A story is told of a father who had three sons. Ripe with years, the father called his sons together to divide his possessions. All he had was 17 camels, an asset of priceless value in those times. To his youngest son, the father allocated two-thirds. 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 again to divide his possessions. But when they tried to follow their father’s nonsensical mathematical formula to divide the camels, they were astonished and horrified. How could they split the animals? Had their father erred in his calculation? Then they remembered an old friend of their father’s who lived not far away. They decided to seek his counsel. Perhaps he could make sense of their dilemma! Being an old man with many years of experience, their father’s friend possessed the wisdom they sought. “Take one of my camels,” he said. “Add it to your 17 camels for accounting purposes. And, when you have finished dividing your camels, return mine.” Now, with 18 camels, their father’s formula worked perfectly. The youngest, who was allotted two-thirds, had 12. The second son, who was given one-sixth, had three. And, the eldest, who was given one-ninth, had two. Having added up to a total of 17 camels, the one remaining camel was returned to their father’s friend. Their dilemma was resolved, and everyone was happy.

What made the difference in this story? It was the one “missing” camel. Without that camel, the mathematical dilemma the three sons faced could not be resolved. In a similar way, the value of the missing is the point taught by Jesus in Luke 15. In God’s kingdom, one missing sinner is of priceless value. And elders have a solemn responsibility toward lost souls.


Notice the parable of the shepherd and his sheep in Luke 15:4-7.1 Only one sheep from the shepherd’s flock went missing. The one missing sheep in the parable represents not only the lost sinner but also the lost world. In God’s universe, where everything was created in perfect harmony with God’s divine purpose, one planet had gone astray.2 Adversity had entered the world (see Gen. 3:6, 7), and the human race was taken hostage to sin and death (see Heb. 2:14, 15). Like the one missing sheep that was utterly lost, the earth and its inhabitants were plunged into a desperate predicament. Tainted by sin, everyone born on this earth was doomed to die (see Rom. 6:23). Engulfed by sin and its consequences (Rom. 1:29-31; 5:12), human beings became alienated from themselves (see Gen. 3:7, 11-13), from creation (verses 17-19, 24), and from God (verse 10). Had it not been for the divine initiative (see Luke 15:4), the sinner and the world would have been lost forever. But the good Shepherd sought the lost sheep, and when that sheep was found, there was much rejoicing (Luke 15:6).

Consider for a moment the exponential population growth of the world today. In the first three months of 2014, there have been approximately 30.2 million births worldwide and about 12.4 million deaths. This means an approximate world population growth of 17.8 million during this period.3 The total world population currently stands at about 7 billion people, and 41.7 percent of the world’s populaces are unreached people. In the 10/40 window alone, which has a population of 4.7 billion people, 63.4 percent of people living in that area have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.4

What role do church elders play in seeking the lost? Like sheep, all of humanity has gone astray (see Isa. 53:6) and needs to be sought out by the loving Shepherd. Even if you were the only sinner in the universe, Jesus, your loving Shepherd, would still have come down in search of your salvation. Many souls in this world long for something better, and they respond to the Spirit of God as He speaks to their consciences. These individuals sense their need for God and are searching for answers to questions of salvation. Multitudes in different countries of the world and of different religious persuasions, perhaps even in our own neighborhoods, may realize their need for God but do not know what to do. For such people, pastors and elders need to work together to seek and find.


Like the parable of the missing sheep, Christ spoke of the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10. In contrast to the sheep, however, those represented by the missing coin are unaware of their lost condition. Like the lost coin, the sinner is helpless and in desperate need of salvation. Again, this parable reminds us of the stark reality of the human plight. But, unlike the missing sheep, the coin is lost in the home. The very place that should have been the safest and most secure has become the arena for spiritual lostness. This parable strikes a sensitive and personal cord. Are there some among us, even within the comforts of our church, who are lost and do not realize it? Is it possible for churchgoers to be lost? Do some people show up at church merely to meet friends or to see and be seen? Are our children sincere about going to church each Sabbath or do they go simply to please when, deep in their hearts, they lack a vibrant connection with the Life-giver?

Benjamin L. Corey underscores 10 reasons why people leave church:5

1. When they don’t find Jesus

2. Because they feel lonely

3. Because they are looking for something authentic

4. Because they are tired of being told how a “good Christian” will vote

5. When they feel like they need to become a carbon copy of an individual or ideal in order to be fully included and appreciated

6. Because they get turned off by social climbing, cliques, and nepotism

7. Because of controlling leaders and unskilled teachers

8. Because of unresolved conflict

9. Because they need less drama in their lives

10. When they can’t find community

Elders of the church have a responsibility to seek these people out. Like the woman in the parable, God takes the initiative to seek and save those represented by the lost coin. The divine initiative may also represent the importance of spiritual guidance. Just as the woman in the parable searched the house for the missing coin, so parents, pastors, and elders have a solemn responsibility for the salvation of their spiritual children. No obstacle to the salvation of souls in the home, church, or school should be left unaddressed. Every stumbling block to salvation must be removed. Our members need an environment conducive to Christian growth and development—a place where purity and love for God are nurtured. The rejoicing over the repentant one who is saved (see Luke 15:9, 10) is again in stark contrast to the unforgiving attitude of the spiritual leaders Jesus was addressing.


The parable of the prodigal son is a startling revelation of divine grace. Jesus’ purpose in telling the three parables was to illustrate to the Pharisees and teachers of the law (see Luke 15:2, 3) the contrast between themselves—unforgiving and unaccepting—and God’s forgiveness and acceptance of the sinner as manifested in Jesus’ own ministry. This man, they said of Jesus, “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Christ responded to these accusations through these three parables. The focal point of the parables was not so much the “repentance” of the sinner but rather God’s love and forgiveness for the sinner who repents. Unlike the first two parables, the father in the third parable did not go out in search of his son. When the sheep was missing, the shepherd left the 99 to search for the one. When the coin was lost, the woman sought it out earnestly until it was found. Yet, in the parable of the prodigal son, the father simply waited—and waited. This parable hits at a core issue in the salvation of humankind. While God seeks to save all people, He will not save individuals against their will; He gives them the freedom to choose salvation. The son had access to all the blessings and comforts of home but chose otherwise. He decided to leave, and he had to choose to return. And it was not until he was in the stench of sin that he came to his senses and decided to return to God. This story reminds us of the danger in taking God’s grace for granted. We need not separate ourselves from God. Today, He says, “do not harden your hearts” if the spirit of God speaks to you (Heb. 3:15). For if we do so, what excuse will we be able to give in the day of reckoning for ignoring God’s great offer of salvation (see Heb. 2:3)?

While God’s love is the focal point in the parable of the prodigal son, the story does not end with the wayward son’s return. Instead, it ends with the elder son, who thought he had remained faithful to the father (see Luke 15:25-32). After all, the parables were told in response to the Pharisees, and the real contrast is between the Pharisees (as depicted by the older son) and the loving and forgiving Father, who embraced both his wayward son and his rebellious son.


The common thread in these three parables is the priceless value of one person to God. God’s mission in the world contrasts with modern business principles. Business leaders will shut down any project that does not have an economic gain. If one project threatens the financial stability of the organization, it must be eliminated. Managers will not waste time on unprofitable enterprises. In this way of reckoning, to pursue one lost sheep, one lost coin, or one lost son may not make economic sense. The one that was lost may be better left alone so as not to drain the resources that could otherwise be diverted to more worthwhile projects. Why waste time, energy, and resources looking for one when there are 99 others to care for? If you lost one coin but had nine remaining, would you turn your house upside down just to find that one small coin? But God’s enterprise operates on heavenly principles. And, in heaven’s accounts, one person is of priceless value. The purchasing value of each life is the precious life of Jesus (see Rom. 5:8). Here the gospel becomes individual: Christ died for each person. If I were the only sinner, Christ would still have come to save me. If everyone else is righteous and I am not, I am not beyond Christ’s saving grace. If I were the vilest person, God’s love would still yearn for my salvation. Even if the whole world hates and rejects me, Christ loves me so much that He came to save me (see John 3:16).

How should elders in our local churches emulate the love of Christ in extending His grace and salvation to others?

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the New International Version.

2 See Ellen G. White, Highways to Heaven, 164.

3 See http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ (accessed on May 11, 2014).

4 See http://joshuaproject.net/global_statistics (accessed on May 11, 2014).

5 Benjamin L. Corey, “10 Reasons Why People Leave Church” in http:// www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/10-reasons-wh... (accessed on May 11, 2014).

A version of this article was featured in the South Pacific Division Record, August 4, 2007, under the title “The Value of One.” It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.

Limoni Manu O’Uiha writes from Palmerston North, New Zealand.