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Click here, Luke 15:1-10, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
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.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, 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.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.