Study: Hope Church Triad Program
Today’s Chocolate: Tony’s Chocolonely Milk Chocolate
Today’s Passage: Luke 15
I just checked, and the three parables in this chapter haven’t changed since we last read them. The woman still lights a lamp and sweeps the house in search of her missing coin; it’s still the younger brother rather than the older who demands his early inheritance; there are still the same number of sheep. If anything was true that we previously said about these parables, it continues to be true even now. But we haven’t yet examined the context in which Jesus tells these parables. Where does he tell them? Who does he tell them to? Let’s step outside the parables and find some answers.
As the chapter begins, Jesus has already been telling parables and teaching the crowds. Luke reports, “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners (i.e. the irreligious Jews) were coming near Him to listen to Him” (1). The Pharisees and scribes are also on the scene, and they begin to complain, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (2). So when Jesus tells these three parables to the scribes, Pharisees, tax collectors, and non-practicing Jews around him, he’s addressing the Pharisees’ charges of associating with immoral people.
One of the Pharisees’ signature moves was separating themselves from impurity. If you read through the Torah, you’ll find a lot of “purity laws” identifying what behaviors and contacts make you unclean, and how to restore cleanliness in case of contamination. The Pharisees took all that to heart, going to great lengths to avoid corpses, lepers, and even people they considered sinners. Perhaps they had in mind David’s words from the Psalms, “I do not sit with deceitful men, nor will I go with pretenders. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked” (Psalm 26:4-5), or any of the other verses from Psalms or Proverbs in the same vein. Paul himself was a Pharisee, and you can see his background coming through when he says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals'” (1 Corinthians 15:33). There’s a scriptural precedent for what the Pharisees were doing, but it’s my view that many of them took it too far.
Jesus doesn’t directly respond to their accusations, and he doesn’t deny that he receives sinners and eats with them. Instead, he tells stories. And I’m not the sort to say that Jesus’ message is anti-religion or to trot out the old line “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” I’m not here to play word games, posturing as a fellow religion-hater and pretending like I don’t spend my Sunday mornings involved in theistically-motivated rituals and practices with like-minded people. But in his parables, Jesus points out the abusive nature of religious practices that cut off anyone who won’t play by its rules. Note the non-practicing Jews in the crowd: if they won’t keep the Torah assiduously, the Pharisees would just as soon cut them out of the community. Jesus’ parables contain a counter-charge: the Pharisees are practicing bad religion.
Again, there’s subtlety to Jesus’ parables. He never explicitly identifies the searching shepherd, the coin-hunting woman, or the forgiving father as representing God. In fact, he literally identifies the shepherd with those in his audience who own sheep: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them…” (4). Jesus is simply caring about lost people the way that Pharisees with flocks care about their sheep. He wants to see sinners repenting and reunited with their heavenly Father. He counts himself with the inhabitants of heaven and the angels (7, 10) who are overjoyed whenever someone lost in their own evil gets found and recovered by God.
But I also think there’s a radical claim underneath these parables, one that the Pharisees wouldn’t miss. Each parable depicts a person rolling up their sleeves and aggressively pursuing something valuable to them–even the father runs out to his returning son the moment he sees him on the horizon. And make no mistake, Jesus intends his hearers to infer that these figures represent God. The Creator of Heaven and Earth isn’t interested in playing the exclusion game, leaving sinners to stumble around in the dark, losing coins and rejecting sons. God, as Jesus Christ portrays him in these parables, hunts down straying sheep and opens his arms to the wayward children that he earnestly hopes will come home.
This God receives sinners–the exact charge the Pharisees leveled at Jesus at the opening of the chapter. It’s not hard to see the implicit claim here: if Jesus receives sinners, it’s because he himself is God.
And now, on an unrelated note, it’s time for another scriptural doodle:
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved *said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.