Luke 15:1-10, Seeking the Lost, Receiving the Penitent

[September 15, 2013] When a story or parable is familiar to us, we usually do not pay it the attention it deserves. This is probably true of the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. These two parables are followed by the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the three are meant to hang together. We will keep that in mind, though today we will only be considering the first two in detail. (I am still in pain from having passed a kidney stone and did not sleep well, so we will see how far we get.)

Introduction and Context (Luke 15:1-2)

15:1 tells us that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.” Notice that they were not coming just to see or receive a miracle but to listen. The verb tense (the “imperfect”) tells us that this does not record a particular incident but something that had become habitual; it does not say that they came on a particular occasion but that they were now all coming. The word “all” tells us that Jesus’ reputation had gotten around and become such among tax collectors and sinners that they were all coming now to hear Him.

Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt and despised by others, and “sinners” refer not only to non-practicing Jews but to those who probably flaunted (or at least showed) their despite for religion and were outcast by the society. Tax collectors were sinners (Luke 18:13), of course, but so were many others (including but not limited to prostitutes). In the eyes of that society, which was considerably more religious than our own, they were the lost. The attitude of “proper” (self-righteous) society-people was therefore to despise them and keep them separate, or to separate themselves from them. There was the feeling that these sinners were “unclean” and could therefore defile or contaminate us, influence us, or cause our own standards to degenerate.

The Pharisees (the teachers of orthodoxy) and the scribes (those who copied texts and sometimes were scholars of texts and writers) did not mind that Jesus taught sinners (Psalm 51:13), though they themselves apparently did not do so. Their complaint, about which they were “grumbling,” was that, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” It was that He mingled with them socially, on equal terms. Of course He did not do what they did, but He did not separate Himself from them; He conversed with them, approaching them and making Himself approachable to them.  He had table-fellowship with them as though He were one of them, allowing Himself to appear in their company as if He were one of them. This meant, to the Pharisees and scribes, that He did not look down on them with the proper attitude of condemnation, giving the impression that their lifestyle was somehow acceptable to Him. His demeanor could be interpreted as encouraging them. His teachings said one thing but His behavior said something else. Jesus was a rabbi (even if an amateur one), an authority figure to these sinners. It was His responsibility to show His disapproval of them; otherwise they might get the wrong message. After all, they respond more to what they see in terms of His example than to what they hear in His teaching Did they really listen to what He was saying anyway?

If we look at the wider context of the Gospel according to Luke, and we need to go no further back than the beginning of chapter 14 (before that, Jesus was, in fact, calling on people to repent), we see that this issue is a continuation of what had just preceded. The context is about the freedom of the call of the Gospel and the “Pharisaic” incomprehension and opposition to this freedom. What follows in chapter 16 is a continued critique of this Pharisaic mentality. These passages, from 14:1 to 17:19, form a whole and thus we may say constitute a unit.

The Invitation of the Gospel (Luke 14)

Most of chapter 14 takes place during a meal at a Pharisee’s house after the Sabbath service of worship. Jesus was invited for brunch—remember that Jesus was considered a rabbi and had much in common with the Pharisees, they invited Him as a peer—and there were a number of other guests of whom we are told that some were “lawyers”(experts on the Halakah) and other Pharisees. Someone had invited a very sick man to the meal to see what Jesus would do: would Jesus heal him even though it was the Sabbath? It was a test. And so the conversation began. Not everyone was apparently adversarial, for the exclamation in verse 15 indicates that some people had been listening to Jesus appreciatively, but Jesus knew that His enemies were also present.

Christian tradition gives the Pharisees a particularly bad rap; and the New Testament is to blame because of how the writers of the New Testament throw around the tag. In fact, we often see Pharisees that were friendly to Jesus and the apostolic movement. The apostle Paul himself continued to be a Pharisee after he was called by the ascended Jesus and even after he became an apostle, apparently even maintaining whatever was distinctive about their dress so that he was recognized by others as a Pharisee. This may be surprising to us but it is not in fact historically surprising, for Jesus was Himself practically a Pharisee; He almost sounds as if He was attempting to reform them. His teaching comes close to no other of the options available for comparison, and in fact is very close to the teachings of Rabbi Hillel (the teacher of Gamaliel who was Paul’s teacher; see Acts 5:34-39 and 22:3). Where He differed most was of course His claim to in fact be the awaited Messiah.

Even Paul’s teaching that gentile converts to the Messiah were not required to keep the Halakah of the Jews but were bound only by God’s covenant with Noah is compatible with Pharisaic teaching. The issue depended on whether gentile converts to the Messiah were required to convert to Judaism as well (that is, to undergo circumcision), which was debatable. Paul interpreted the pertinent texts to mean that the gentiles would come to the Messiah as gentiles. This interpretation was not wildly outside the Pharisaic interpretive norms.

The Pharisees who are consistently condemned in the New Testament are a group of Pharisees. Their intolerance of non-practicing Jews and anything gentile smacks of the school of Rabbi Shammai, though their like may have extended beyond this particular school. We see their attitude, probably embodied by they themselves, continued in the Acts of the Apostles among those who are called Judaizers, the “party of the circumcision,” or simply the “Jews,” and we see their influence extended to distant cities of the Empire, wherever, in fact, there was a Jewish presence. They identified with the “zealots” of the Old Testament (Phinehas and Elijah, for example) and the intertestamental period (Judith, the Maccabees, et cetera), and fomented the rising Zealot movement in Palestine. In other words, they espoused the use of violence for the sake of God’s honor, and even as a means of establishing God’s kingdom (not unlike certain Jihadists today).

Having made this distinction, let us return to this Sabbath meal (probably in the Perea region, but in any case, on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem).

Jesus of course healed the sick man and then set about to justify Himself and His way—His “approach to ministry,” we might say, though He wouldn’t, because for Jesus, “ministry” was not something distinct from His entire way of being in the world. He tells three parables about the feast of the kingdom of God.

In the first, He makes the point that He has chosen to take the lowest place at the table: having put Himself in the lowest place, God will therefore exalt Him.

In the second parable He tells His host that, instead of inviting to dinner those who can repay him in kind, he should invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”—those who cannot repay him—so that in the resurrection God will repay him. The point is that Jesus is inviting to the feast of the kingdom of God “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” and the compensation He is looking for awaits Him at His resurrection. He takes the lowest place that He may invite the least among us.

In the third parable, a man gives a big dinner and those invited do not come; they are preoccupied. In anger, the man sends his slave to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” When they do not fill the hall, he has his slave go out into the highways and along the hedges to compel people to come in; he wants his house filled. Jesus is the slave who is inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”—and all the stragglers He can find—to the feast of the kingdom of God. But those who were invited—meaning a good portion of the Pharisees at the table with Him—were not really interested; they were actually preoccupied with managing their material property, making money, and doing what was to the advantage of their family.

So we are not surprised when in verse 25 large crowds are following Jesus—these are “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” and all the other people from “the highways and along the hedges.” Here, however, Jesus makes it clear that He still demands repentance from them—though He offers allegiance to Himself as the means by which repentance becomes possible. “Come to Me … for My yoke is easy and My burden light.” But you must forsake all others and let go of everything to which you cling, even life itself, and commit yourself body and soul to Me.

The Three Parables of Chapter 15

We are told in 15:1 that the “lost” have found in Him a home. Like Levi the tax-collector in Luke 5:27-28 or the woman in 7:36-50, they come to Him and find in Him the repentance that they need to come to God. The three parables of chapter 15 are about them. They are the silly sheep that has wandered off from the flock and gotten lost, and is now vulnerable to predators and whatever other dangers are out there. They are the lost coin that has rendered itself useless and worthless by getting lost in some dark corner of the world. They are the lost son who has rebelled against his father and left home, squandered all he had and made himself destitute. They are the one sheep out of a hundred—who would notice it? The shepherd does. They are the one coin out of ten, causing a noticeable 10% loss to another, and the woman searches with great concern. They are one son of two, whose loss feels to the father like a death, and whose death is the worst conceivable loss his heart can suffer. The lost sheep speaks of ignorance; the lost coin of self-abasement; the lost son of willful disobedience and rebellion. The first two speak of action on God’s side, our regeneration; the third of action on our side, conversion. The first two speak of God seeking us; the third of us seeking God. But all three parables speak of the same individual in different ways. Even the son does not return without the father running to him. We are not converted without regeneration. We do not seek God unless God first seeks us. The first parable speaks of the work of the Son of God in seeking the lost; the second speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit lighting a lamp and sweeping the interior spaces of our “house”; the third speaks of God the Father and the child who once was dead and is now alive. The God seeking us is triune. Yet the lost one is not simply found. In all three parables the sinner repents (15:7, 10, 17-21).

The three parables of chapter 15, however, are not only about the lost, and in fact, they are not the parables’ main point. This apparently is easily missed. The main point of all three parables, as indicated by the introductory verses (1-2), and by the closing verse of each parable, verses 7 and 10 and the father’s declaration to the eldest son in verse 32 (remember the eldest son?), is to tell us what kind of attitude the “not-lost” (the redeemed) should have toward the lost—they should want to have them back—and what kind of attitude they should have toward the repentant—they should be ready to welcome them. These parables are directed not to the tax-collectors and sinners but to the Pharisees and scribes—taking them at their own estimate—to correct their opposing attitude. In other words, this is a continuation of chapter 14. Chapter 14 was about Jesus’ attitude of taking the lowest place that He might gather the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, and whatever people He can find on the highways and along the hedges—the large crowds and even the tax collectors and sinners. Chapter 15 is directed toward the Pharisees, that instead of scowling at what He is doing, they ought to be rejoicing “over one sinner who repents” and celebrating that their brothers and sisters (remember the woman whom Jesus declared was a “daughter of Abraham” in 13:16; and He will call a tax collector a “son of Abraham” in 19:9) were dead and have begun to live, and were lost and have been found.

Insofar as these parables are directed at them, it is directed at us. In chapter 14 we made the point that Jesus does not set Himself up as unique but as an exemplar. He sets the example. He is the model of the church’s apostolate. What He does, the apostles do—and not only the apostles as individuals; the church itself has an apostolate. We see in the New Testament the apostles doing just what Jesus did, and in the second century we see the role of the apostles and their co-workers being filled by the bishops. But the local church also does this work in the locality in which it is situated. If the apostle is sent out, the church works within its own “parish,” its own locality, its own geography. The apostles work together trans-locally, each in a locality, a district (diocese) or on a circuit. The church continues the same work among its neighbors.

So the church must never have the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes in 15:2. The church must always be like Jesus—like the shepherd in 15:4-6 and the woman in 15:8-9 and the father in 15:20-32. Indeed, we bring the lost sheep home, rejoicing, and calling together our friends and neighbors to rejoice with us (and likewise with the lost coin) and we are the friends and neighbors who rejoice with the one who brings the lost one home. Better, like the angels of heaven, we rejoice over the sinner herself (or himself) who repents. We are so quick to minimize people, to make little of “only one” or to belittle one who is a “sinner” or to make nothing of someone who has been unproductive (and who may continue to be) and makes work for others. Yet Jesus does the opposite. To Jesus, each of these “little ones” is enormously significant—more significant than we are. The fact that we do not see it is because we do not see what is invisible to the eye; we see flesh and not spirit, we see earth and not heaven. We miss the log because we think we are looking at a splinter.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:4-7)

So the point of this first parable is twofold: that one sheep out of a hundred is still worth going after, and the rejoicing on the part of the shepherd and his (a generic “he”: women could be shepherds too) friends and neighbors when the lost sheep is found. The lost sheep being found is the “one sinner who repents,” but in the parable all the action is on the part of the shepherd who goes after the one who is lost until he finds it. The sheep does nothing but get lost. Nevertheless, the shepherd’s action is the granting of repentance to the sinner (otherwise we miss the point of 14:25-35).

In the Old Testament God is pictured as a shepherd and the people of Israel as God’s flock (Ezekiel 34:12-16; Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 23; a motif continued in the gospels: Matthew 9:36); the King or Messiah is a shepherd (Matthew 2:6); and Jesus compares Himself to a shepherd (Matthew 26:31; John 10; see also Hebrews 10:20; 1 Peter 2:25; Revelation 7:17). In the present context, what God says in Ezekiel is pertinent: “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick” (34:16a).

Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. They are familiar with God’s rant in Ezekiel 34 against the failure of the “shepherds of Israel”: “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? … Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them” (verses 2, 4-6). We find this also in Zechariah 11. When Jesus tells this first parable, He is making a comparison between Himself and the Pharisees, for they too are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel. Instead (and we think of the meal in chapter 14), they are feeding themselves while the flock is suffering.

Of course the shepherd in the parable is Jesus, but we also are called to be shepherds, and not just sheep. Peter is told to shepherd and tend the lambs and sheep (John 21:15-17), and elders (presbyteroi and episkopoi) are told to shepherd the flock of God, which is the church, in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. I think, however, that Matthew 18:12 in its context (and other passages too) implies that all believers are to shepherd one another. We are sheep but we are also supposed to shepherd one another.

The details are worth paying attention to. Our Shepherd notices that we are missing. He comes after us when He sees that we are lost. He keeps looking for us until He finds us (He does not give up). When He finds us, He joyfully lifts us onto His shoulders and Himself carries us home. Then—never mind us (we may not have even realized how much danger we were in!)—He is so happy that He gathers His friends and neighbors and invites them to rejoice with Him. There is comfort for us in each of these reflections.

The joy and exuberance of the Messiah-Shepherd should also be a rebuke to all who would dismiss the repentance of such a little one as lacking in significance.

When in verse 7 Jesus speaks of the “ninety-nine righteous persons,” He does not mean that the majority of people are righteous and have no need of repentance. Jesus, in speaking to the Pharisees, is simply taking them at their own estimate. “Assuming, he says in effect, that you are what you think yourselves to be, just persons that need no repentance, there would be more joy in heaven over these repentant publicans and sinners than over you.” (An analogous example is Luke 7:36-47.)

The Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10)

It is interesting that in the first two parables Jesus chooses to illustrate God with a poor person, for such were shepherds in those days, and such also is the woman who only has ten coins.

The woman is an appropriate picture of the work of the Holy Spirit, whether the house is the oikos of the world, the church or the individual. The Spirit of God in the Hebrew language is grammatically feminine. “It” is always a “She.” English translations of the New Testament translate the neuter gender of the Greek word by “He,” when they want to avoid impersonalizing the Spirit, but “She” would be more appropriate. Jesus, in any case, would have thought in Hebrew or Aramaic, not in Greek.

In any case, the lost coin is not at risk the way the lost sheep was, but the loss of its value, ten percent of what she has, causes the woman’s consternation. She lights a lamp and sweeps out the entire house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it—in other words, with the same diligence that the shepherd had. In the same way, the Spirit of God searches us in every sort of way, sometimes turning our “house” upside down, as it were, and moving everything out of its place, until She can find us. The word Spirit means breath, but it also means wind and can even denote a hurricane. She does not allow us to remain lost but will make complete havoc of our business, social, family and personal lives in order to find us—spiritually. This is because, when we are lost, our priorities are not Hers, and Her priorities are the right ones. It is only our spiritual condition that really matters (ours and the spiritual lives of those around us).

This is comforting, because even though we have rendered ourselves “worthless” to God, God still considers us too valuable to lose and does not give up until She finds us.

How much we should all rejoice not only for ourselves but for each other when we find our way, or rather, when at last we are found. Precious Jesus, precious Spirit.

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