Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 15:1-10, The Message or Luke 15:1-10, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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This week, now that tax collectors and sinners are coming near to listen to him, the lesson is all about celebration that the lost have been found (without any cost on their part).
In Luke, the religious leaders try to get a reading of what honour (or dishonour) to bestow on Jesus by inviting him to dinner, Chapter 14. But now they start grumbling about him.
Hanging with tax collectors and sinners is definitely not an honourable thing to do, and by associating with these people now, Jesus is bringing dishonour on the leaders for their previous association with him. (They could now be publicly ridiculed for not having correctly assessed Jesus' character BEFORE they had invited him to dinner - they should have known that he was the kind of guy who would later associate with disreputable types.)
Notice the brilliant and engaging way with words that Jesus has.
He doesn't make his points by lecturing and finger wagging.
He begins by asking a personally engaging question: "Which one of you ...?" The phrase sets up an inner pre-disposition to respond: "Me. Me. I am one who ... I belong. I'm a good person. I fit in."
Then he sets up a desirable situation: "Having a hundred sheep ..." Now the inner response becomes: "Wow. A hundred sheep. What wealth. I'd love to be the owner of a hundred sheep."
And then Jesus creates a troubling problem: "And losing one of them ..." The question here is: "Who has lost the sheep?" The OWNER of a hundred sheep would not be personally looking after them - they would have a hired shepherd do that dirty work.
So suddenly it turns out that HAVING a hundred sheep did NOT mean OWNING a hundred sheep; it meant LOOKING AFTER someone else's hundred sheep - it meant being a shepherd.
And in Jesus' day, shepherds were a despised occupation. And so Jesus' innocent sounding words, "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep" turn out to be a highly insulting inference. It would be like one of us saying, "Which one of you, having a hundred dumpsters (not to own and make money from, but to dive into searching for garbage to live on) ..."
But the ambiguity in the way Jesus began created the possibility for everyone - sinners, tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees - to initially identify with and desire to be one of the "Which one of you ..."
And having captured the hearts and imaginations of rich and poor, educated and unschooled, high status and no status alike, Jesus then turns our hearts and imaginations to a troubling truth:
God is not like a well-fed priest in a majestic temple, nor a king in a royal palace.
God is like a despised shepherd who is extravagant about the well-being of every single one of his charges. A shepherd who will risk the wrath of the owner by leaving 99 sheep untended (and therefore vulnerable to being lost, stolen, or hunted) in order to search for 1.
And just in case you thought he was kidding about this, Jesus goes on to use an example that would shock all the men standing there - whatever their background. God is like a woman!
And a shameless woman at that.
The coins in question would have been a dowry. Losing one of them would be a disaster for the whole family because it would jeopardize a crucial aspect of a marriage contract. Dowries were not only about money - though they were definitely about money. But more crucially, dowries were about public honour and status. Marriages were public arrangements in which a family's honour was placed before the community. Losing even one coin was losing the honour of the family.
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So the woman redeems her initial shame of having lost the coin by being so diligent in searching for it - and finding it before anyone else hears about her carelessness.
But then the woman does an extraordinary thing - she tells everyone that she had lost the coin! Shame on her for telling everyone about her shameful private business.
But her joy is greater than her shame. In fact, in her joy, there is no shame.
Think about that. In God, there is no shame, only joy. No shame about us, only joy.
These two parables use people at the bottom of the social ladder to describe the character of God.
This is not an inconsequential choice on Jesus' part.
Rather, consistent with the reading last week, it calls us to imagine God as socially despised, without honour or possessions. I wonder how much our glorification of God prevents us from truly knowing God's glory?
The "moral" that is attached to these parables doesn't really jibe with their content since, in fact, neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin "repent." They do nothing.
The content of the parables is actually about the searching by the shepherd and by the woman. And especially it is about their joy - their joy that transcends all other considerations.
There may indeed be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but the parables are more about the joy to be had on earth from hearing the good news of the extravagant God who risks all to search for each one of us personally, individually - joyfully.
Our God isn't sitting passively off somewhere in heaven waiting for someone to bring news that a sinner has repented today. Our God is actively searching for us.
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (see link below), pages 287-288.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV)
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 So he told them this parable: 4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke 15:1-10 (The Message)
1 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. 2 The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." 3 Their grumbling triggered this story.
4 "Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn't you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? 5 When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, 6 and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, 'Celebrate with me! I've found my lost sheep!' 7 Count on it—there's more joy in heaven over one sinner's rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.
8 "Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won't she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it you can be sure she'll call her friends and neighbors: 'Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!' 10 Count on it—that's the kind of party God's angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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