I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
There are three parables in this chapter: all agree in one quality-- in their humanity. God shows us in them that there is something in his character which is like the best and simplest parts of our characters. God himself likens himself to men, that men may understand him and love him.
Why there should be more joy over the repenting sinner than over the just man who needs no repentance, we cannot explain in words: but our hearts tell us that it is true, beautiful; that it is reasonable, though we can give no reason for it. You know that if you had lost a sheep; if you had lost a piece of money; if you had had a child run away from you, it would be far more pleasant to find that thing which you had lost, than never to have lost it at all. You do not know why. God tells you that it is a part of his image and likeness in you; that you rejoice over what you have lost and found again, because God rejoices over what he has lost and found again.
And is not this a gospel, and good news? Is it not good news that we need never be afraid or ashamed to give way to our tenderness and pity? for God does not think it beneath him to be tender and pitiful. Is it not good news that we need never be afraid or ashamed to forgive, to take back those who have neglected us, wronged us? for God does not think it beneath him to do likewise. That we need never show hardness, pride, sternness to our children when they do wrong, but should win them by love and tenderness, caring for them all the more, the less they care for themselves? for God does even so to us, who have sinned against him far more than our children ever can sin against us.
And is it not good news, again, that God does care for sinners, and for all kinds and sorts of sinners? Some go wrong from mere stupidity and ignorance, because they know no better; because they really are not altogether accountable for their own doings. They are like the silly sheep, who gets out over the fence of his own fancy: and yet no reasonable man will be angry with the poor thing. It knows no better. How many a poor young thing goes wandering away, like that silly sheep, and having once lost its way, cannot get back again, but wanders on further and further, till it lies down all desperate, tired out, mired in the bogs, and torn about with thorns!
Then the good shepherd does not wait for that sheep to come back. He goes and seeks it far and wide, up hill and down dale, till he finds it; and having found it, he does not beat it, rate it--not even drive it home before him. It is tired and miserable. If it has been foolish, it has punished itself enough for its folly; and all he feels for it is pity and love. It wants rest, and he gives it rest at his own expense. He lays it on his shoulders, and takes it home, calling on all heaven and earth to rejoice with him. Ah, my friends, if that is not the picture of a God whom you can love, of a God whom you can trust, what God would you have?
Some, again, go wrong from ignorance and bad training, bad society, bad education, bad example; and in other countries--though, thank God, not in this--from bad laws and bad government. How many thousands and hundreds of thousands are ruined, as it seems to us, thereby! The child born in a London alley, reared up among London thieves, taught to swear, lie, steal, never entering a school or church, never hearing the name of God save in oaths--There is the lost piece of money. It is a valuable thing; the King's likeness is stamped on it: but it is useless, because it is lost, lying in the dust and darkness, hidden in a corner, unable to help itself, and of no use to any one. And so there is many a person, man and woman, who is worth something, who has God's likeness on them, who, if they were brought home to God, might be of good use in the world; but they are lost, from ignorance and bad training. They lie in a corner in darkness, not knowing their own value in God's eyes; not knowing that they bear his image, though it be all crusted over with the dust and dirt of barbarism and bad habits. Then Christ will go after them, and seek diligently till he finds them, and cleanses them, and makes them bright, and of good use again in his Church and his kingdom. They are worth something, and Christ will not let them be wasted; he will send clergymen, teachers, missionaries, schools, reformatories, penitentiaries, hospitals--ay, and other messengers of his, of whom we never dream, for his ways are as high above our ways as the heaven is above the earth: with all these he sweeps his house, and his blessing is on them all, for by them he finds the valuable coin which was lost.
But there is a third sort of sinner, spoken of in Christ's next parable in this chapter, from which my text is taken, of whom it is not said that God the Father sends out to seek and to save him. That is the prodigal son, who left his father's house, and strayed away of his own wantonness and free will. Christ does not go out after him. He has gone away of his own will; and of his own will he must come back: and he has to pay a heavy price for his folly--to taste hunger, shame, misery, all but despair. For understand--if any of you fancy that you can sin without being punished--that the prodigal son is punished, and most severely. He does not get off freely, the moment he chooses to repent, as false preachers will tell you: even after he does repent, and resolves to go back to his father's house, he has a long journey home, in poverty and misery, footsore, hungry, and all but despairing. But when he does get home; when he shows that he has learnt the bitter lesson; when all he dares to ask is, 'Make me as one of thy hired servants,' he is received as freely as the rest. And it is worth while to remark, that our Lord spends on him tenderer words than on those who are lost by mere foolishness or ignorance. Of him it is not said, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found him,'--but, Bring out the best robe, for this my son--not my sheep, not my piece of money, but my son--was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
In this is a great mystery; one of which one hardly dares to talk: but one which one must think over in one's own heart, and say, 'Oh the depth of the riches and of the knowledge and wisdom of God! How wonderful are his judgments, and his ways past finding out. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?' Who indeed? God is not a tyrant, who must be appeased with gifts; or a taskmaster, who must be satisfied with the labour of his slaves. He is a father who loves his children; who gives, and loveth to give; who gives to all freely, and upbraideth not. He truly willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live. His will is a good will; and howsoever much man's sin and folly may resist it, and seem for a time to mar it, yet he is too great and good to owe any man, even the worst, the smallest spite or grudge. Patiently, nobly, magnanimously, God waits; waits for the man who is a fool, to find out his own folly; waits for the heart which has tried to find pleasure in everything else, to find out that everything else disappoints, and to come back to him, the fountain of all wholesome pleasure, the well-spring of all life fit for a man to live. When the fool finds out his folly; when the wilful man gives up his wilfulness; when the rebel submits himself to law; when the son comes back to his father's house--there is no sternness, no peevishness, no up-braiding, no pride, no revenge; but the everlasting and boundless love of God wells forth again as rich as ever. He has condescended to wait for his creature; because what he wanted was not his creature's fear, but his creature's love; not his lip-obedience, but his heart; because he wanted him not to come back as a trembling slave to his master, but as a son who has found out at last what a father he has left him, when all beside has played him false. Let him come back thus; and then all is forgiven and forgotten; and all that will be said will be, 'This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.'