Barry Newman's Blog

April 2, 2013

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

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 2:24 am

The parable in Luke

The parable is introduced with a reference to the Pharisees and scribes commenting on Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them.  After the parable Jesus utters those well known words, “So I say to you, there shall be (more) joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance.”  This saying seems to have a strong element of sarcasm within it. For who are the ninety nine who need no repentance?  Surely the reference is to the scribes and the Pharisees who while seeing a need for repentance in the sinners could barely see any such need in themselves.  Given that this is the comment Jesus makes upon telling the story, we might find not only that the story relates in some way to the Pharisees and scribes but that there might be an element of sarcasm within the story as well.  In an earlier reference in Luke we have Jesus speaking similarly somewhat sarcastically when he said he had come to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous, just as healthy people do not need a doctor only the sick (Luke 5: 29 – 32).

The parable begins with the statement, “And he spoke to them this parable, saying”, followed by the rhetorical question, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep …?”  None of the Pharisees and the scribes of course would have had a hundred sheep.  Although the word, “shepherd” is not used, each was being addressed as though he could be. Indeed to be addressed as though they could have been shepherds would have been somewhat offensive.  Shepherds in the time of Jesus were regarded as people belonging to a far from noble profession, in fact a profession the members of which fell under the category of “sinners”.  Somehow or other, the Pharisees and scribes are intimately involved in this parable.

As with the parable in Matthew, one of the sheep is missing, but rather than having wandered away, as in Matthew, it is lost.  While this may be going too far, there may be a suggestion here, that the man in Luke is irresponsible and this would imply that the Pharisees and scribes are themselves culpable.

However, perhaps with a twist, the man, who is indeed a shepherd, nobly searches for the one sheep that is lost.  But in doing so he leaves the 99 in the desert or wilderness region.  Could it be that, given the sarcasm evident in the words of Jesus that accompany the parable that here we have more sarcasm?  If the 99 is now a reference to the Pharisees and scribes, rather than the shepherd being one of such, this 99 is left in the wilderness.  They see themselves as being markedly superior to sinners, and mimicking the parable, the remarkably superior are indeed separated from the one sinner, but in their separation they exist in the wilderness.  And in the parable they are, it would appear, abandoned there. Is there a hint of the OT reality of the tribes of Israel having to struggle through the wilderness and being left in the wilderness, longer than necessary because of their unbelief?

In the parable the shepherd, the noble shepherd, perhaps recognised as God himself, the true shepherd of Israel, seeks for the lost sheep and indeed does so until he finds it (not on the chance that he might find it as in the parable in Matthew.)  And having found it, he carries it home. It does not have to struggle to bring itself home. And as he carries it on his shoulders, his joy breaks out.  A wonderful thing has happened.  The lost sheep is lost no longer.  According to Bailey, in real life, one would not expect the shepherd to be so exuberant.  If this is correct then in the story perhaps Jesus is highlighting what for God (the one in heaven) is wonderful – the repentance of a sinner. The Pharisees and the scribes should have recognised what God’s perspective was and adopted his perspective. And if they in any way are to be identified with the shepherd, then they should have rejoiced as that shepherd rejoiced, when sinners repented.

At this point Jesus could have finished the parable. However, he then describes how the shepherd, having arrived home, calls his friends and neighbours together to rejoice with him upon the finding of his sheep.  What is the point of this extra detail? For Bailey this calling of his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him is no mere detail but the central piece of the linguistic structure that he observes.

Interestingly, Jesus does not say in his story that the friends and neighbours did in fact rejoice.  The man calls upon them to rejoice but that is the end of the story.  Are the hearers of the parable, including the Pharisees and the scribes being called to decide for themselves what an appropriate ending would be? And if so, do the Pharisees and the scribes in particular see that they have been entrapped by the parable?  Are they being portrayed as the “friends and neighbours” of the sinners who have been found?  Are they being called upon to rejoice?

The Pharisees and the scribes had murmured, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”  In the parable, there is rejoicing by the shepherd and the call to others to rejoice, that the lost sheep has been found. Many sinners had flocked to Jesus, gladly hearing his words and some had met with him in joyful table fellowship. In contrast, the Pharisees and the scribes had looked down on him and the sinners with whom he met.

The parable was actually addressed to the Pharisees and scribes with the words, “Which one of you …?”  They are the ones who primarily are called upon to consider the parable. At the time how many other hearers of the parable saw it as focussed on these self righteous ones held in high esteem by many?

If the Pharisees and scribes are to be associated with any of the entities in the story, which would they be?  Are they the shepherd (What man of you?) who has the 100 sheep but loses one?  – The 99 left behind in the wilderness (where they want to be, apart from sinners, but where God places them, under judgement)? –  The shepherd who searches for the lost sheep (just as they should be seeking the sinner’s repentance)? – The shepherd who rejoices over finding the sheep that was lost (just as they too should rejoice over the repentant sinner)? – The friends and neighbours who are called upon to rejoice (will they respond and rejoice over sinners that repent?)?  If we want a simple parable with each feature uniquely identified, so many possibilities will not do.  Perhaps however Jesus is being extremely subtle.  Maybe the story is meant to have its twists and turns.

At the other extreme, perhaps we are not meant to associate the Pharisees and Scribes directly with any of the entities in the parable.  Are we to see them listening to the story, with themselves outside of the story but being exposed by the story to the reality that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents? Yet it is difficult not to see them as somehow part of the story itself. If the intention is that we are to see them reflected in the parable only once, the introduction by Jesus, “Which one of you …?” might suggest we should see them in some sense as the shepherd.  However that introduction might have been a way of Jesus referring to them as “sinners”, recognising how shepherds were viewed at the time of Jesus.  If we are to be restricted to seeing them only once in the parable, my preference would be that either they are being placed in the position of the friends and neighbours needing to respond to the call to rejoice, or, being portrayed to be like the 99, left in the wilderness.

One way or another, the parable in Luke, while focussing on “joy” as the great marker of what is really important – a lost one being found, a sinner repenting, has Jesus directly confronting the Pharisees and scribes with their abhorrent attitude towards the sinners turning to him and their close association with him. At the same time he pushes to one side, as utterly despicable, their murmurings against him.

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