6 March 2016 – Studying the readings for the day INTRODUCTION
Three stories in one chapter, and all three tales most people will have heard… lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, all refound. First the passage, below the study itself.
Note(s): Next month, because it follows soon after Easter Day, there will be no study, but we’ll be back in Chitterne at 5 pm on the first Sunday in May, all are welcome – it may even be warmer! And if you have a comment to make on this bible study, or any of the others, you’re invited to comment, at the bottom of the page…
The passage: Luke Chapter 15. You can see this on www.biblegateway.com – version NRSVA – or at the bottom of this page, below the Rector’s talk.
The Rector’s talk
This series of three parables is probably familiar to most.
It is presented as an exploration of why Jesus –against the approval of the ‘holy’ or ‘respectable’ people of his time- chooses to seek out and spend time with the ‘tax collectors and sinners’.
Jesus uses three images which people can readily relate to: a sheep, a day’s wages, and a child.
A word about the things of value:
100 sheep represents an income, a livelihood. But even one sheep has sufficient value to the wellbeing of the shepherd that he is prepared to seek it out.
1 drachma represents a day’s wages; enough to make one seek it out when it gets dropped on the floor.
A second son is entitled in Jewish law to 1/3 of his father’s estate, with the eldest son having a ‘double portion’.
Jesus begins with the premise that each ‘tax collector’ or ‘sinner’ is in fact an individual of great value to God. But further, he is making the point that God is prepared to seek every one of his valued children out.
Note the reflection made in 2 Peter 3.8-9:
‘8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.’
The only direct parallel in the Gospels for this passage comes in Matthew 18.
10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Here, instead of focussing upon those who have strayed away and are held of no account by the people of importance (Pharisees etc), Jesus is reminding people not to discount or despise children within society. The message is the same; that in God’s kingdom, the value of the individual is huge, and God’s values are not those imposed by society.
There is another parallel in the Old Testament which is interesting: In the book of Ezekiel we read of God as a shepherd, searching for his lost flock, the people of Israel. It is an interesting parallel, because again, it uses imagery familiar to everyone in that pastoral setting. But it also introduces a really strong theme of judgment which isn’t present in this particular series of parables by Jesus. (This is not to say Jesus doesn’t occasionally lay into the Pharisees and others who stand in judgment, just that he doesn’t on this occasion).
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
And just to explain why he says he will destroy the fat and the strong:
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
Finally, the vision concludes with great hope:
25 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. 26 I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29 I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30 They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. 31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture[a] and I am your God, says the Lord God.
The big difference between these two themes is – apart from the focus upon judgment- that the Ezekiel passage is about land and identity as a nation, whereas the Gospel passage focusses upon the individual and a heavenly inheritance. It comes back to that idea we had last month when the disciples themselves are drawn into the presence of God beside Jesus, and Paul reminded us that we are all being transformed by God; not just his nominated representatives.
Finally, we read from Deuteronomy a bit of the ancient law code, which doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Just before this section comes the explanation about firstborn son’s receiving a double portion of any inheritance:
18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
So again, although we aren’t commenting on how much this particular law was upheld or indeed how we feel about it; we are able to surmise that for the family in the 3rd story, the young son’s behaviour would be regarded as both shameful and ungodly by respectable, God-fearing society around them.
Searching – the role of God
In each of the stories, the item that has been lost is sought out again by the one who owns it/cares for it. The shepherd and the woman search diligently. The woman lights a lamp and sweeps the floor ‘leaves no stone unturned’. And from this imagery we immediately identify with the value of the thing they are searching for. We’ve all been there, and we get the imagery even today. The third story is a little different. The ‘thing’ that is ‘lost’ is a person with his own will and his own choices. He chose to leave his context, and he finally chooses to return to his Father, rehearsing a proposal as he returns. But we also read of his Father who sees him when he was still far off and runs to meet him. So too, then, the Father has been searching, waiting.
And from this, along with the idea of great rejoicing in heaven when someone returns to God, we can surmise that God is active in seeking us out, and welcoming us back to our rightful place.
There’s a really interesting parallel here with a passage in the Book of Isaiah, which is in the voice of God:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
2 I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
3 a people who provoke me
to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
and offering incense on bricks;
4 who sit inside tombs,
and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
5 who say, “Keep to yourself,
do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
(Notice here, also, the reference to those who eat swine’s flesh… this reminds us of quite how far the young man in our 3 story has fallen from society’s accepted norms when he ends up tending the pigs.)
The 3rd Parable
We look at this passage in a little more detail. We all no doubt know it, probably have heard sermons on it many times.
It’s become known as the parable of the Prodigal Son, but many other alternatives may suit it better: The parable of the Father’s love/the Waiting Father for example. Or it could focus on the second part of the story; where the elder son comes to plead his own case. There is a slight parallel in Matt 21.28-32
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The point is about restoration before God, and about second chances. In that light, some commentators think that perhaps the section with the eldest son is an addition. If you read the second section it doesn’t really follow through smoothly: if the son is the Pharisee, he is complaining he has been faithful and that his father-God- has been mean. In turn, God says ‘you are great, you always get everything right, I don’t need to work on you, I just need to focus on the ones who stray’ . This doesn’t ring true…
C F Evans, ‘Saint Luke’, SCM Press, 2008, p.592
‘What it could indicate is that Luke is not the author of this second part, since it does not accord with the context of Pharisaic hostility which he has supplied, and that it came to him as already part of the parable. In reproducing it he may have been thinking of the necessity for good Jews and converted Gentiles to live side by side in the church.’
This doesn’t matter too much in the great scheme of things; the central part of the message is simple: God the Father loves each of his children and longs for them to take their rightful place in his kingdom. Even if they stray, get lost, take themselves off, he will seek them out because he loves them.
Let’s just look at the 2 main characters of the 3rd story:
He’s unmarried, so probably in his late teens. It is unusual, but not unprecedented to have a share of inheritance early. He would have a 1/3 share of his Father’s estate.
He has a good time with his money, but then, following the loss of his money and a severe famine he simply falls out of society. He loses his status and his identity. He has even lost shoes- a sign he has become a slave/servant. He ends up working among unclean animals, which in turn makes him unclean within his community. (Isaiah 65.1-5, Leviticus 11.7)
He tries to formulate a way of restablishing a link with his family, by offering himself as a servant. He rehearses what he will say, and he hopes that his father might just accept him in this new position so that he has a chance to survive.
The first question we should ask is who is the father? Is he directly mirroring God? If so, then the grumbles of the older son, who does not see his father as generous or warm, strike a discordant note. Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on this; it may be a case of ‘how much more does your Father in heaven…’
So what do we read in the account?
The Father is generous and open with his child. He allows him to have his inheritance, and go his own way.
As mentioned earlier, the story implies that the Father is looking out for his son. ‘While he was still a long way off…:
He sees him and is filled with compassion
He runs to him
He throws his arms around him and kisses him (drapes himself over his neck)
He interrupts the boy’s rehearsed speech and physically re-instates his son: a servant is called, and they bring a robe, a ring and sandals. The fatted calf is sacrificed, a party is thrown.
The relationship is completely re-established ‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
Finally, quick mention of the elder son
His Father doesn’t summon him! He comes in from working. He isn’t searching for his brother, but seems to know what he’s been up to. He is filled with righteous indignation; never had a party, has slaved for his father, has never disobeyed him. He’s never been praised simply for being a good son.
The father’s response is to say ‘you are always with me and everything I have is yours’. In other words, it’s a given, isn’t it, that you belong to me and I to you and no words are required to establish that.
This isn’t about your faithfulness but about the new life brought by the return of the 2nd child.
So what have we learned?
This is a classic ‘So What?’ passage… and the ‘so what?’ is really important: This message is one we can relate to now, here, in our community, in our generation. The challenge I have for you for this month is to reflect:
Who are the Pharisees in my community? Am I a bit like that, like the elder son?
Who are our ‘sheep’? Who has fallen through our society’s accepted structure and ended up in a heap?
If we feel rather like the younger son, stuck out on a limb through our own fault, dare we make that first step back to our Father?
While we know that it is God who is the Shepherd, the Father, how might we also take on that role within in our context?
When someone is brought back into the fold, how do we feel? Do we jump in and join the party, or do we fold our arms in righteous indignation?
The main passage: Luke Chapter 15
You can see this on www.biblegateway.com – version NRSV
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”