parables about the lost, culminating in the parable of the two sons. First of all, Jesus defends his welcome to sinners in the parable of the lost sheep. This welcome involves restoration to a community. The wandering sheep must be brought back to the fold gathered in the village.

Restoration brings joy to the shepherd in finding the sheep. This shared joy of the community at the restoration of a lost sheep becomes the chief point of Jesus’ application of the parable. The joy is over a sinner who repents. That is what his ministry has been about – calling tax-collectors and sinners back to God’s love. Being found is equated with repentance. The search proves fruitful. The shepherd finds the animal and takes it home. The imagery clearly alludes to God’s tender and protective care.

Given the possibility that the sheep could have been lost, stolen or destroyed by wild animals, the shepherd rejoices that the lost sheep has been found. This note of joy is the focus in the story. The point of comparison is that God rejoices at a sinner who is led back to him by Jesus’ ministry (or by his disciples’ ministry).

The discovery of one such lost person is a cause for joy, such is God’s heart for the lost. God’s people should always seek to find more of the lost. The shepherd does not rejoice privately. He calls his friends and neighbours. They are to share in the joy of the rediscovered ‘found’ sheep.

The lost coin
A woman is at the centre of the parable of the lost coin. It underlines the same themes as the previous parable: there is the loss, the seeking, the finding and the community rejoicing in a festive meal. The woman, after her diligent search, calls her neighbours together, saying, ‘rejoice with me’.

Both parables picture God’s heart for the lost, the sinners, and his compassionate initiative towards them. He has not abandoned them, but wishes them to be drawn to him. Here is a God in search of people who will turn to him. God is like the shepherd and the woman. Worth noting is the typically
Lucan Jesus who gives us female images of God, here an image of a woman searching for the lost coin. A male shepherd searching for a lost sheep and a woman searching for her coin both mirror the loving compassion of God.

A father and two sons
The favounte parable of many people is that of the prodigal son, also known as the parable of the loving or prodigal father. It is, in fact, about a father and his two sons. It repeats the themes of the first two parables, that is, loss, restoration, joy and the invitation to celebrate with joy.

The story illustrates God’s compassion towards a repentant sinner. It also criticises the protest of those who react against compassion. It is the reaction to both sons that is at the centre of the parable. God’s forgiveness is always available. Also we need to accept those who seek forgiveness.

Father and younger son
The main characters of the parable are named first, a father and two sons. Jesus, the model of the father’s love, eats with sinners, represented by the prodigal son.

The story begins with the younger son requesting to receive the assets that will be his eventually, so that he can go his own way. The boy is probably in his late teens since he is still single.

It is out of his rejection of his father’s love that the prodigal makes his request. This would be a most outrageous request in first century Israel and for that matter in any culture. An inheritance was usually handed over at the father’s death. But it is out of the father’s costly love that he grants the request. In the process, the father grants the ultimate form of freedom, namely the freedom to reject the offered relationship.

In a distant land
The young son’s life collapses after his departure. He converts all his inheritance into cash, goes to a distant land where he goes on a spending spree, throwing away his wealth through a wild life of indiscipline. (v. 13). Now comes another blow, a severe famine.

Desperate for food and funds, he seeks employment with a Gentile and is sent to an animal farm to supervise the pigs. This was the most dishonourable work for a Jew, since pigs were considered to be unclean animals. Thus he has taken the lowest job possible, one that no Jew would ever want. But the job is unable to meet the prodigal’s need. In fact, the pigs are better off than he is. The man has hit the bottom and there is no one to give him anything.

The son’s plight hits him as he realises how far he has gone, and he develops a plan of action to go back to the father. He realises that the cause of his miserable condition is sin against his father and God. He is a true outcast, just like the tax-collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus to hear his word.

The prodigal has been true to form, predictable in his behaviour. The unpredictable character throughout this is the father – unpredictable because of his compassion, first granting the prodigal’s desire for his inheritance and now unpredictable, accepting the prodigal fully back into his household with joy.

The climax of this section is Jesus’ description of the father’s compassion as he rushes forward to hug his son – a gesture of acceptance and of restored friendship. It is the father who heals the broken relationship. This was of more concern for the father than the money his son squandered. He receives his son back with full privileges. The son had been barefoot and destitute. He goes from destitution to restoration. The father lays on a great feast to celebrate.

The father and the elder son
The older brother does not welcome his brother home. What angers him is the welcome he is receiving. The father does not get angry with either son. He treats both with equal tenderness. But reconciliation of the prodigal with the father should extend across the whole household in joyful celebration.
The older brother focuses on himself and his anger contrasts with the father’s joy. The father demonstrates the same quality of self-giving love that he had demonstrated earlier in the day to his prodigal son, calling him ‘son’, that is, ‘my beloved son’.

The parable of the loving father and his two sons is Jesus’ response to those who criticised His compassion in offering table-fellowship to sinners. It is a proclamation of compassion. Some have suggested that the unifying theme of this chapter is ‘the Gospel for the Outcasts’.

Rather, the central theme is the offer of costly love or compassion to all, insider (older brother) and outsider (the prodigal), found or not found. The compassion of God comes to all in the person of Jesus.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.