A father had three sons. Now ripe with years, the father called his sons to divide his possessions. All he had was 17 camels. To his youngest son, the father willed two-thirds of the herd. To his second son, he gave one-sixth. And to the eldest, because he was able to fend for himself, the father gave one-ninth.
Shortly after their father passed away, the three brothers gathered to divide their inheritance. But trying to follow their father's mathematical formula to divide the camels, they were horrified. There was no way to divide the herd according to his instruction. They would have to kill at least one of the animals to make it work. They wondered if their father had erred in his calculations.
Then they remembered an old friend of their father's who lived nearby. They approached him with their dilemma. "Take one of my camels," he said. "Add it to your 17-for accounting purposes- as if it were your father's. Divide the herd according to your father's wishes, then return my camel to me."
Now, with 18 camels, the formula worked perfectly. The youngest son, who was allotted two-thirds, received 12 camels; the second son, who was given one-sixth, received three camels; and the eldest, who was given one-ninth, received two camels. Added together, they had a total of 17 camels, and they were able to return the remaining one to their father's friend.
Without the missing camel, the problem would have remained. There was huge value attached to that missing one. Certain parables of Jesus remind us that in heaven's accounts, one soul is likewise of infinite value.
In the parable of the good shepherd and his sheep (see Luke 15:4-7), one of the shepherd's flock went missing. This missing sheep represents both the lost sinner and our lost race.
God created everything in harmony with His divine purpose. But the Bible points out that our planet went astray. Hostility and corruption entered the world, and the human race fell hostage to sin and death.
Like the one missing sheep, utterly lost, the earth and its inhabitants were plunged into a desperate predicament. Tainted by the sting of sin, everyone born into this earth was doomed to die.
Had it not been for God's initiative, sinners individually and the world as a whole would have been lost forever. But the Good Shepherd set out to seek and rescue His lost sheep. When that sheep was found, there was great rejoicing (Luke 15:6). Likewise, says Jesus, there is rejoicing in heaven when even one sinner repents (verse 7).
Repentance, then, although an important aspect of salvation, is nevertheless part of a divine initiative. Helpless as a sheep, the sinner knows he is lost but cannot find his way back to God. It is God, therefore, like the shepherd, who takes the initiative to save the sinner. The work of salvation, then, from repentance to glorification, is an initiative of God's grace. The emphasis is not so much on the repentance of the sinner (though repentance is essential) as it is on Jesus' attitude toward sinners.
In heaven's accounts, one lost soul is of infinite value. And all human beings, like that one lost sheep, have gone astray, and every one is sought by the Good Shepherd.
The lost sheep also represents individuals who realise they are lost and yearn to find God. Many long for something better and respond to the Spirit of God as He speaks to their conscience. These individuals sense their need for God but don't know where to find Him. God seeks them, and when He finds them, He reaches out toward them, inviting them to return to Him.
Along with His parable of the missing sheep, Christ spoke of a missing coin (see Luke 15:8-10). But in contrast to the sheep, who knew it was lost but didn't know where the fold was, those represented by the lost coin are oblivious to their circumstance.
Note: the coin is lost inside the home! The place where it should have been safe became the arena for being spiritually lost. It suggests that there are people who claim the name of Christ, people sitting in church pews even, who are lost but don't realise it. It's possible to appear earnest and sincere about Christianity yet remain separated from the Life-Giver.
But just as the woman turns her house upside down looking for that coin, God stops at nothing in order to save those the coin represents. People's earthly lives are sometimes turned upside down in order to fit them for eternity. Jesus said that the salvation of the lost coin, the repentant sinner, deserves a party! (Luke 15:10).
In the parable of the lost sheep, the sheep knew it was lost, but it didn't know the way home. The lost coin did not know it was lost. But in both cases, someone went looking for them.
The lost son (see Luke 15:11-32) knew he was lost and he knew the way home. Nobody came looking for him. The father waited until he came to his senses and returned on his own. However, the moment the father spied his son walking down the road toward home, he rushed out to meet him, threw his arms around him and welcomed him back with great rejoicing.
The lost son represents sinners who know they are lost and know where to find salvation. When they return to God, they discover His overwhelming grace toward sinners.
So while God seeks to save all, He cannot "save" an individual against their will. In the parable, the son had access to all the benefits and privileges of home yet chose otherwise. Of his own choice, he decided to leave God, and of his own free will, he chose to return. But we need not separate ourselves from God in order to be saved!
In telling these parables, Jesus was responding to the legalistically minded religious leaders who had accused Him of welcoming sinners and eating with them. Their accusations were correct. Jesus had welcomed sinners, and He had sat down at the table and eaten meals with them.
These parables were His response to the accusations. They highlight the contrast between the religious leaders with their unforgiving and unaccepting attitude, and God's forgiveness and acceptance of the repentant sinner as manifested in Jesus Christ's ministry. So the focus of the parables is not so much on the sinner's repentance as it is on God's love and forgiveness toward people who repent.
Every single soul is precious. Christ died for each of us. If you were the only sinner on earth, Christ would still have come to save you. If you were the worst person on earth, you would not be beyond Christ's saving grace. If you are an atheist, you are not beyond God's love, which yearns for your salvation. He loves you so much He came to save you. However, like the lost son, it is your choice how you will respond.