Divisions between groups of people is a feature of every age. These days the divisions are being redefined – based especially on race and gender.
In Luke chapter 15 we find two very different groups amongst Jesus’ hearers: what we might call the ‘sinners’ and the ‘saints’. In the eyes of contemporary Judaism, prostitutes and tax collectors were ‘sinners’ – outcasts of respectable society. The religious elite, who viewed themselves as the shepherds of Israel, considered that they were the righteous, the ‘saints’.
By dining with outsiders Jesus implied that he treated them equally as men and women and welcomed them. Indeed, in the previous section Luke records Jesus’ words about true discipleship: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!” (14:35). It was the outsiders rather than the religious elite who heard.
In Luke chapter 15 three parables alert sinners to the reality of God’s grace, while at the same time challenging the self-satisfied saints to repentance. In all great literature there are purple passages: Luke chapter 15 stands supreme.
The lost sheep (15:3-7). David Penman, one time theologian and missionary in the Middle East and a former Anglican archbishop, once pointed out to me that ‘no-one in the Middle-East loses anything; things are simply lost. One is never ‘bad’, they are simply not ‘good’. The outcasts in Jesus’ audience would have listened intently because he spoke about the lost.
In our city life we often lose sight of the risks to the shepherd and the price he would have paid to rescue the sheep. His action stands in stark contrast to the ‘shepherds’ in Israel who were losing sheep and not bothering about rescuing and restoring them. All they did was sit on the sidelines, criticizing anyone committed to rescuing the lost.
Does this sound like today? How many progressive church leaders are committed to going out and rescuing the lost with the clear statement of God’s good news?
Grace, freely and sacrificially offered, is the dominant theme of the parable. The sheep was lost and unable to find its way home. Showing grace or mercy, the shepherd was pro-active in searching for it. The lost sheep could offer no assistance: its restoration was a gift from beginning to end. With joy in his heart the shepherd slung the sheep over his shoulder and carried it home. So great was his joy that he called in his neighbors to share in it (15:5-6).
Jesus’ comment in verse 7 provides the interpretative key for the parable: “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.”
Jesus made a clear link between the lost sheep and sinners: men and women who are lost in terms of their relationship with God. For many, Christianity means rules and regulations set by a cold and aloof God whose only interest is impossible perfection and retributive justice.
The tax collectors and sinners in Jesus’ audience may have been tempted to think this way too, for their religious leaders taught and held out to them an impossible standard. They knew all too well that they were lost. This parable, with its focus on the extravagant goodness and grace of God, gave them the hope that God was sending his shepherd to rescue them.
Further, the parable is about the cost of the rescue. We are aware of the cost in rescuing people in the aftermath of a major disaster – a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami. Here Jesus points to the cost of the rescue of humanity; the shepherd is not burdened by the weight of a lamb, but by the load of the full-grown sheep that he carries back through the wilderness.
Luke wants us to become aware of the dark shadow of the cross looming over Jesus’ life. There is also an implied repentance – the recognition of need – in the sheep’s acceptance of its rescue.
Through the lens of this parable we see the shape of God’s good news. Jesus himself is the good shepherd who has come to the rescue of fallen, lost humanity. Ironically, the outcasts, the irreligious are aware of their state, but the religious aren’t. A further parable develops this conundrum.
The lost coin (15:8-10). Jesus’ attack on the failure of the religious leaders continued with the opening line of the second parable – a woman and a lost a coin. It may have been one of ten coins in her purse, or it may have been a coin on a string of coins. Significantly, it is the responsibility of the person who lost the coin to find it. Unlike the Pharisees and their scribes who were indifferent to the lost, the woman started searching.
The price of her search and recovery was high, for she needed to get down on her hands and knees and go over every inch of her house, looking in every nook and cranny. Clearly the coin could not find or restore itself. Jesus’ theme of rescue and restoration continued with the successful recovery of the coin.
Men and women are likened to lifeless coins, lost and almost hidden in the darkness of a chaotic, confused world. Rescue and restoration are entirely dependent on the initiative and action of an external actor – someone who is totally committed to finding them.
The first parable presented Jesus as the ‘good shepherd’; this parable presents him as ‘a good woman’ – a responsible householder doing everything to take care of what is theirs. The unexpected theme of grace dominates. God himself is willing to do everything he needs to do to reach out and restore what is very precious to him.
Again, there is joy. How ironic that those who were so critical of Jesus and of his obvious care and compassion for the lost, would dare sit in judgment on him. Heaven itself rejoices over one sinner who repents (15:10).
A prayer. Almighty God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and constantly give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down on us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.
You may like to listen to Magnificent, Marvelous, Matchless Love from Keith and Kristyn Getty.
© John G. Mason
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.
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