The Lost

This coming weekend is the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s posts we laid some groundwork to a better understanding of the parables as we looked at Luke’s use of the verbal pair “lost and found.”  The opening verses of the Sunday readings emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to the “lost” – both those considered lost by the religious leadership, and the “lost” pointing to the covenant people of Israel as a whole.

 1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So to them he addressed this parable 

The three parables of Luke 15 repeat the themes of the previous chapters as they respond to the Pharisees grumbling over Jesus’ sharing table fellowship with sinner (v.1). The common themes that link the parables internally are evidenced in the repetition of the words “lost” (apóllymi) and “found” (heurískō). The themes of joy and celebration also recur in all three parables – and this is in specific response to repentance. Theologically they are also linked in the two persistent themes presented: (a) Jesus’ ministry seen in the open invitation to the table and (b) the use of the parables for people to reflect on their own attitude towards sinners and the “other.” These two loci point to repentance as key in the divine economy of salvation. But at the same time, neither of the first two parables necessarily represents the need for repentance. There is nothing to indicate that the sheep was “bad” or that the coin was “sinful.”  In fact, the sheep does nothing except be found. The burden of the restoration is on the shepherd. Stoffregen notes the work of Kenneth Bailey (Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, 169): “The only possible action in this story which could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found…. Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own ‘lostness.’”

Jesus has been invited to dine with a leader of the Pharisees (14:1). It is notable that we find a new setting at the beginning of Luke 15. Now the Pharisees and scribes “began to complain.” The word (diagongyzō) had been used earlier in a similar context (5:30; cf. 19:7), but its more significant overtones arise from its use in the Exodus narratives, where the Israelites “grumble” against Moses (Ex 16:7–12) who enacted not only the moral code but also the code of ritual purity. The scandal against which they complain is that Jesus is receiving outcasts, sharing table fellowship, and even acting as host. The Exodus narrative lingers in the background because it is the place where God showed mercy to the apostate Israelites who became lost in their worship, replacing God with a golden calf. What is playing out before the Pharisees and scribes is (a) will they recognize that again God, through his Son, is again seeking out the lost and (b) will the leadership join the celebration?

Table Companions. There is often a rush to the parables without considering the opening verses: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain…” (vv.1-2).  The first group – those not considered among the righteous by the Pharisees – are persons in need of forgiveness, restoration and the good news. In Luke’s gospel they are the ones who hear (cf. 14:35). The Pharisees are increasingly represented as resisting Jesus’ words and complaining about his ministry of table fellowship and reconciliation. Their complaints echo against the wisdom of Jesus in 14:15-24 describing the emptiness of honor at banquets. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them – this is the central charge that Jesus answers in the parables that follow.

Celebrating the Lost and Now Found. Each of the first two parables:

  • Identifies the main character
  • Describes the loss and subsequent search
  • Narrates the recovery of that which was lost
  • Describes the rejoicing with friends and neighbors
  • Closes with Jesus connecting such celebration with the heavenly rejoicing over the repentance of a sinner.

In the first parable (15:3-7), the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to search out the lost one. Tending flocks, along with agriculture, represented a substantial portion of the economic basis of 1st-century Palestine – scholars thus take it that people, even urban dwellers, would have been familiar with the basics of shepherding. But all would have been aware of the OT’s description of God as Israel’s shepherd.

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care. (Isaiah 40:11)

The image appears most frequently in the Psalms (e.g Ps 23) and in the later prophets (Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11–22; Zech 13:7). By contrast, God is never called a shepherd in the NT, and the image is limited to Jesus’ parables. But the imagery is powerful and finds a home catacomb art from the third century and then in later art from all Christian eras.

In contrast to the positive image of the shepherd in both the OT and NT writings, shepherds had acquired a bad reputation by the first century as shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings. Without a vested interest in the herd, one sheep was an acceptable loss? Also, shepherding was listed among the despised trades by the rabbis, along with camel drivers, sailors, and gamblers with dice, dyers, and tax collectors. The Pharisees’ estimate of shepherds has a particular force in this context, since Jesus responds to the criticism over his acceptance of tax collectors and “sinners” by telling a story that casts God in the role of a shepherd. [Culpepper, 296]

There are some scholars that think too much is made of a single rabbinic writing that disparages shepherds. According to Green, average families had between five and fifteen animals. 100 sheep was a large herd. Perhaps we again are left with the “acceptable loss” theory.

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