The Parables of Great Joy were a set of parables (albeit one unit) spoken by Jesus Christ, in order to illustrate the importance of the Salvation of all that belong to God. This group contained three parables about personal loss: a sheep, a coin and a wayward son.
The events leading up to this important discourse followed a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. He had taken his "inner circle"--Peter and the "sons of Thunder"--to a mountaintop to visit with His Father where they got to see some of the true power behind their master's miracles. When the disciples and Jesus came down, the others had found out that the power behind miracles is faith. Nevertheless, the disciples were still thinking of themselves, asking who would be greatest among them "in the kingdom of heaven".
The time was short, so Jesus had first sent a band of seventy-two disciples out to reach as many Jews as they could in which they found that Jesus' power was with them. In the days that followed, Jesus began to share many parables with his disciples, beginning with a parable about a lost sheep, a little child in need of his father's love. Within weeks he would receive a grand reception just days before his betrayal and execution at Passover.
Jesus had warned his disciples that this was coming, but first he had to give his enemies a chance to condemn themselves in their hate for him. This happened one Sabbath when Jesus had been invited into the home of a Pharisee. As was his practice, Jesus healed a man of a loathsome disease. The self-righteous host and his friends scoffed at this, but Jesus told two parables concerning wedding feasts. It became clear that Jesus preferred the company of the common people, despised as sinners by his host.
The animosity toward those "little children" of God led Him to repeat the story of the lost sheep in a different context. In response to the Pharisee's grumbling, Jesus gave a discourse regarding finding that which had been "lost".
Main Article: Parable of the Lost Sheep
Jesus began with a rhetorical question, "what kind of person (or which one of you) would not look for a missing sheep"? Jesus explained that if a shepherd were to lose one out of an hundred sheep, he would leave the ninety nine in search of the one. After he found it, he would carry it off on his shoulders and invite his neighbors to celebrate.
Jesus likened the joy of finding a lost sheep to the celebration in Heaven over a single repentant sinner, instead of there being celebration for ninety-nine who did not need to repent.
Christ raised another scenario, "what kind of woman would not look for a coin when she has lost it"? If a woman were to lose one coin out of ten, she would light a lamp and diligently look for it. After finding it, she would gather with her friends and rejoice over the rediscovery.
In the same way, Jesus said, the Angels of God rejoice over one repentant sinner.
Main article: Prodigal Son
Jesus continued with a narrative to drive home his point. He told of a rich man who had two sons, the younger of which asked his father for his inheritance. A few days later, the son left for a distant country and wasted his entire inheritance on things like prostitutes. When a famine came to that land, the son became a hired hand at a pig farm. He couldn't afford food of his own so he took to eating the food he was feeding the pigs. He came to realize that all of his father's servants had plenty of food.
So the son returned home and as he approached the house, his father spotted him afar. The father ran out to meet his son and embraced him. The son begged his father to hire him as a servant, saying that he had sinned against him and it was no longer proper to call him a "son". Yet, the father dressed him in the best clothes available and threw a party to celebrate his return.
The older brother saw that his father had killed a calf and had a party for the brother. In anger, the brother explained to his father that he thought it unfair that his brother recieved a party after he wasted his estate on prostitutes. The father replied that it was fitting to celebrate the return of the younger brother, regardless of his past circumstances.
Jesus gave the first two scenarios in response to the complaints of Jewish religious legalists, of Jesus welcoming "sinners". In response he gave these two "what-if" or "wouldn't you?" scenarios to establish the point about seeking what had been lost. The two parables used examples of lower class folk, so Jesus ended with a tale of a rich man's son.
The Master teacher that he was, Jesus pointed out that so-called sinners were as precious to God as anyone's possessions or family is to a person. It takes losing what you love, He showed, to appreciate what you have. A sheep can stray, a coin can roll away, and a child can run away, but anyone who loves that which is lost will rejoice when it is found.
The first two scenarios appealed to both common sense and occurence. Sheep and coins were both of vital value for the Jewish culture (and that of the entire Roman world). By using everyday objects, Jesus was able to personalize his parables and make his audience think. Jesus was better able to make a personal connection between earthly and Heavenly rejoicing. Additionally, by appealing to the common man (thus the Jewish legalists), Jesus exposed their hypocrisy.
Through the narrative of the prodigal son, Jesus illustrated His opponents' attitude towards sinners. However, he did not make this connection with this audience; for just like the older brother rejected the younger, so did the legalists reject sinners. The older brother is an allegory for the behavior of the Jews, who complained that since they were close to God they deserved a celebration. The father is a picture of God, who celebrated more over the prodigal son returning from his erroneous ways, than over the legalists who claimed no wrong doing.