By Josh Butler, art by Justin Hall
The word “lost” has fallen on hard times. It can sound arrogant and condescending, as if Christians have it all together while the “lost” need to get their act together. As if we’re the brilliant insiders with all the answers and “they” are the outsiders with all the questions.
The problem is, when Jesus uses the term “lost,” it actually has the opposite connotation: Being lost doesn’t mean you need to go out and find God; it means God is coming to find you.
In Luke 15, Jesus shares three famous stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son–and in each, lost doesn’t mean “idiot,” “fool” or “outsider.”
You see, “lost” means loved.
Jesus opens with the story ofa shepherd. He’s hanging out in the fields one day with his hundred sheep, when he suddenly realizes: one’s gone missing. So Jesus asks the audience the obvious question:
Wouldn’t you leave the 99 out in the open country and go after that one lost sheep until you find it?
Our 21st-century heads bob up and down (with our total lack of shepherding experience), and say, “Yes, of course. You love that sheep. Definitely, you drop everything and run out to find it.”
The safe bet is the 99. Why leave them open to wolf attacks, wandering bears and robbers? They’re easy prey for predators. You might wind up walking home with 99 problems and a sheep, just one—it’s bad economics.
So when Jesus asks his question, know-it-all-Joe in the back probably raises his hand and answers, “You count your 99 blessing, chalk up your loss and protect what you have.” Stick with the safe bet: stay with the 99.
But God missed Economics 101.
On the Hunt
Like God, the shepherd sets out on the hunt, leaving the safe bet to go find the one. He tracks the open plains, bumbles through the brambles, climbs the rocky crags and finally comes upon her. When his shadow falls across that naughty little lamb, I’d expect a livid lecture: “What were you doing running off like that? Do you know how worried I’ve been? You could have gotten yourself killed Why can’t you be like your 99 responsible brother and sisters?
But Jesus tells us there’s not finger-wagging, no “I told you so”, no “If you ever again…” instead, this shepherd joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:6)
Ok, that’s a crazy reaction. The shepherd’s joyful , grinning ear to ear and pumping his fists in the air that he’s found her. The divine shepherd greets us not with a stern reprimand, but with joy: God delights in discovering us, his lost and wandering lamb.
And rather than give us a road map with directions to find our way back home, God’s thrilled to throw us over his shoulders and carry us there himself.
So, lost here doesn’t mean we need to go find God; it means God’s coming to find us.
It get’s even crazier: the shepherd throws a party—the last thing I’d want to do. I’d be too exhausted. I’d simply crash onto the couch, put my feet up on the coffee table, flip on Hulu and call it a day. But not God; God says it’s time for a neighborhood bash.
Who celebrates their pet with a party?
My wife and I lost our cat, Iggy, once. The clumsy thing lost her balance on the bathroom window, slipped story and a half down into the bushes, then ran off confused and scared. To be fully honest, I wasn’t too attached—but my wife loved that cat. So I canceled all my afternoon appointments and scoured the neighborhood, searching high and low for hours. Eventually, we found her and were glad. But I was like “let’s get takeout and watch Netflix glad, not “let’s spend hundreds of dollars on a block party to tell all our friends our cat’s back.”
I can hear our neighbors now: “You want us to come over and celebrate what?” God celebrates people we wouldn’t expect. He leaves the safe bet and searches harder and farther than you’d imagine—for us.
And when he finds us, he throws the biggest party the town’s ever seen.
Jesus tells us God is a reliable shepherd, and in the next two parables we discover God as a crazy woman, tearing the house apart through the night in search of one missing coin, then a loving father gazing out on the horizon and running into the distance at the first sign of his lost and wandering son. God’s pursuit is reckless, like a bull in a china closet, willing to crash through our social circumstances and crush down our idols to get to our heart.
Before this pursuing God, Jesus reveals that lost means not worthless, but wanted. Not villain, but valued. It does not mean lazy.
Lost Means Loved.