The term “the lost” is a common term that Christians use to refer to anyone who has not committed their life to following Jesus. At its best, it is a descriptive term that implies deep compassion for someone who does not yet know the God of the universe. At its worst, it can be perceived or even intended as an exclusionary term that implies an “us versus them” mentality. The biblical source of this word actually reflects the compassionate heart of God and challenges any sort of in-group superiority.
Jesus’ view of the lost is maybe best seen in a trio of parables throughout Luke 15. Jesus tells three stories in response to the grumblings of the religious leaders of his day. They were upset that Jesus hung out with “sinners” – with “the lost.” They viewed anyone who broke the law with disgust and sought to keep separate from them. Jesus counters this with challenging compassion.
In the first parable, Jesus describes a shepherd with a hundred sheep. One of the sheep goes missing, so the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go find this one lost sheep. When he finds it, he is overcome with joy. In the second parable, he describes a woman who loses her paycheck and earnestly does all she can to find it, rejoicing when she does. Jesus says that there is more joy in heaven from just one person who repents – who is found by God – than from a host of religious people who “don’t need to” repent.
In the final parable, Jesus describes a son who asked for his inheritance from his father early and then goes on to promptly waste it all. He hits rock bottom, finds himself homeless and hungry, and decides to go back to his father to beg for a position as one of his servants. But when his father sees him approaching in the distance, he runs to embrace him, rejoicing that he is no longer lost. Afterwards he throws a big party. The plot twist at the end of these three parables comes with the description of the father’s other son – the older brother. This brother is angry that the father forgives the younger son and throws him this elaborate dinner, so he refuses to attend the party. The father goes out and tells the older son that it is right to rejoice that his brother is back home – because he once was dead but is now alive, and he once was lost but is now found.
Jesus turns the idea that the religious leaders of the day had about who was “lost” and “found” on its head. He tells them in these parables that the worst of sinners can repent and be found, and that the most observant and devout religious person can be the one who remains truly lost in their failure to understand God’s grace – just like the older brother.
Being lost simply means that someone, by their life, beliefs, and actions, does not know and love who God really is. It isn’t just a designator for someone outside of Christianity’s religious structures. It’s not just for people who don’t go to church. The most desperately lost person might call themselves a Christian and do all the things you might expect a Christian person to do, even while in their hearts they do not know God. Jesus turns the “us-verses-them” mentality around on the most devout religious people of his day to say that it isn’t just the sinners, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors who are lost – it is the self-righteous religious who are lost. Like the older brother, they do not always accept the loving grace of God.
Finally, it is not a designator that should be used to pronounce some sort of final judgment on a person’s eternal state. No one but God knows if someone who is wandering will one day turn back to find and be found by God. At its best, it is a word not characterized by judgment and exclusion, but a word full of compassion that reflects a God who would drop everything to find each one of us.