- Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 & Psalm 14
- 1 Timothy 1:12-17
- Luke 15:1-10
Our notes this week focus on the Gospel reading.
In the opinion of a great many contemporary Jesus scholars, the traditions found in this week’s Gospel take us very close to the core of Jesus’ own practice (what Crossan calls “open commensality”) and its underlying vision of God’s domain as the place where the broken ones and the little people come into their own (or, more correctly, God’s own). The presence of a + sign next to the inventory number for each item reflects Crossan’s positive assessment of their historicity.
It is instructive to read these stories through the lens of the Beatitudes. The principles stated so baldly in the Beatitudes are here captured in the practice and teaching of Jesus.
Gospel: God has a table …
Eating with Sinners (Luke 15:1-2)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
John Dominic Crossan (Historical Jesus, 262) dismisses this accusation as a rhetorical flourish by the opponents of Jesus, rather than as a character appraisal of his companions:
“I no more take [this charge] at face value than I do the charges against John [the Baptist].”
Kathleen Corley reminds us that allegations such as those found here represent “the caricature of polemic and not social description” (Women and the Historical Jesus, 2002:85). She continues:
… the connection between these two terms and their use as slander against Jesus’ or his followers’ table practice is apt, as tax collectors are connected in Greco-Roman literature with those who trafficked in prostitution and slavery, particularly to brothel keepers and pimps, those responsible for supplying women and slaves for banquets. And it was common for demeaning portraits of individuals to include insults levied against their table practice and dining companions. To malign Verres, for example, Cicero pictures his degenerate behavior at banquets with lewd women.
The point of this familiar slander against Jesus is not simply his lack of discrimination when choosing table companions, but to suggest significant moral failure on his part as someone keeping company with sex workers and corrupt petty officials. While the historian can read the slander in reverse and use it as evidence that Jesus included women and other social outcasts among his followers, the slander is more a marker of social conflict between Jesus and his opponents rather than an index of his personal values and conduct.
Crossan (Historical Jesus, 261) asks: “What acts of Jesus begot the charges of gluttony, drunkenness, and keeping very bad company?” In offering a response to his own question, Crossan writes:
In the first as in the twentieth century, a person might create a feast for society’s outcasts. The could easily be understood even or especially in the honor and shame ideology of Mediterranean society as a benefaction and one of extremely high visibility. No doubt if one did it persistently and exclusively there might be some very negative social repercussions. But, in itself, to invite the outcasts for a special meal is a less socially radical act than to invite everyone found on the streets. It is that “anyone” that negates the very social function of table, namely, to establish a social ranking by what one eats, how one eats, and with whom one eats. It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. One could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, ranks and grades all mixed up together. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s mesocosmic mirror, the table as the place where bodies meet to eat. And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.
In an unrelated discussion later in his book, Crossan writes further about commensality (shared table) as something that was (and is?) absolutely basic to Christian community. Two excerpts will give something of the flavor of his discussion:
Here, I think, is the heart of the original Jesus movement, a shared egalitarianism of spiritual and material resources. I emphasize this as strongly as possible, and I insist that its materiality and spirituality, its facticity and symbolism cannot be separated. The mission we are talking about is not, like Paul’s, a dramatic thrust along major trade routes to urban centers hundreds of miles apart. Yet it concerns the longest journey in the Greco-Roman world, maybe in any world, the step across the threshold of a peasant stranger’s home. (p. 341)
I cannot emphasize this too strongly: commensality is not almsgiving; almsgiving is not commensality. Generous almsgiving may even be conscience’s last great refuge against the terror of open commensality. (p. 341)
The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
This familiar parable survives in three versions:
Jesus said, The (Father’s) imperial rule is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, “I love you more than the ninety-nine.” [Complete Gospels]
“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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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.
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? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
It is interesting to note that the version in Thomas has a rather more predictable ending. Certainly, from the sheep’s perspective it is greatly to be preferred over Luke’s version where the happy farmer calls his friends and neighbors over for a celebration where (presumably) the recently-rescued sheep is the main item on the menu.
Underlying this parable is a radical vision of God as wastefully generous in her dealings with humankind. This parable, like the Lost Coin that follows in Luke 15, celebrates an interpretation of life as something very different from the “repent-or-burn” ideology of the religious right. Here is a superb example of the abundance mentality at work. Forget the ninety-nine safe sheep! Seek the solitary stray and enjoy it in the company of your friends and neighbors.
There is—says Jesus—something of God’s domain in this slippery little story.
The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
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? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
This story—deriving more from the domestic sphere of life—seems to make a similar point to the previous story of the lost sheep; and perhaps also to the following story of the prodigal son.
The element of hyperbole is once more present in this story.
While silver coins are “small change” in our world, they were serious money in the time of Jesus. Not only so, but none of the Jewish rulers who issued coins during the 150 or so years from John Hyrcanus to Herod and his sons minted silver coins. Every local Jewish coin was bronze, and most them were the prutah—worth about 1% of a silver denarius. Some silver coins were issued from local mints, such as Tyre, under special licence from Rome. Gold coins were even more rare, and only ever minted in Rome. For the woman in this story to have 10 silver coins would have struck Jesus’ audience as most remarkable. In any event, they would have appreciated the diligence with which she went about searching for the lost coin. It was worth 100 prutot!
God is more willing to forgive than we are ready to imagine.
As with the once-lost but now-found sheep, so the recovered silver coin is presumably consumed in the celebrations with the friends and neighbors.
Is this collective celebration perhaps essential to the story? Are we perhaps more often like the grumpy elder brother in the Prodigal Son? With our “Four Spiritual laws” and our airtight theories of the Atonement, have we overlooked the extravagant generosity of the Mother who is simply happy to welcome all her chicks back into the warm security of her wings?
While those of us who are religious (whether right or of some other disposition) may complain like the proverbial elder sibling, God rushes out to embrace the dissolute who may be more desperate than repentant. Who cares how the sheep was separated from the flock? Who cares how the coin got to be where it was eventually found? Who cares what the prodigal has done with his premature inheritance?
Let the heavens rejoice! Another sinner has turned back to God.
- 113 Eating with Sinners – (1) P. Oxy. 1224, 2 v ii, lines 1-7; (2a) Mark 2:13-17a = Matt 9:9-12 = Luke 5:27-31; (2b) GEbi. 1c; (2c) Luke 15:1-2
- 107 The Lost Sheep – (1) GThom. 107; (2) 1or2?Q: Luke 15:3-7 = Matt 18:12-14
- 464 The Lost Coin – (1) Luke 15:8-10
- 465 The Prodigal Son – (1) Luke 15:11-32
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- O worship the king, all-glorious above – AHB 67
- Spirit of mercy, truth and love – AHB 316
- When I Survey the wondrous cross – AHB 258
- Amazing grace – AHB 56
- Blest Are They – AOV 1-055, GA 477
- Seek ye First – AHB 745
- Companions on the Journey – AOV 1-188
- You Are Near – AOV 1-112, GA 451
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.