|The following article by Mark Vitalis Hoffman is excerpted from the "Jesus Is!" multi-generational curriculum from Augsburg Fortress. Click HERE for more information about and ordering.||back to|
"Jesus Is Our Teacher"
Luke 15.1-32: Lost and Found Parables
Key Verse: Luke 15.10 - Jesus said, "Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
In Luke 15.1-32 Jesus tells three parables each having to do with being lost and found. The context provided for starting to understand each of these stories is in 15.1-2 where we are told that "all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
In response to their grumbling about eating with sinners, Jesus tells a story about sheep, coins, and a dysfunctional family. On the one hand, the point of the parables seems to be clear enough and is explicitly made in verses 7 and 10: there is great joy in heaven when a sinner repents. On the other hand, we begin to understand the power of Jesus parabolic style of teaching when we stop to think a bit more about the stories. In just the instance of the first parable, we note that the shepherd plays a heroic role, but, despite positive references to shepherds in Scripture (notably Psalm 23), in first century Palestine shepherds were regarded as a lowly, marginal class. Even tax collectors were regarded as more trustworthy! (b. Sanhedrin 25b; Philo, On Husbandry, 61) Furthermore, what sort of shepherd is this that abandons ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness just to find a single lost one? And what is the point of his throwing an extravagant party just for one lost sheep? And how does the lost sheep, hardly a model of repentance, parallel a "sinner who repents"?
With this teaching of Jesus, what first appears as a simple illustration soon becomes a profound challenge to the hearer to reexamine previously held conceptions and values. So, what is the message we are to learn from these parables?
First, they challenge any understanding of God as one who is cool and calculating, interested only in efficiency and decency. It is not the God imagined by those who would prefer a God who pored over the books of right and wrong and kept an eye only on the bottom line. Instead, the God Jesus teaches about is someone who is willing to get a bad name for the sake of the greatest good, a God who is willing to be identified as a despised and impractical shepherd, a woman possessed, a foolish old father. This is a persistent God who, out of an extravagance of compassion, will go after the one lost sheep one hundred times out of one hundred, who will not rest until the one bad penny is found, who does not sleep until the good for nothing son comes home. This is a God who has an eye for the party and celebration at the end.
Second, Jesus teaching challenges our understanding of ourselves. Who wants to think of themselves as the lost sheep, the ones who wandered off, the ones who were stupid and willful enough to get caught in a situation from which they could not free themselves? Who wants to realize that they are utterly dependent on the love and persistent searching of the shepherd? When we take the parables to heart, the lost sheep and the lost coin parables show how utterly unable we are to save ourselves.
Actually, the situation is even worse (better?) than all this. Jesus teaching is a wake up call to the realization that we are dead. The word translated as "lost" in verses 4, 6, 8, and 9 also means "dying," which is how the father explains it in verses 24 and 32 and how it is translated in verse 17. In the parable of the prodigal son (the lost son? the dead son!), the process of comprehending his condition is played out as we see him "when he came to himself." He recognizes that he is dying, but he insists on calculating how he might still try to save himself by arranging a position as a servant in his fathers house. The father will not put up with such nonsense and tells it like it is: "This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" The older brotherpractical, diligent, serioussimply refuses to recognize that he is only going through the motions of being alive. As hard as the father, who himself has already voluntarily died by agreeing to divide his inheritance, tries to explain, the older son just does not get it and does not want it.
When we listen to Jesus teaching, we are called to self-examination, reflection, and reorientation. These are good Lenten themes, responses appropriate for those who are learning that they have died and that our God is a gracious God who brings the dead to life. The parables are especially effective ways that Jesus communicated this message, but it is the same radical message of the unbounded grace of God and the death of self that runs through all of Jesus teaching. It is all the more a powerful message, because, when we confess that Jesus is our teacher, we also acknowledge that he practices what he teaches. Let the party begin!