I love the parables of Jesus. They appear so simple on the surface yet buried underneath are layers and layers of additional meanings that somehow only reveal themselves when you are ready to receive them. As we read, and then study, pray, and ponder over the Master’s teachings, we truly can learn as much as we desire. Today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—and see if we can discover some of their hidden treasures.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Let me start off with a little exposition to set the scene. It is now winter time, about three months before Jesus would offer himself up as the Lamb of God. He has left Jerusalem in Judea and traveled east into the Perea or Gilead region, on the other side of Jordan River where the Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh had settled. This was the homeland of Elijah. This was where John the Baptist taught. This is where Jesus had been baptized. This is where he started his ministry. And this is where he would continue to preach, and teach, and heal until the last week of his life.
Let’s now turn to Luke, chapter 15:1-7 and read the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Luke 15: 1
1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
Remember that the publicans were the Jewish tax collectors who were working on behalf of the Roman occupiers and often became rich at the expense of their own people. The sinners were those who were irreligious—or at least not as religious as the Pharisees, who prided themselves on exact obedience to the law.
Luke 15: 2
2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
For a group of men who prided themselves on knowing the details of the scriptures, the Pharisees and scribes sure missed its central message: that God loves all of his children and will do absolute everything he possibly can to bring them back home. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Jesus was not ashamed to associate with the publicans and sinners—the outcasts of society. I’m sure many of whom recognized that they had fallen short and needed help. Perhaps some of them had tried to keep the commandments but hadn’t quite cleared the bar. As a result, they felt inadequate. They felt like they were failures. They felt like they were sinners who could never return to God’s presence. And to make matters worse, the Pharisees agreed with them. In fact, these “religious” people saw this as an opportunity to criticize, condemn, and castigate—eternal hallmarks of the prideful and hypocritical.
While I’m sure it saddened the Lord to hear yet another slur from these sourpusses, he turned this into an opportunity to make some tasty lemonade.
Luke 15: 3–6
3 ¶And he spake this parable unto them (the Scribes and Pharisees), saying,
4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
Back in the day, just about every rural family had a few head of sheep. They were a good source of fleece, meat, milk, and warmth. Sometimes, a group of families would pool their sheep together to form flocks of 20 or 30, which were taken care of by a designated shepherd. A good shepherd might be able to handle about 100 sheep on his own.
But tending sheep is hard work. They need constant care and attention. They need to be led to pasture and water every single day. And every single night they need to be corralled together and protected from thieves and wolves.
It certainly wasn’t a job for the Pharisees. Their job was obeying and interpreting the 800 pages of rules and regulations in the Talmud. Things like not carrying more than one swallow’s worth of milk on the Sabbath or not picking up your child. So when Jesus started talking to them like they were sheep herders, I’m sure they took offense.
In this parable, one sheep out of a hundred decided to be a little “baaad.” He probably hadn’t “herd” that the world didn’t revolve around “ewe.” (Sorry, it was a pun that just had to be said.) He was probably just keeping his head down munchin’ on the grass, filling the four chambers of his stomach, when he looked up and realized he was all alone. I know the feeling. When I start to tell a joke to my family, by the time I hit the punchline I’m usually in an empty room.
As we go about our day-to-day lives, it is easy to put our head down, focus on the task at hand, and completely ignore those around. Or sometimes we get sidetracked and find ourselves off on the fringes and can’t find our way back. Or sometimes we are wounded and don’t have the strength to keep up. Or sometimes we intentionally stay behind because we like our independence and think we can make it on our own.
Regardless of why we are separated from the flock, the lesson of this parable is that we are loved and missed by the Good Shepherd. After securing the 99 in a sheepfold or placing them under the care of a capable assistant, he goes back out into the wilderness in search of us. He climbs the mountains and crosses the deserts. He does whatever it takes because he knows we are in danger of losing our lives—both physical and spiritual lives—and will certainly perish without him.
After he finds us, no matter what condition we may be in, he puts us on his shoulders—which have borne lots and lots of burdens before—and carries us all the way back to the fold. There we will be reunited with our brothers and sisters and parents and children. There we will lie down in green pastures, beside still waters, and find that our souls—our spirits and bodies—have been restored. Sounds perfectly heavenly doesn’t it?
I’m sure at least some of the Pharisees and scribes caught the drift of what Jesus was saying. After all, they were very familiar with Psalms 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…” They probably knew the scripture by heart, but they didn’t know the heart of the Lord.
And so, in verse 7, Jesus ends this parable with an explanation that everyone can clearly understand:
Luke 15: 7
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Heaven rejoices whenever we improve—whenever we stop doing bad things and start doing more good things. That’s the source of eternal joy—improving, becoming better, progressing, becoming sanctified, becoming holy—all which is possible only because of the Savior, who found us when we were lost in the wilderness and carried us back to safety.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
To reinforce what he just said, just in case we didn’t get it from the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus now tells the parable of the lost coin. It is found in verses 8 through 10.
8 ¶Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
Why was Jesus talking about lost coins? Remember that he was talking to the Pharisees and scribes who had issue with the Lord eating with the sinners and publicans. What do publicans do? They collect taxes. How much were the taxes? Roughly 10% of your increase went to Caesar. About the same as tithing. The Pharisees certainly paid tithing. But they didn’t know they were lost, did they? Neither did the coin. But the owner of the coin knew it. The one who would redeem it, knew it.
Back in the day, a piece of silver, whether it was a Greek drachma or a Roman denarius, contained about 3-4 grams of silver. It roughly corresponded with a skilled laborer’s daily wage. A piece of silver would buy you a bag of wheat. Ten pieces of silver would buy you a new lamb.
Some people believe that coin could have been part of the woman’s dowry (the property or money brought by a bride to her husband when they were married), which, as was the custom in the day, you wore like jewelry around your forehead or on a veil. If she was unmarried, losing the coin may have meant she couldn’t get married. Or if she was married, it may have had carried lots of sentimental value.
Try to picture yourself as a peasant in 30 AD. Your house would be poorly illuminated. Glass had just been introduced into windows a couple of decades earlier—and that was only for the rich and famous. So you may not have had windows at all—just a door and maybe some small slits in the walls. You also had an oil lamp, which produced about the same amount of light as a candle if you were using olive oil or rendered sheep fat. So there was not a lot of light at all—just a lot of shadows.
Furthermore, you dropped your coin on a packed dirt floor that was probably covered with reeds and straw and mats and clay pots. And the coin wasn’t that big—a little smaller than a dime. Quite a feat to find it. Not as bad as finding a needle in a haystack, but nonetheless challenging.
When you finally find it, you rejoice with your friends and neighbors. In Greek, friends and neighbors translates to female friends. I know if my wife lost something, like her cellphone, she’d probably call up her girlfriends and ask if she’d left it at their house. Then when she found it, she’d call them up or post something on Facebook, and boy, would she be happy. They’d probably celebrate over at Kneaders.
We rejoice when we recover a ten dollar bill even though we have thousands in the bank. We rejoice when we recover a computer file that we thought we had accidentally deleted. We even rejoice when we find a sock that we thought the drier had eaten. We are happy because we valued those things.
But the Lord is pointing out that if we valued these little things, like a little coin, how much more valuable is a human being to him? Even if 9 out of 10 of people made it back to heaven, that isn’t enough. Heavenly Father wants all of his children back. The Savior wants to find and restore all of his brothers and sisters to their celestial glory. Each one of us is far, far more precious than we can comprehend.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord proclaims:
Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him. And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance. And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!
The Scribes and Pharisees knew the Old Testament like the back of their hands. Even though they revered the law, they didn’t recognize the law-giver. They couldn’t see the way, the truth, and the life—even though he was standing right in front of them. The Holy Ghost could have borne witness to them that Jesus was the Anointed One, the Messiah, but they weren’t willing to seek and find. So they couldn’t find the coin or the pearl of great price.
Brothers and sisters, we all our lost. Ever since we left God’s presence, passed through the veil, and arrived on this planet, we haven’t been able to remember what we once knew to be absolutely true. Consequently we flounder around like fish out of water. We make tons of mistakes along the way and die a spiritual death—over and over again. And so do our neighbors. Everyone but the bishop; he doesn’t make any mistakes (wink, wink, nod, nod).
Fortunately, God knows right where we are. He knows what pot we are hiding in or into what crack we have fallen. Through the Spirit, he whispers to people who will listen, and these people help find us. Then once we are found, it is our responsibility—and privilege—to listen to the Spirit and help find others.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
Some of our own…cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear. Ours is a great a solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness….
There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them. With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast at the table of the Lord.
My brethren and sisters, I would hope, I would pray that each of us…would resolve to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives. (Ensign, Nov. 1996, p86)
Now, how should we respond at the return of someone who has been lost? That’s what we’re about to find out in the next parable, the Parable of the Lost Son.
The Parable of the Lost Son
Sometimes we call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I’m not sure that right. I’m not sure which son is a prodigal. By the way, the word prodigal, from the Latin word prodigo, means wasteful, or someone who spends wealth on extravagant, unnecessary things. But I think this one should be called the Parable of the Loving Father. Let’s read it now. We’re in verse 11.
11 ¶And he said, A certain man had two sons:
As we read this, keep in mind that Jesus is still talking to the Scribes and Pharisees. They knew that the Bible is full of stories of men that had two contrasting sons. Adam had Cain and Abel. Abraham had Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Joseph had Ephraim and Manasseh. And don’t forget that the Man of Holiness, our Eternal Father, had Jehovah and Lucifer. In fact, in this parable, the certain man very well could be God, the Father. Keep that in the back of your mind. But for now, try to picture yourself somewhere in this family circle.
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
This was an unprecedented request. According to Israelite customs, an inheritance was transferred upon the death of the father, not before. In making this request, the younger son was violating that social more as well as a number of commandment. A biggie comes to mind, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This was not honorable. He was essentially telling his father to “drop dead.” It was a statement of disrespect and rebellion. But for some reason, the loving father agreed. This meant that their property and other assets had to be liquidated.
Because the father had two sons, his oldest son would have received two-thirds of the wealth, because the oldest son had the birthright and its accompanying responsibility to take care of his mother and unmarried sisters. I’m sure the oldest son wasn’t too happy with that arrangement either, since now he had to take care of everyone.
In fact, here’s what the law, as contained in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 8:7), said:
If a man assigned his goods to his son to be his after his death, the father cannot sell them since they are assigned to his son, and the son cannot sell them because they are in the father’s possession. If his father sold them, they are sold [only] until he dies; if the son sold them, the buyer has no claim on them until the father dies. The father may pluck up the crop of a field which he has so assigned and give to eat to whom he will, and if he left anything already plucked up, it belongs to all his heirs.
So dividing assets wasn’t a convenient thing for anyone in the family. The only one that benefited was the youngest son. Now let’s go back to the parable:
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
The younger son yearned to be free and independent of his father. So with a third part, the youngest son left his home, and wasted him time, talents, and possessions on “riotous” living, where he indulged himself with unbridled passions. In life we can either create or waste. This boy chose to waste.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
Sooner or later, sinful practices always fail to satisfy our carnal desires. We start to starve, spiritually, and become miserable.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
According to the Law of Moses, you can eat any land animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud (Leviticus 11:3; Deuteronomy 14:6). Hence the camel, the badger, the hare, and the pig are not kosher. Even raising swine was frowned upon. In fact, it was one of the most degrading and humiliating things you could do.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
Notice that even the citizen of that country wouldn’t give him any food to eat. That citizen sounds a lot like Satan, doesn’t it? Once he’s trapped you, he leaves you ensnared and miserable. That’s exactly how this young man felt. He wasn’t even worthy of enough food to sustain life. He was suffering in every way possible.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
At some point in time, after being sufficiently humbled, just like Alma the Younger, he finally remembered who he was and where he came from. He desired to return to the presence of his father where hoped beyond hope that he, as unworthy as he was, would be allowed to become a servant to his father.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said:
There are many prodigals who lack the meekness and the intellectual clarity to do what the prodigal son did. Saying, in effect, ‘Living like this is ridiculous!,’ the prodigal son ‘came to himself.’ He realized how much better off he would be to return to his father. He did not ponder, ‘What will they say? Will anyone come out to meet me?’ Instead, he arose and went home. Being sufficiently meek to feel caused him to think, and humbleness of mind saved his soul. (Meek and Lowly, p48)
Now we’re in verse 20.
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Repentance is a journey, not a simple emotion or impulse. It takes time. But his righteous father, believing that someday his son would come to himself and return, was watching for him. Then the father did something unexpected. He gathered up the hem of his robe and ran out to meet his son—something men never did. Even though his son was barefoot, ragged, and probably awfully smelly, the father embraced him and kissed him and welcomed him.
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
The son was surprised at the welcome he received, and humbly he says he isn’t worthy of it all. And he wasn’t. But that didn’t stop his father.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
So he clothed his son in the best of robes, gave him a token or sign of authority, and elevated him above the position of a servant, for only servants went barefoot.
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
The fatted calf was, and in many Middle Eastern cultures still is, reserved for only the greatest of occasions. In fact, the fatted calf was also a symbol of one whom the father would sacrifice so that others might live. I wonder who that could be? Hmm.
So why are they celebrating?
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
That would be a perfect place to end the story. If this was a Disney story we would learn that they all lived happily ever after. But that’s not how this story ends. In fact, we’re not really sure how the story ends. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The parable continues because Savior is not finished teaching yet. We are moving from the story of the son who was openly irreligious to the son who was professedly religious. In other words, we’re turning from the Publican to the Pharisee.
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
The older son was out fulfilling his family obligations. He was doing his duty. He was working hard. Then all of a sudden he hears music and laughter coming from the house. It was almost as if the angels in heaven were rejoicing over the sinner that repenteth. So why hadn’t he been invited to the party?
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
I wonder why the oldest son sent a servant rather than inquiring of his father himself?
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.
So the self-righteous oldest son was pouting and did not want to party with the rest of his family. But the father, again showing his mercy and compassion and long-suffering, goes outside to talk with his other son.
29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
The oldest son was essentially saying, “Now see here. All along I’ve been working for you, and have been obedient, and have done all that you asked me to do. In fact, as a reward you didn’t even give me a goat so I could party with my friends, but you gave him—the sinner—the fatted calf? I’m the righteous one here. I deserve better than this.”
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
President Joseph Fielding Smith, in his book, The Way to Perfection, said:
The wonderful story of the prodigal son has been misinterpreted almost universally. How frequently is the statement made from sectarian pulpits that because this younger son transgressed and committed all manner of sin and then repented, he was better off than his older brother who did not sin. By many the real lesson in this parable is lost. The younger son asked for his inheritance and received it. He went out and spent it in the vilest wickedness. When his substance was gone, he was forced by physical suffering and degradation to repent. Had his substance held out longer, he would have sinned that much more. It is needless to repeat all the circumstances of this story. It is sufficient to say that when he returned his father received him, but did not promise to reinstate him in the fullness of the inheritance; this is apparent in the answer made to the obedient son: ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine’.” (The Way to Perfection, p21)
As we’ve read this parable, I hope that we’ve recognized that we are, at times, like both of these sons. However, what we really need to do, is become more and more like the Father.
Brothers and Sister, I hope these three parables have illustrated how important each of are to Heavenly Father. He would do absolutely anything not just for the 1 out of 100 sheep, or the 1 out of 10 coins, but the two out of two children. Even if we’re a sinner, or a publican, a scribe, or a Pharisee. All we have to do is return and repent. And keep on doing it every single day of our lives.
Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.
In the April 1955 General Conference, President Hugh B. Brown said:
Your Father in heaven loves you; he loves you with a love beyond what your earthly parents can know. If you make mistakes—and you will and all of us have—our Heavenly Father stands ready to forgive and to welcome you when you come to yourselves and turn your backs on the husks and your faces toward home. He will embrace you and say, ‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found’.” (CR, Apr 1955, p81)