Sheep, Pennies, and People of Disrepute (Luke 15)
Some of you might know that there exists a satirical newspaper called The Onion. Like all satire, it uses irony, sarcasm, and twists on current events to shed light on everyday absurdities, politicians’ shortcomings, or to make us think about human situations that we take for granted. Sometimes they miss the mark, but quite few times the Onion has provided chuckles and eye-opening ironical insight. One article caught my eye this week with the headline, “Christ Reluctantly Enters Area Man”. Curious and surprised (it is a secular newspaper), I clicked and read.
OLATHE, KS—Despite numerous reservations and misgivings He harbored about the 33-year-old mortgage broker, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Our Holy Savior, reportedly entered the heart of Derek Moehr on Wednesday, reluctantly illuminating the local man with His divine grace.
Christ… said that He was hesitant to fill Moehr’s soul with the Word of God, but conceded that, as the Heavenly Redeemer of Mankind, He ultimately felt He had no choice but to allow His holy spirit to dwell inside the Wells Fargo employee.
“It usually brings me great joy to share my love and forgiveness with all God’s children, but when Derek sought the holy power of my redemption, I have to admit that I really wanted no part of it,” said Christ, explaining His unease over building a spiritual communion with a man He described as “all in all, pretty annoying.” “I would have been perfectly happy with never cleansing Derek of his sins and transgressions, but, unfortunately, when a believer reaches out to me with faith in their hearts, I kind of have to reach back, even if it’s Derek.”
“But I just want to make it clear this was not my idea,” the Messiah added. “The last thing I want is to be this guy’s personal savior.”
Christ further stated that He is hoping to avoid providing Moehr with daily spiritual nourishment and guidance, saying that He hoped instead to simply point the man in the right direction and “let him figure it out from there.”
…“Touching someone’s life is one thing, but then having to reveal myself to them daily as the Living Savior, serve as their personal shepherd, and perpetually lead them on the path of righteousness—that’s really a lot to ask, especially if it’s some smug, stuck-up guy like Derek,” Christ said. (2013, The Onion)
This piece of satire is both somewhat amusing and mildly unsettling. It’s amusing because it clearly sounds like something that Jesus would never say or do. It’s unsettling because it is something that Jesus wouldn’t say or do… but sometimes we wish he would.
Some of us might feel that, if we were Jesus, we really would want to exclude grace from some people—the annoying, the inconsiderate, the arrogant, the doofus, the awkward, the smelly, the overdramatic, the insecure, the know-it-all, the bossy, the liar, the cheater.
On the flip side, some of us might feel that we are that person that God is somewhat ambivalent about, that maybe God is or would be reluctant to enter our lives, to extend us his grace, to give us his love.
In contrast to The Onion piece, we see through the life of Jesus and through his teachings, in stories like our parables today, that God places extraordinary value on every single human being—the annoying or obnoxious, the loose liver or the corrupt tax man. We see two lessons in Jesus’ stories about sheep and coins: that God values and extends grace to all people and that God persistently and proactively seeks out all of us, even the people of disrepute.
Jesus and the Pharisees and Scribes
We enter the scene in Luke chapter 15. It is sometime during the middle of Jesus’ ministry: he has already been healing the sick, performing miracles, and teaching crowds of people. Luke writes (as put by The Message paraphrase), “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends’” (Lk 15:13, Msg). Who are these Pharisees and scribes and why exactly do they get so worked up about Jesus eating meals with people?
Today, when we hear Pharisees and scribes, we say, “Hypocrites!” We think, “Bad!” But as we read, we need to understand that while Jesus calls them out quite a few times, there is no negative connotation to them during Jesus’ day. These folks are your more-religious-than-average people; thought of as good and godly people. To put it in our modern context, they are the Sunday School teachers and active church members of their day. These “good and godly people” think that Jesus is clearly spending too much time and getting way to close with the wrong people.
Commentators help unpack the 1st Century context what it meant to eat with people. “‘Eating with’ is the summary term for accepting into fellowship, standing for all aspects of associating with others as equal members of the community of faith” (Boring & Craddock, 2009, p. 404). In the 1st Century, eating together is saying that you think someone is good and respectable—because you wouldn’t eat with someone who wasn’t. If someone is a sinner, you would run away to not muddy your own self.
In the context, tax collectors are considered traitors to the Jewish people (they were fellow Jews working for the Roman Empire and often taking their own cut in addition to taxes) and sinners are, well, sinners. Thus, the good religious folks are appalled because “Jesus not only does not reject sinners; he does more than merely tolerate or condescendingly accept them. They are guests at his table, where the note of joyous celebration permeates the whole” (Boring & Craddock, 2009, p. 238; italics added). It is in this context that the religious people say, “What is he doing?” and Jesus sees it as a good time to tell some stories about sheep and coins.
Before living in Nigeria, I didn’t have much experience with barnyard animals or livestock. In Nigeria, they were everywhere and most of our friends and colleagues had sheep or chickens or goats as parts of their livelihoods. In addition to farming to meet their yearly food needs, our Nigerian sisters and brothers bred livestock to sell at market. During dry seasons, the goats would roam freely through the village—since they would only be eating leftover grasses and not neighbors’ crops.
Sometimes, our friends would be searching and going around for a specific goat that hadn’t shown up at home to eat for a while. I remember one friend going around, asking neighbors if they had seen a certain goat with these markings. For him and others, having goats was not just a sentimental cute past-time. It was an important form of savings and investment. Goats were valuable and losing a goat would cause hardship and impact financial plans. Our friend actually paid for a new laptop by selling off some goats that he bred and raised. Goats and other animals are understood there to have value.
Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd herding sheep who also understands the value of his livestock. The shepherd has 100 sheep. When one sheep is missing, the shepherd is so concerned about its wellbeing that he leaves the 99 others in a field and scours the land.
One is so valuable on its own to this shepherd that he is willing to leave his other sheep unattended (at risk of losing them) in order to find it. Jesus uses this hyperbole for a reason. Who would leave the 99 sheep unattended, for one single sheep?
From this parable, I see Jesus teaching that every individual is valuable to God. Jesus isn’t begrudgingly coming into the life of someone he thinks is a loser; Jesus is valuing each person as beloved and precious in the eyes of God.
Poignantly, the shepherd rejoices and calls his friends and neighbors to celebrate, with the expectation that they too would see the joy and value at such an important creature reunited with him. This is the opposite of what the Pharisees and scribes are doing. They don’t see the value in these “tax collectors and sinners” coming to God. They just see people that they’d rather not be seen with.
Jesus steps away from the story and says to their self-righteous faces, “Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue” (Lk 15:7, Msg). What exactly does he mean here? “Ninety-nine people in no need of rescue” is not 99 people who love God and are perfect. It isn’t that some people bring more joy to God than others. Throughout Jesus’ teachings and the gospel of Luke, “there are none who are absolutely righteous; all have sinned, all need to repent” (p. 239). Jesus is saying that the self-righteous—those who think they don’t need to repent—don’t bring God joy. Rather, God delights when a person turns toward Him in need of his healing and hope. God rejoices at every sincere person who acknowledges they aren’t perfect and need God’s grace—even if he or she is a person of disrepute or seen by society as somewhat sketchy.
Through Jesus’ sheep story, we see that God values all people and joyfully extends his grace to all who come to him.
We learn about God’s grace from the sheep story and learn about God’s persistence through the story of the lady with the coins.
Speaking of coins, I dropped a penny in a bathroom on Friday. I did not immediately pick it up. When I did, it was not because of the value of the penny but just because I was here at church and didn’t want to leave something on the floor for someone else to pick up. The penny, to me, was pretty much worthless. In Canada, the government has realized the worthless burden of pennies, which cost more to make than their monetary value is worth. As such, it stopped producing them. No more pennies in Canada because they aren’t worth picking up when you drop them.
If something was of great value and lost (say I lost a paycheck or some imaginary wad of cash that I had laying around), I would search high and low and all over the house for it. I would be persistent, much like the lady in Jesus’ second parable.
Jesus says, “‘Imagine a lady has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time [some]one… turns to God’” (Lk. 15:8-10, Msg).
This lady has 10 coins, each worth about a day’s wages. While the coin isn’t worth a fortune, it also isn’t worth a penny either. From the description of her house, the lady is not well-off and is probably a peasant. This coin is clearly important so she searches high and low and doesn’t rest until she finds it.
Jesus’ second parable again emphasizes that that which is being sought is valuable. God is not apathetic or hesitant about sharing His grace and love. Unlike the Onion story, Jesus doesn’t grit his teeth. Through the parable of the coin, Jesus is implying that God actively pursues people to share in the joyful table of God’s family. Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, who would rather let the tax collectors and sinners wander off into oblivion and desolation, Jesus persistently and proactively seeks out the people of disrepute and works to share his love and grace with them.
Hearing and Responding
So Jesus tells these stories about sheep and small coins. We see truths from them that God values and extends grace to all people and that God persistently and proactively seeks out all of us, even people of disrepute. So what does that mean for us?
I don’t think there is one answer. Parables are not meant to completely spell things out, to tie truths and applications up into packages with neat little bows. One commentator says that “Jesus’ parables did not deliver prepackaged meaning but challenged the hearer to respond. Parables are often open-ended narrative metaphors that generate new meaning in new situations. While a parable cannot mean simply anything (it is not a Rorschach ink blot), it ‘teases the mind into active thought’ in such a way that the hearer himself or herself must actively participate in deciding what the parable means, i.e. how the hearer should respond to it” (Boring & Craddock, p. 121).
How do you hear Jesus today and how will you respond? Perhaps you fit in with the Pharisee hearers. At times your heart is hard and you think that some people just really don’t belong—and they’d have to change a lot before God showed any grace to them (or you showed grace to them). You see people around who make you wrinkle your nose in distaste or tut-tut-tut about their sinful habits.
Sister, brother—those around you are loved by God. Open your eyes to the innate value in all people, well-respected or not. Dear one, they (as you) are loved by God, loved as they are, and persistently pursued by Him.
Maybe you fit in with the other hearers—the tax collectors and sinners. Maybe you feel judged by religious folk or think of yourself as pretty unworthy of God’s grace.
Sister, brother—you are loved by God and valuable to Him. Dear one, regardless of what you’ve done or where you’ve come from (figurarively or literally), God is persistently seeking you out to come to His table of love, and grace, and joy.
May God give us the grace that he is so eager to extend, that we might grow in love for one another and in the knowledge that we and others are loved by Him. AMEN.