Monday, July 1, 2019

Parables in defence of association with sinners

Luke 15:1-32

“The three parables in Luke 15 are told because Jesus was making a habit of having celebration parties with all the ‘wrong’ people, and some others thought it was a nightmare. All three stories are ways of saying: ‘This is why we’re celebrating! Wouldn’t you have a party if it was you? How could we not?’ In and through them all we get a wide open window on what Jesus thought He was doing – and, perhaps, on what we ourselves should be doing.”[1]

The setting of these parables is found in the first three verses. Jesus was being criticized for not only associating with tax collectors and notorious sinners, but for actually eating with them! In the Ancient Near-East, table fellowship was a sign of acceptance and a great honour and while the upper classes might have provided meals for the less privileged, they would never eat with them. Jesus’ action as fellow guest or as host revealed at once the nature of the Kingdom as well as the King. This is a Kingdom founded upon grace and mercy, as the King is gracious and merciful.

Ken Bailey tells us that when Jesus addressed the parables to Pharisees comparing them in the first to shepherds that this would have been a shock to their sensitivities. “Moses was accepted as a shepherd. A Midrash on Exodus records a story of Moses searching out a lost kid and being told by God that he will lead Israel. Kings were referred to by Ezekiel as shepherds (Ez. 34), and God Himself was thought of as a shepherd (Ps. 23). Thus the figure of the shepherd was a noble symbol. By contrast, flesh-and-blood shepherds who in the first century wandered around after sheep were clearly ‘am ha’ ares and unclean. For the Pharisee, a “sinner” was either an immoral person who did not keep the law or a person engaged in one of the proscribed trades, among which was herding sheep.”[2] In other words, in the very first sentence, Jesus was attacking their arrogant attitude and contrasting their pride with His humility.

There are a number of interesting details in this parable, the first being the number of sheep. Only a very affluent person would have owned such a large amount of sheep and, as such, would not have herded the sheep himself but would have hired someone to do so on his behalf…unless the sheep were owned by a large family, clan, or village and were herded by members of that family, clan, or village. This makes sense when later in the parable we are told the shepherd returned home to rejoice with the whole community. The lost sheep was thus portrayed as a community loss.

Another interesting detail is that joy is expressed twice, the first time in the finding of the sheep and the second time in its restoration with the rest of the flock. The act of restoration involved risk and effort…the shepherd had to leave the others to find the one and to bring it back to the fold and we are told that he actually carried it on his shoulders.

The last interesting detail is that while the shepherd left the 99 in the wilderness, they were at home on his return. This indicates that there was more than one shepherd: one who sought out and restored the lost sheep and another (or others) who stayed with the flock and made sure they got home safely.

What Jesus was attempting to point out to His critical audience was there was joy in the restoration of the lost regardless of the risk and burden such an act involved. Those who owned the sheep considered it precious and therefore they rejoiced together in it being found and restored to the flock. In application, Jesus was saying that the lost are precious to the King and it is His desire to have them found and restored, not written off as lost causes.

The parable of the lost coin intensifies the point. The coins owned by a peasant woman were no doubt part of her jewellery or her dowry and thus its loss doubly sad. Not only was money scarce, but also this coin had sentimental value, and thus the loss was greater than the value of the coin.

Again it seems as if Jesus was rejecting the Pharisaic class distinction in His use of a lowly woman as an illustration. And again, there was a communal celebration when the lost was found and restored after the owner made a concerted effort to do so.

But there are two differences between these parables worth noting. The first is the limited area in which the loss took place. This is a house, not a wilderness. The woman knew that the coin could be found if she kept sweeping and searching. The second is the relative value of the item lost. Here we have one in ten, not one in a hundred. To have lost this coin was catastrophic for a peasant woman especially if it was an irreplaceable part of her dowry.

Then the sting in the tail, so to speak, comes in verse 10. “In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” With this one statement Jesus showed that the attitude of heaven was in stark contrast with the attitude of the Pharisees. In other words, division into acceptable and non-acceptable classes (or ethnic groups) ought not to be part of a Christian’s attitude as it does not reflect the person and practice of the King.

And then finally, we come to the parable of the lost son. While the content of this parable is, in many ways, inexhaustible, it is important to note that, as Pryor says: “This great parable, usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, actually is focused on a father who at every point surprises us by his grace.”[3] There are a number of shocking details in this parable, the first being the fact that in asking for his inheritance, the younger son expresses a wish for his father’s death…clearly contrary to the close familial ties and attitudes of Ancient Near-Eastern people! But equally shocking is the unconditional love of the father. Jesus seemed to indicate in verse 20, that this father was watching for his son daily in hope of his return. But not only was his love shown in his watching and waiting and longing, but also in his immediate forgiveness and lavish celebration at the restoration of his son.

However, it is the older son who revealed what most of Jesus’ audience would have been thinking…and this is important as the manner of the older son was equally shocking as it was insulting to the father and demeaning to himself. There was no respectful title in his address and his statement indicated that in his relationship with the father he saw himself as a slave and not as an heir.  

As Bailey says, “The listening Pharisee is pressed to see himself in the older son and to respond by accepting reconciliation.”[4] But, as we well know, they did not respond positively…instead they felt exposed and ridiculed and as a result plotted to kill Jesus…who ironically was the King of the Kingdom they thought was theirs exclusively.

There are many things one can say at this point as far as the making of disciples is concerned. There is the value of the lost from God’s perspective, a value that makes the effort and burden of finding and restoring the lost item more than worth the while. Then there is the attitude of the one searching and restoring the lost item. To them it is not a case of a lost cause…they search and keep searching until the item in safely back where it belongs. But the overarching lesson is the futility in any form of human distinction…the “holy” is no better than the “unholy”…it is the one who makes holy who is better and greater. And He associates with those generally considered lost…the unlovely, the unlikely, the ostracized, and the marginalised.

Surely we ought to do likewise.

[1] Wright, N. T., Luke for Everyone, SPCK, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2004, 183.
[2] Bailey, Kenneth, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parable in Luke (combined edition), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, 147.
[3] Pryor, Dwight A., Unveiling the Kingdom of Heaven: The Origins and Dimensions of the Kingdom Concept as Taught by the Rabbi Jesus, Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, OH, 2008, 104.
[4] Bailey, 206.