I love the stories that Jesus tells about the lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Found in Luke 15, they are familiar to us and we, for the most part, understand what they are about. But in one way, we still struggle to truly get them.
One key piece of all of these stories is the response to the lost thing getting found. In all three instances, we witness rejoicing. The shepherd who finds his lost sheep invites his friends to come and celebrate with him. The woman invites her friends to come celebrate with her after finding her lost coin. What is striking about these stories is the further information that Jesus gives us. Not only is rejoicing happening on earth when lost things are found, so too is this what the angels rejoice about. They rejoice about a sinner getting saved.
In the first two parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin, we assume that the invited friends came and celebrated. We’re not told that, but the story seems to end with the understanding that this happened. So, you have a group of people rejoicing over the finding of an animal and a treasure. But when we come to the third story, we are challenged. The end of the lost son story does involve rejoicing. A party is held by the father whose son has returned. But in this story, it doesn’t end with a statement about the angels in heaven rejoicing over one sinner who repents. The first two stories were analogies to get us liking the idea of lost stuff being found and hearing that when sinners are found, we are rejoicing with heaven.
The problem with the story of the lost son is that we have an actual case where a lost sinner is found, where we can expect to have the same formula. This is not a story about a sheep or a coin. This is an actual human being who comes back. We should see rejoicing in both earth and heaven. We see rejoicing happen, but the bit about heaven is left out and the focus is turned to someone on earth who doesn’t want to join the party. The faithful older brother of the lost son thinks he’s gotten a raw deal. He doesn’t want to rejoice. He’d rather have the father rejoice over his faithfulness, over what he wants to rejoice in. And even with the father’s pleading, this story ends with the feeling that the older brother doesn’t go in. It’s easy to rejoice with heaven when we’re thinking of a lost sheep or coin. It’s harder when heaven rejoices over an actual sinner who comes back, who might infringe on our territory, who might take up our attention, who might change our preferences a bit. Then, as Jesus tells it, we might not be as quick to stand up and rejoice with heaven.
I think we begin to truly understand these texts when we learn to rejoice like heaven. Too often, we rejoice and celebrate the wrong things and we might even be ho-hum about what heaven rejoices about—sinners coming to life in Christ. The question becomes, are we rejoicing with heaven or standing outside the party wanting the attention of our needs and our wants? Heaven desires to teach us its joy, the joy of sinners coming to repentance.