Sinners & Lost Sheep

sheepBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson

This Sunday’s passage from Luke (15.1-10) seems straightforward: like a man seeking a lost sheep and a woman a lost coin, Jesus seeks and finds people who are “lost.” But like so much of the Bible in general and Luke in particular, a close reading reveals there is more than what meets the eye at first glance.

Our first task is to show how Luke subtly but clearly suggests that the Pharisees’ resistance to Jesus’ message is the primary topic of our passage. Next, we’ll look at the passage itself, and how the first two parts of the parable (sheep/coin) are parallel to the two sons in the final section (15.11-32). Finally, we’ll consider how this speaks to our call to discipleship today.

Our passage follows immediately from last week’s about the cost of discipleship. Jesus has been speaking to the large crowds which include “tax collectors and sinners” who are listening to him (15.1). We recall earlier in Luke where Jesus laments the Pharisees’ rejection of him: “the Human One has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7.34-35). It is an odd pairing, given that tax collectors would be considered “sinners” as well. Luke (like Matthew) seems to single out tax collectors, mentioning them eleven times (3.12; 5.27, 29, 30; 7.29, 34; 15.1; 18.10, 11, 13; 19.2). Given Luke’s emphasis on jubilee economics throughout the Gospel, it should not be too surprising that the visible faces of Roman economic exploitation should be shown engaging the question of “repentance” (3.12, 19.2).

More specifically, however, the combination, “tax collectors and sinners,” has already been linked with the “grumbling” of Pharisees (5.30; cf. 7.30-34). The term rendered “grumbling” (or “complaining”) echoes the Israelites in the wilderness, “grumbling” against Moses and his presentation of the Way of YHWH (e.g., Ex 17.3; Num 11.1). Thus, Luke portrays the Pharisees’ questions about Jesus’ relationship with tax collectors and sinners as parallel to the Israelites’ questions about YHWH’s trustworthiness to provide food and water. Whereas for the Israelites, the issue was provision of these basic necessities, for the Pharisees, it is a matter of with whom one shares food and drink in table fellowship.

The “sinners” half of the pairing evokes for readers the previous scene in which a Pharisee with whom Jesus was dining objects to the woman who is “a sinner” who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and kisses (7.39). These echoes are the first clues that the Pharisees themselves are key to our current passage.

Another clue lies in the immediate narrative context. Luke 14 began with Jesus “going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath…” After challenging the assembled “lawyers and Pharisees” over healing on the Sabbath, Jesus goes on to tell stories about table fellowship. He first offers advice on avoiding the “place of honor” at banquets and continues with a challenging story about what happens when a wealthy person is known among his peers as one who invites “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (14.13) to a wedding banquet. It is the “parable of the lame excuses,” in which three invitees offer transparently absurd excuses for refusing to take part in the feast. The master, enraged by his supposed friends’ rejection of the invitation, orders his slaves to scour the outskirts of town for the social dregs and “compel” them to come “so that my house may be filled” (14.23). It is immediately after this story that Jesus speaks of the cost of discipleship which we entered into last week.

Thus, attentive readers/hearers should expect that when the Pharisees and scribes again object to Jesus “welcome” of “sinners” to eat with them, the stories Jesus tells are as much about the Pharisees themselves as the tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s turn now to the passage itself. First, we note that the narrator begins by telling us “so he told them this parable…” (15.3). But, of course, Luke 15 appears to consist of three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. With this introduction, though, we are to understand that there is really only a single parable, told not three times, but twice. That is, the sheep/coin story is paired with the “prodigal son” story, which is itself bettered labeled, “the parable of the father and two sons.” The lost sheep corresponds to the “prodigal” son while the lost coin matches the “lost” Pharisees.

The first half of the parable concerns one sheep out of a hundred that has become lost in the wilderness. In the “father and two sons” section, we hear the father say to the elder son, “…this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (15.24). So far, this could apply to either the sheep or the coin, of course. But the sheep, unlike the coin, is lost away from the place of security and provision, as is the “prodigal” son. Also, Jesus narrates that the shepherd goes after the one that is lost until he finds it, matching the father running to the returning prodigal and “finding” him.

The second half of the parable—as so often in Luke, a male/female pair—concerns a woman’s lost coin, which she “seeks” and “finds” (15.8-9, echoing 11.9-10). Note that in starting the sheep portion of the parable, Jesus speaks directly to the Pharisees and scribes (“which one of you,” 15.4), whereas now he speaks of “what woman”. Her search takes place not in the wilderness, but in “the house.” The description of her search process invites two further connections. First, she “light[s] a lamp,” echoing Jesus’ twice-told metaphor of putting the lit lamp on the lampstand rather than under a bed or in a cellar so that what is hidden can be revealed (8.16; 11.33), as well as his apocalyptic call to “have your lamps lit” as those awaiting their master’s return from a wedding banquet (12.35-36). Second, we are told that she “sweeps the house.” This also invokes an echo, if a surprising one, of the “lost” demon who, after wandering in “waterless places,” says “I will return to my own house” and finds it “swept” and put in order (11.25). The emphasis on the question of the “full house” is underscored by the shepherd, upon finding the lost sheep in the wilderness, “comes into his house” and calls together his friends and neighbors for a celebration (15.6).

We are now ready to put these pieces together to see the picture Luke paints with this double-sided parable. The “lost sheep” in the wilderness corresponds to the prodigal son—who represents the “tax collectors and sinners”—in the next part of “this parable,” while the “lost coin” corresponds to the elder son—who represent the Pharisees themselves (note further than the Pharisees will shortly be labeled “silver lovers” [Gk, philarguroi, 16.14], while the woman’s coins are Greek drachmas, made primarily of silver, 15.8). That is, Jesus has come to gather all of God’s people into “the house,” both the marginalized and the elite. Each is “lost” for different reasons, but Jesus, the Human One embodying YHWH, “searches” for them all and calls for rejoicing when they are “found.” At God’s messianic banquet, the poor, tax collectors and the elite all will sit down at table together to rejoice (cf. the banquet at the house of Zacchaeus, a “rich” tax collector, at which those who watch from outside “grumble” because Jesus is going to dine with one who is “a sinner,” 19.7). Will the Pharisees accept the invitation to the all-inclusive banquet? Will they, as “the lost coin,” be found “in the house”? We hear no response from either the elder son in the parable or the Pharisees listening to Jesus tell the story.

We who identify with the “radical discipleship” movement likely find it easy to accept the call to seek and find those marginalized as “sinners” and to offer them welcoming hospitality. But how do we respond to the call to seek and find the privileged elite, who take pride in their status “above” others while rejecting the invitation to join in the all-inclusive community meal? On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 events, we hear this question as central. We recall the brave women and men, such as Kathy Kelly and our own Bert Sachs, who challenged US sanctions against Iraq in the 90s and early 00s by bringing prohibited medicines to the suffering people of Iraq, only to be charged at home with crimes against the state.  How do we seek to bring into “the house” those whose response to acts of compassion to the poor and marginalized is to invoke the imperial law? Even more challenging perhaps, how do we seek those whose response is to create further chaos and suffering for the sake of personal and corporate profit (see, e.g., Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine)?

Luke’s Gospel narrates no repentant Pharisees, and implies that there were none: “But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7.30). In Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, however, one Pharisee does get baptized into the Way of Jesus: the man named Saul/Paul who supervised the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7.58). As Paul himself insists, it was not human persuasion that led to his repentance, but an apocalyptic encounter with the Risen Christ (Acts 9; Gal 1.12). The newly turned around Paul seeks and finds the discipleship community to welcome him in and support him in his new mission. We, too, are called to have our own houses “swept” clean and ready to receive the formerly lost—both the poor outcasts and the privileged elite—who respond to God’s own, direct invitation to repentance and the fresh start of jubilee. We can only do that, Luke insists, via the compelling power of the Holy Spirit, who “fills the house” (Acts 2.2), shining God’s fiery and empowering light on our lives and exorcising the fears that would keep our house doors locked (cf. John 20.19-23). May we be always open to receiving both the Spirit that compels us, and those who stand at the door, as yet undecided as to whether to enter “the house” of discipleship.

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