This text from Luke suffers terribly from being known too well- a fate that next weeks text falls even more deeply into (the Prodigal Son). We read the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin in complete isolation from the context of the larger reading, and then further dismiss any real meaning they may have left by asserting that they are precursors to the real parable of the Prodigal Son.
Luke 15:1-10 is a classic parable structure- a scene is set where Jesus notices something in the people around him- disapproving mutterings, challenges by religious elites, tax collectors stuck in trees etc- then Jesus creates a story to highlight the teachable moment. We are way too quick to rip the parable away from its context, and in so doing we lose the context which is attached to the parable and therefore have little hope of understanding its intended meaning.
So how is the scene set in this text? The text starts with religious leaders disapproving of Jesus consorting with what they labelled as ‘sinners,’ “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The word “receives” here may be significant, as it leads us to believe that Jesus may have actually been the host of the dinner. Dinners in the first century were serious affairs, and hosting and therefore inviting the guests showed your social status and importance. The assertion of the religious leaders is accurate- the invited guests to Jesus’ ‘do’ were indeed the underclass of society. Their scorn was not without merit. It was not uncommon when organising a ‘dinner’ to think of your guests by bringing along entertainment, sometimes that meant prostitutes paid to ‘entertain’ (and there was a hot old time in the old house that night). By Jesus inviting or at the very least tolerating prostitutes at his meal, he may have been seen by onlookers as approving of their means of income. Even today, ask yourself how many dinners you have been at where prostitutes were present, and also ask yourself what you would have done had you become aware they were there.
What is Jesus’ response to this ‘accusation’ of the presence of the underclass of society at his dinner- he tells a story (well, two in fact, three if you count the following story of the Prodigal Son).
Jesus focus for both stories were the lowest in society- a shepherd and a woman. Contrary to popular belief and countless paintings and sculptures, Jesus chooses the shepherd as the hero of the first story precisely because he was a societal outcast. The woman is similarly chosen for her low social ranking. They, and not the religious elite, are the good people of the stories, the bringers of salvation to the lost sheep and finder of the lost coin. This is an upside down story from start to finish.
I’m going to go out on a little limb here (if someone who actually knows something can support or reject this limb dancing I would be much appreciative). The stories of the shepherd and the lost sheep are found in both Matthew (Matthew 18:12-14) and Luke which suggests to me that they were originally a ‘Q’ stories, or source stories that pre-date the gospels and on which the gospels were constructed. The stories are very similar, but Luke adds a few little flourishes to the stories that subtly change their meaning, and I think not necessarily for the better. When you look at the lost sheep story side by side from Matthew and Luke, they are almost identical, except that Luke adds in the concept of repentance, and he does this to both of this story and the story of the lost coin. It looks very much like a forced addition to a story that is going other places. The stories throughout are not speaking of repentance, but rather of the intrinsic value of the sheep and the coin. In both stories these main players are passive, they are just found by the searchers. They do not repent in any way, or turn from their terrible lives of being lost, rather what is important is that they were of such value that they were deemed worthy of being searched for. This interpretation matches very well with the introduction of the story being the devaluing of Jesus guests by the religious leaders.
Jesus argues that these seemingly worthless outcasts of society are worth the shepherd’s and the woman’s time and energy to find them, and then when found, time again to celebrate the find.
The sheep and the coin have intrinsic value just as they are, not some special value only once they repent, or after they pray some special prayer or agree with some special dogma, rather they are sacred to the searchers just because they are what they are. This is the answer to the challenge of the religious leaders who scorned these valueless people. Jesus proclaims them as valuable treasures that are searched for and celebrated over. The message to the Pharisees- all people are a gift from God, all people are precious, all people are loved and cherished.
What’s the relevance of such a message (that all people are a precious gift from God) to a modern 21st century world- just look at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, Britain’s reasons for leaving the EU, ISIS and its attitudes to outsiders, and the list goes on and on. I wonder what sort of a world we would be living in if we understood and put into practice this simple valuing of all people exemplified in these two parables…
For an interesting discussion of Q sources, have a read of this excerpt from “The First Gospel, An Introduction to Q” by A. D. Jacobson.
Oh, and why the dog image at the start? Shepherd, sheep, sheepdog, Border Collie- see, obvious!
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