Early in my ministry I became the go-to pastor for destination weddings at the Sea Island Resort. In just a few years I officiated over 100 weddings on the resort grounds. Sometimes I would be invited to the receptions, and I accepted those invitations for awhile. Why? Because this was a five-star resort. It was like going out for a fine five-course meal. That was certainly something my family wasn’t doing on its own! The kids were too young, and we just didn’t have the money.
Because I was the odd guest at the reception, I would get placed at a table that had room for one. Sometimes it was with family—people like putting the pastor with grandparents. Sometimes it was completely random. The story I’m going to share with you comes from one of those random placements.
I’ve come to appreciate the art of small talk and of getting to know the stories of people I’ll likely never encounter again. At this particular wedding a guest at the same table as me had played cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1970s. We did talk for a little about life in the NFL, but he decided to grill me. He had a pastor at his table, and he was going to take advantage of it! Here’s how our conversation went.
“Let’s talk about this grace thing,” he said. “I think I get grace. You mess up. You feel sorry for messing up. You ask God for forgiveness, and God gives it to you. Right? I’m all for it, but aren’t there limits to that grace?”
It was my turn to talk. “Grace is absolutely without limit,” I said. “It has to be. I know I need it to be. While I aim to be a good person and to follow Jesus, I am nowhere close to perfect. If there are limits to God’s grace, at some point even someone like me would run out of chances.”
He didn’t like my answer. He pressed me. “I can’t believe that. There have to be limits. What about Hitler? Surely he’s outside of God’s grace. What about someone who hurts an innocent child? They don’t deserve forgiveness!”
“I agree that they don’t deserve forgiveness,” I said, “but it is still available. God’s grace is greater than any sin. That’s a fact, but it’s sometimes a hard one to swallow. It’s limitless, available, and freely given—even for the worst person you can imagine.”
He still didn’t like my answer. I get why he didn’t like it, but even as I think back on that conversation a decade later, I stand firm on what I said about God’s grace.
In this conversation both of us were finding perspective on God’s great grace. Let me explain that by taking a look at Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 from two perspectives. We’ll start with the perspective that we and those we care about are like that lost sheep or lost coin. It’s comforting to read Jesus’ words when we are the object of grace or givers of grace.
Jesus’ audience hearing his teaching might have been stunned by his parable. A shepherd with a flock of one hundred is pretty well-off. A typical family in Jesus’ day would have had five to fifteen sheep in their flock. This shepherd has a hundred.
If I had five dollars to make it through the day and I lost one, I’d be flipping over the couch cushions looking for it. But if I had $100, and I lost one? Well, why bother looking for it? The same principle goes for the shepherd in this parable. Sure, he’d like to have his full flock. One sheep wandered off into the wilderness. Chances are low that he’ll find it. It could be injured. It could have been eaten. Just to go off and find the sheep, he’s going to have to hire others to watch the other ninety-nine. “Reason would dictate that the shepherd should cut his losses, count his blessings, and go—happily. This shepherd does not do that. He is not predicating decisions on strategies and outcomes. He is concerned about one lost sheep.”
Now, what we see is that this shepherd values this sheep way beyond what is rational. Finding this lost sheep matters. Forget the costliness of retrieving it! What’s even wilder is that the shepherd throws a party, spending even more to celebrate. It’s extravagant and unreasonable. Yet, if that lost sheep is a stand-in for you, for me, or for someone we love, we are quite happy with this parable, aren’t we?
So, the shepherd might have had sheep to spare, but the woman who lost her coin really needs that coin. She’s living paycheck-to-paycheck. Each coin is a day’s wages. If 10% of our net worth suddenly went missing, surely we’d turn things upside-down to find it. Peasant homes in Palestine were typically made of stone or mud bricks. They were windowless, which means the inside was really dark. Most had mud floors. Her home is an easy place to lose a coin and a hard place to find one. Imagine the work it took to locate this precious coin. She lights a lamp so she can see in the dark. She sweeps her dirt floor, carefully combing the residence until that lost coin is back in her possession.
Unlike losing the sheep, which happens outside and in public, this woman’s loss happens in the privacy of her home. Yet, like the shepherd, she goes public with her discovery. She goes into the streets, calling to friends and neighbors, “Come! Celebrate with me. I lost my coin, but I have now found it!” But this becomes even crazier than the shepherd chasing down one of his hundred sheep. She’s found 10% of her net worth. Rather than tucking it back into a safe place, she’s throws a party, probably spending more than that coin was worth. It’s unreasonable for sure, but it’s grace.
From this perspective where we are the lost being found or where we are the ones seeking out that precious sheep or coin, we are pretty pleased that what we love gets welcomed to the party in heaven. But, let’s go back to the very beginning of our passage. There’s an entirely different perspective for this, and I don’t think it’s a perspective that’s particularly pleased with what’s Jesus is saying.
Luke gives us the context for Jesus’ teaching. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (15:1-2). It’s not like Jesus just happened to be at Applebee’s at the same time some of the non-religious outcasts were at the bar. No, Jesus is choosing to be with those who are outside of the orbit of those who take their religion seriously. When they accuse Jesus of “welcoming and eating with” these folk, they are not saying he has a casual connection to them. Rather, Jesus is identifying with the community of tax collectors and sinners. They’re his people. They’re his tribe.
So, Jesus tells these parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin, and the religious folk hear them entirely differently. To them, Jesus is doubling-down on identifying with the lost. He’s saying this is how God sees them. That each and every one who is found is worthy of a heavenly party. (It’s a point that Jesus really drives home in the final parable in this chapter where the prodigal son finally comes home and is welcomed with a party while the older son who minded all his social p’s and q’s gets upset at his father’s welcoming love.)
Philip Yancey puts it this way, “Jesus says in effect, ‘Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those two-legged humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.’ To God himself, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.”
But some of us, like the scribes and Pharisees hearing Jesus’ teaching, haven’t found this perspective yet. Going back to my conversation with the football player at a wedding, I’d say it was the same for him. From this limited point of view, it’s only right and fair for there to be limits to God’s welcome. This sheep caused his own peril by wandering off. Why bother finding him? This coin should be written off. Was it really worth the hours of scouring the home for it? This lost son doesn’t deserve a welcome home. And neither does the person who wounded you deeply. Neither does the worst of all people.
Paul writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view….So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” All who understand that God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus is real for them must shift from their human point of view to a view that sees the world through Jesus’ eyes. Each and every person—from the least to the greatest, from the worst to the best—is someone for whom Jesus willingly died and whom Jesus now calls to repentance and new life. Whenever any one person was lost and is found, there is celebration in heaven. That’s how specific and personal this huge project of salvation is.
Paul says that God is reconciling the world to himself. God is not just reconciling bits and pieces of the world. God isn’t satisfied with this person and that person but not those other people over there. No, just like the shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep for the sake of the one, so God in Christ is that determined that each and every person will come to know the reconciling work of Jesus. One day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I think most of the time we’re comfortable with that thought, but sometimes it’s easy to slip into the role of the one thinking, “But not that person—they’re too bad; they’re too annoying; they don’t care.” We were once lost, but now we’re found. In our “foundness,” we are finding our perspective shifting into God’s perspective.
So, who are the people you would rejoice over finding themselves at home in God’s loving embrace? Pray for them. Echo the words of these parables over them: Rejoice with me! For [this person] was lost and is found!
But don’t just stay with the easy people. Ask God to show you those for whom you may harbor bitterness and even ill-will. Pray for them. Echo the words of these parables over them: Rejoice with me! For [this person—even this person!] was lost and is found!
How deep is the Father’s love for us? How vast beyond all measure? It’s even greater than our imagining. Thank God it is so vast it includes even us!