These parables introduce the importance of sinners for Jesus, and thus for disciples. The parable's drama is built on the tension of an attempt to find something that has been lost. Anyone who has lost anything or loses anything on a regular basis can identify with this tension. In our house it is keys and the remote control for the television that most often go AWOL. At such times an all-points bulletin sends my children on a hunt for what their absent-minded father has misplaced. When it is found, all are relieved. So in these parables with the sheep and the coin.
Jesus tells these parables to tax collectors and sinners. Thus the stories offer comfort, especially in the face of the Pharisees and scribes' grumbling that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them (compare 5:30, 37; 7:34, 39). The fact that tax collectors and sinners listen to Jesus while the leadership does not is a cultural reversal of expectation. Sometimes hearers are found in surprising places. The issue of listening to Jesus is a major one in Luke (5:1, 15; 6:17, 27, 47, 49; 7:29; 8:8-18, 21; 9:35; 10:16, 24, 39; 11:28, 31; L. T. Johnson 1991:235). To experience God's blessing, we need to listen to him.
Jesus begins with a pastoral scene that would have been familiar in Palestine. A shepherd had a hundred sheep—a count that would indicate he is modestly wealthy, since the average flock ranged from twenty to two hundred head (Jeremias 1972:133). Such flocks were an economic resource, since they provided wool and mutton. During the count as he gathers the sheep at day's end, the shepherd notices that one is missing. Jesus' original hearers probably assumed that the shepherd asks a neighbor to keep an eye on the ninety-nine so he can search for the missing sheep, though the story does not offer this detail. The sheep needs to be found; otherwise it may be permanently lost or attacked by hungry predators. It is risky to be a lost sheep.
The search proves fruitful: the shepherd finds the sheep and lifts it onto his shoulder to bring it home. (Compare Is 40:11; 49:22. Shepherd imagery in the Old Testament is rich—see Ps 23; Jer 31:10-14; especially Ezek 34:11-16; Mic 5:1-4; in the New Testament see Jn 10:11-12.) Given the possibility that the sheep could have been devoured, the shepherd rejoices at finding it.
The parable pictures God's desire to find sinners and bring them back into the fold. Thus the owner throws a party, asking his neighbors to celebrate with him since the lost sheep is found. In the same way, Jesus says, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. When a sinner turns to God, heaven throws a party. The prospect of such joy keeps Jesus associating with sinners.
The second parable parallels the first. Here a silver coin has been lost. It sounds as if the coin is a drachma, which equals a denarius—a day's wage for the average worker (Josephus Antiquities 3.8.2 195). As with many things that are dropped and lost, the search begins with the certainty that "it must be in here somewhere." The search is likely to be taking place in the evening, since the woman must light a lamp to look for the coin. She sweeps the house clean, looking carefully, until it turns up. We can almost hear her "there it is!" relief as the search ends successfully. Like the shepherd, this woman calls her friends together to celebrate the discovery of the lost coin. So there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. The reference to angels is a circumlocution for God's joy. The courts of heaven are full of praise when a sinner turns to God.
Is there any significant difference between the two parables? At their most basic level they make the same point. The second parable, however, stresses the search a little more than the first. Recovering a lost sinner can take diligent effort. But the effort is worth it when the lost is found. Sinners should know that God is diligently looking for them. Disciples should diligently engage in the search for sinners on behalf of the Master they serve. Jesus provides a clear example for us to follow. Finding lost "sheep" and missing "coins" is a disciple's priority. Jesus involved himself with sinners; so should disciples.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.