1 The tax-collectors and sinners kept gathering around to hear Yeshua, 2 and the Pharisees and Torah-teachers kept grumbling. “This fellow,” they said, “welcomes sinners — he even eats with them!” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “If one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, doesn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 When he does find it, he joyfully hoists it onto his shoulders; 6 and when he gets home, he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Come, celebrate with me, because I have found my lost sheep!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.
Luke’s story of Jesus journey to Jerusalem has served to define the nature of the opposition to his ministry. It is partly political because Jesus was seen as a popular leader amongst poor peasants, outcasts both rich and poor, and amongst the class of people whose occupations or lifestyles put them outside the legal righteousness demanded by the Pharisees. Herod saw him as a dangerous leader. But it was also a religious opposition, based on the Pharisaic interpretation of Torah which demanded that all Jews keep the laws of holiness designed for priests. For such teachers, Jesus was a law -breaker who encouraged others to break the law.
In chapter 15 Luke has gathered teachings of Jesus that portray his supposed lawlessness as a movement of God towards people who regarded themselves, and were regarded by the religious leaders, as lost, that is, as no longer part of the true Israel. The chapter is carefully constructed, with several minor parables leading to the great parable of the lost son. The characterisation of God in these stories is especially bold; even when they use conventional imagery, as in the case of the shepherd, they turn it to novel, and to many ears blasphemous, purposes.
For example Isaiah and Ezekiel had spoken of God the shepherd coming to rescue his people from captivity and dispersion, but Jesus depicts a crazy shepherd who puts the whole flock at risk for the sake of one wanderer. There must have been many in his audience shaking their heads when Jesus suggested that they would behave in the same way as this shepherd. Even worse, Jesus suggests that this is an image of God! Bad enough if a shepherd gets sentimental over a lost sheep, but for God to be so irresponsible as to favour the sinner over the righteous would be utterly scandalous. Who would worship such a God? Yet Jesus underlined his scandalous story with an even more scandalous moral about God’s delight in sinners who turn towards him, to the detriment of the deserving righteous.
Doubtless Jesus’ image of God did offend many religious leaders, and it retains its power to offend today in the face of all forms of religious superiority. But those who refuse to read their bible with the spectacles of conventional theology and morality would see that from Genesis with its story of an inept creator who ends up chasing after his disobedient creatures, to Jonah with its comic anti-hero who wants a God who will destroy Godless foreigners but can’t find one, the Old Testament is nearer to Jesus’ offensive theology, without even mentioning Hosea who compared God to a foolishly loving man married to a whore.
We can see this chapter as a place where Jesus’ message about God is set out with great subtlety and clarity, although generations of Christian sholarship have disguised its offence and blunted its point.
Was Jesus serious about God’s lack of enthusiasm for the righteous, or was he using the word sarcastically, meaning, “people who pretend to be righteous” or “people who are self-righteous”? Most scholars think he was being sarcastic, because a God who’s cold towards the genuinely righteous, is not the kind of God they like to invent.
But is it nevertheless the kind of God Jesus invented?
Tune in tomorrow, dear readers, for more wrestling with Jesus!