The Parable of The Lost and The Returning

They were intelligent and influential, but they were tax collectors! In the eyes of most, tax collectors were traitors of the kingdom who worked for the Gentile enemy. They were not to be trusted.

The Romans had employed Jews to collect taxes from their own. Gentile law allowed tax collectors to use abusive methods in order to raise the necessary funds for the Empire. The Romans themselves applied relentless pressure on the tax collectors to achieve their goals. Consequently, while not breaking Gentile law, a Jewish tax collector could, in fact, transgress the commandments of God.

As far as the Pharisees and the Scribes were concerned, anyone who did not keep the Torah could not be a part of the Kingdom. Sinners and tax collectors, in particular, were undesirable role models for the Jewish community. Instead, they were to be exposed and ostracized. No clear thinking Rabbi would be friendly towards them, let alone be seen eating with them.

Understandably then, when tax collectors and other Torah-breaking Jews went to hear Rabbi Yeshua teach, the Pharisees and the Scribes voiced their complaint, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:2)

Then Rabbi Yeshua told them a parable.

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!' I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. " (Luke 15:4-7)

Throughout Scripture the people of Israel are repeatedly referred to as a flock. Their leaders are likened to shepherds who are appointed by the Great Shepherd. All three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Moses, the great teacher of Israel, was shepherding his father-in-law's flock when he was called to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. King David was also a shepherd.

There is a tradition told of Moses that while he was tending his father-in-law's flock, a lamb had escaped and ran away until it came to a place where it stopped to have a drink. When Moses approached the lamb, he said, "I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty, you must be weary." So he placed the lamb upon his shoulder and returned to the flock. Thereupon God said: "Because you have mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, you will surely tend my flock, Israel." (Shemot Rabbah 2:2) Moses' experience and the parable told by the Messiah have some striking similarities.

In chapter thirty-four of his book, the prophet Ezekiel reveals that the Lord, like Moses and the man in the Luke chapter 15 parable, will search for His lost sheep. "For thus says the Lord GOD: 'Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.'" (34:11)

In the end, Ezekiel declares that the Lord will finally regather them into the Land of Israel where He will be their Shepherd. "'Thus they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are my people,' says the Lord GOD. 'You are my flock, the flock of my pasture; you are men, and I am your God.' says the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 34:30-31)

The Great Shepherd is forced to search for His sheep because there have been some bad shepherds among the leaders of Israel.

Rabbi Yeshua revealed that He is, in fact, the Good Shepherd. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep." (John 10:11)

It is pertinent that He had specifically come searching for the lost sheep of Israel.

This was undeniably confirmed when a non-Jewish woman came to Yeshua to ask Him to heal her daughter. He ignored her–He didn't even reply. Then after she persisted, and at the insistence of His Jewish disciples, Yeshua finally responded, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 15:24) While the Gentile woman's daughter was miraculously healed, it is particularly significant that the Messiah boldly testified that He had explicitly come for the lost sheep of Israel.

In the Luke chapter 15 parable, Rabbi Yeshua declares that the man who found the lost sheep, placed it upon his shoulders, rejoicing. The picture is one of compassion, lovingkindness, and demonstrates the faithfulness of God's covenant towards His people, Israel. God's love for His lost sheep is incomparable. He pursues them with an indescribable passion and steadfast purpose.

The man carrying the lamb upon his shoulders is a picture of the kingdom of God, and is also a reminder to the people of Israel of their mission to be a light to the nations by bearing the yoke of His kingdom. Each time Israel recites, "Shema, O Israel" ( "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!" Deuteronomy 6:4) they take upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom–to follow after the One True God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments. In effect, to bear the responsibility of making God known and building His kingdom–a kingdom of righteousness. Therefore, when the man places the lamb upon his shoulders he is reminding every child of Israel, every son of Abraham, of their holy calling, their responsibility toward God and man, namely, to seek first the kingdom of God and to walk in His righteousness.

The man rejoices because he has found the lost sheep. But he is ecstatic because the lost has been returned to the fold. The shepherd has good reason to celebrate with his friends. The sinner has repented and has returned to what God has created him for–to imitate Him. He has been restored to the assembly of the righteous.

Consequently, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine just (righteous) persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7) Celebrations are appropriate because he who had turned away has now returned to follow the Great Shepherd, to the faith of his fathers–he has come home!

Rabbi Yeshua continued with another parable.

"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbours together, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!' Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in heaven in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:8-10)

Those who heard the parable would have immediately understood that the woman was a righteous woman of Israel. Her relationship with God and her devotion to His kingdom are reflected in the ten silver coins. Ten is the number of righteousness. Note, there are Ten Commandments. The number ten is a dominant feature throughout the specifications of the Tabernacle, the House of God–the dwelling place of the Righteous One, as well as the Temple in Jerusalem where the righteous from all nations would come to worship. Those who heard the parable would understand that the ten coins indicated the woman had made a vow, because according to Leviticus chapter twenty-seven, verse five, a woman making a voluntary offering to the House of God was required to give no less than ten shekels.

Compelled by her love for God, and keen for others to come to a knowledge of the Righteous One of Israel, she would cheerfully give her offering (ten shekels) to the Temple. These funds were collected into the Treasury for distribution to the poor and needy.

The loss of one coin, however, meant that her offering was blemished, and meant that she was unable to give an offering. Unable to fulfil her promise, the woman would be desparate and anxious knowing that others could miss out on God's blessing–the poor and needy would not see the goodness of God or experience His righteous ways. Understandably then, the woman lighted a lamp and searched the entire house until the coin was found.

Then when she found it, like the shepherd who found the sheep, she rejoiced and celebrated with friends. The picture is one of completeness. The lost coin belongs with the ten. The single lost coin is of greater value than the other nine. Without the lost coin, the other nine are incomplete, and ultimately, have no kingdom value, thus the lost coin must be found and restored.

There are joyful celebrations in heaven because the lost coin is likened to a sinner who has returned to "complete" the assembly of the righteous.

Rabbi Yeshua then tells another parable. In this parable, "A certain man has two sons . . . " (Luke 15:11) Like the one sheep and single coin in the previous two parables, the younger of the two sons is lost. He demands that his Father give him his share of the inheritance. He leaves home and travels to a foreign country where he wastes his inheritance. The younger son is typical of tax collectors, and all who turn away from the commandments of God.

Like the lost son who worked in the field of the Gentiles, and eventually became one of them, so too, the Jewish tax collectors and sinners were worshipping foreign gods and trangressing the Torah. But just as the lost son remembered the goodness of his Father, so too, these tax collectors and sinners also recalled the goodness of the God of Israel when they saw and heard the teachings of Rabbi Yeshua. Subsequently, tax collectors and sinners " . . . drew near to Him to hear Him." (Luke 15:1) They realized that God's commandments were life and the only way.

In the parable, the son who was lost confessed, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight,and am no longer worthy to be called your son." (Luke 15:21)

Just as the man with the sheep, and the woman with the coins restored the lost, so too, the Father restored his younger son to his rightful place in the community (the assembly of the righteous).

"But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet." (Luke 15:22) The robe speaks of the High Priest's robe, and of his holy service to God in the House of the Righteous. The ring is symbolic of authority, much like one who has been given authority to rule and legislate over a kingdom. The sandals depict the ability to teach the good and right way; to lead by example and encourage others to walk holy and blameless before God–it is the path of the righteous.

As in the previous two parables when the lost was returned, so too, in this third parable, friends are invited to join the celebrations. The lost son, like the lost sheep and coin had returned home to the assembly of the righteous–to the people of God.

Zacchaeus was one who was lost. He worked for the Romans as a chief tax collector, and he was rich. He only needed to implement Roman law to ensure his survival, and to maintain a certain lifestyle. The Romans only demanded he raise the required funds; how he did that was up to him. Thus, Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, could use the system to his full advantage. He could be ruthless–merciless toward his kinsman, because it was acceptable under Roman law–the only problem, Zacchaeus would transgress the Torah, therefore, he would sin against God and the kingdom.

Zacchaeus was indeed lost, but when he saw the Rabbi enter the city of Jericho he ran on ahead, climbed a sycamore tree and waited for the Rabbi to pass by. "And when Yeshua came to the place, he looked up and saw him, and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.' So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, 'He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.'" (Luke 19:5-7)

Like the lost son in the parable, Zacchaeus had worked the field of the Gentiles and had become like one of them. In the eyes of the community, he was a man who could not be trusted, a sinner. But Zacchaeus saw and heard something in Yeshua that reminded him of his Jewish heritage–the sure mercies of David, and the steadfast goodness of God. What Zacchaeus saw was the Torah of God, living and breathing. Zacchaeus remembered.

Zacchaeus was delighted to host the Rabbi. A change was happening in Zacchaeus' heart. His stony heart, usually hardened to the ways of God, had somehow become a heart of flesh, willing to glorify his Father in heaven, and ready to follow the Great Shepherd.

"Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.'" (Luke 19:8)

Zacchaeus, like the lost sheep, coin and son, had returned home. The sinner who was lost had returned to the assembly of the righteous. His response was godly and noteworthy. By giving to the poor, Zacchaeus was imitating the righteous ways of the Great Shepherd of Israel who shows mercy to the fatherless, the widow and the needy. Zacchaeus had returned to the fold.

"And Yeshua said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.'" (Luke 19:9-10)

Rabbi Yeshua did not point to Zacchaeus's faith or good works, but to his return " . . . because he also is a son of Abraham . " He was lost but salvation had come to his house. He was saved from the ways of the Gentiles, and he had returned to the people of God, the people of faith who by their good works glorify their heavenly Father.

Zacchaeus was not asked to resign his position as chief tax collector. Instead, he functioned as a true son of the Kingdom; he showed mercy and walked in God's commandments. He would no longer be a Gentile.Welcome home, Zacchaeus! According to the parables, there is much rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who returns home, than over the righteous who are already there.

May we see many more lost sheep of the house of Israel returning home. May there be many who remember the sure mercies of David, and like Zacchaeus hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, even Messiah Yeshua, for He has " . . . come to seek and to save that which is lost."