Barry Newman's Blog

March 5, 2013

The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep (part III)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 11:35 pm


The parable in Luke is immediately preceded by a reference to the Pharisees and the scribes muttering about how Jesus fraternised with “tax collectors and sinners”. Jeremias maintains that “the term ‘sinners’ means: (1) People who led an immoral life (e.g. adulterers, swindlers, Luke 18.11) and (2) people who followed a dishonourable calling (i.e. an occupation which notoriously involved immorality or dishonesty), and who were on that account deprived of civil rights, such as holding office, or bearing witness in legal proceedings.  For example, exercise-men, tax-collectors, shepherds, donkey-drivers, pedlars, and tanners.”[1]  Although the incident begins with the note that “all” these tax collectors and sinners were approaching Jesus to hear him, the Pharisees and the scribes in their murmurings referred to something more – his receiving sinners and eating with them.  That Jesus received sinners may imply that sometimes he acted to some extent as host at these dinners. Undoubtedly the Pharisees and the scribes considered and wanted others to conclude that Jesus himself was tainted by his relationship with these people.  And to have gone so far as to have eaten with them, displaying, in his world, such a hospitable attitude towards them in the act of eating with them, and perhaps behaving in some way as a host to such at certain dinners, must have resulted in their contempt for him, concomitant with their contempt for the “sinners”.

Luke earlier records how Jesus was a guest at a great banquet thrown by the tax collector Levi where many other tax collectors were present and how some Pharisees and in particular some scribes who were Pharisees, muttered to his disciples questioning how they could eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replied with sarcasm saying, “Those who are healthy do not need a doctor, only those who are sick.  I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5: 29 – 32, similarly reported in Matthew 9: 10 – 13).

Having told the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus then says, “So I say to you there shall be (more) joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance.”  (Jeremias believes that God himself and his joy are being referred to but that the statement is expressed in this way because it would be inappropriate to ascribe emotions to God.[2])  With respect to the idea of their being 99 righteous persons who have no need of repentance, Jesus was perhaps using a Semitic turn of speech involving a comparison where there was no comparison at all. There are no “righteous persons who have no need of repentance.” Alternatively he may have been simply speaking with a tinge or more of sarcasm when he uttered the latter part of his saying.

Luke then recounts the parable of the lost coin and what is commonly called the parable of the prodigal son. While not discussing these later parables it is clear that the latter deals with how the older brother responds to and how he should respond to the “repentance” of the younger one – surely dealing with the same theme that lies behind the parable under discussion.

So for Luke, unlike for Matthew, the setting is one of how one does or should respond to the repentance of those considered “sinners” and what Jesus has to say about the so-called righteous.

[1] Ibid., p. 132

 [2] Ibid., p. 135


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