One of our the hardest quests as disciples seeking to be faithful today is understanding the Biblical text, which was passed down for centuries by oral tradition before being written out in Hebrew, or in the days of Jesus, scrolled in Koine Greek (an ancient form of Greek writing). Believe it or not, none of the original texts were published in American English. Sadly, much of our understanding of the Biblical text today, whether from the Old or New Testament, comes from the way the texts have been presented to us. Varying translators of the Bible, from the King James to the New International Version to the Common English Bible, all interpret words a bit differently, which influences how we understand the Biblical truth.
Perhaps no greater translating offense happens than giving section headers to the Biblical text.
Again, it may come as a surprise, but the section headers in the Bible were not in the original manuscripts. These headers weren’t added for centuries. We can give the editors the benefit of the doubt and offer that the headings were added to make the Bible easier to read, but in some cases, the headers don’t make the Bible easier to read. In fact, in many places, the headers make the text harder to read, because the either intentionally or unintentionally impact our reading of the Biblical text.
The Parables of Jesus offer good examples of how the headers in the Biblical text impact our ability to read the text faithfully. Over the next six weeks, we’re going to look deeper into some of Jesus’ parables, trying to reconstruct Jesus’ desired impact of the stories while rejecting the interpretive headers.
We have a lot of errors in understanding to correct, so it may be impossible to cover all the failures in the time of a Sunday sermon. To aid in our learning, I invite you to join me in the reading of the book, Short Stories by Jesus, written by Amy Jill Levine. Much of the historical work I use in the sermons will come from this book. Also, following worship each week, we will be having a Deep Dive gathering to consider some of the deeper components of the parables that we just can get to in the sermon. You’re invited to stay any week as your schedule allows. We’ll meet in the Fellowship Hall following our Fellowship Fifteen downstairs.
This week’s text is comprised of three parables, piled one after the other, and these three stories offer a prime example of how imposed headers negatively impact our ability to read the parable as it was first told by Jesus. In most Bibles, these three parables are labeled, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.With these imposed headings, one might be led to think that these stories are first and foremost about a sheep that went missing, a coin that could not be found, and a wasteful son. Yet, oddly, when we look at the Biblical text itself, these stories all begin with a focus that is quite different than that of the header.
For example, in verse 3, the first parable begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep …”
If we move too quickly to the lost sheep, we lose sight of the opening line, which puts the owner of the hundred sheep as the primary subject of the story. Jesus is asking the scribes and the Pharisees, those to whom he is speaking, to put themselves in the place of a sheep owner. The owner of the sheep is then placed at the center of the story.
The second story begins in Verse 8 with Jesus speaking, “Or what woman having ten silver coins …”
Again, before we get to the lost coin, we find the subject of the opening line is the woman who had ten coins.
Finally, in verse 11, we hear Jesus introducing the third parable, “There was a man who had two sons.”
Once more, we find that the subject of the opening line of the parable is not the wasteful son, but the father, who had two sons. If we focus too greatly on the prodigal son, we find ourselves missing the story of the father, or of the second son – he did have two sons.
Not that re-writing the headers helps our cause, but perhaps these parables would more aptly named, The Owner of 100 Sheep, The Woman who had 10 Coins, or The Man Who had Two Sons.
Rejecting the traditional headers of these texts, we would do well to put on our first century ears to listen to what Jesus would have meant in telling these parables. Jesus is not first and foremost speaking to leading Americans in the 21stCentury. The first two verses of this chapter tell us that Jesus is speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees – leaders of the Jewish temple – who have complained to him that he is keeping bad company. … Ok, perhaps that doesn’t sound very far off from leading Americans in the 21stCentury.
These Pharisees and scribes are confused, perhaps even upset, that Jesus is spending time with tax collectors and sinners. They don’t like that this wandering rabbi, the one drawing the crowds, the one who is performing divine miracles, is spending so much time with people who are unwanted by the temple leaders. They don’t like that Jesus is drawing a crowd of who they consider to be bad people. … The more I think of it, the more these 1stCentury temple leaders sound like 21stCentury American leaders. … None-the-less, Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees and scribes.
There were certain groups of people who the church leaders didn’t like; there were certain groups of people who were seen as being dirty, unfaithful, or wrong. The leaders of the church didn’t like that this man who claimed to know God’s will, indeed who was hailed as God’s chosen Son, was spending time with the very people that they believed didn’t belong.
Upon their critique of his actions, Jesus tells these three parables. To understand them better, I want to touch on some of the historical connecting points these stories might have brought up for the Pharisees and scribes.
The first parable is of the sheep: A few things stand out about this first story. For starters, 100 sheep was a very large flock, indicating this was a wealthy owner. Second, the story isn’t about the shepherd – it’s about the owner. The shepherd was a hired hand who was sent out into the fields to keep watch over the owner’s sheep. If this parable were about the shepherd losing a sheep, the story would have likely centered around the owner’s anger at the shepherd’s careless mistake. Also, the shepherd – being the low end of the social ladder – would not have had the ability to throw a party of this magnitude upon finding the lost sheep. Only the owner would have had those means.
Also, reading in the context of the first century, and I know I’ve said this before (but it can’t go without naming), sheep are dumb animals. The Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus was speaking would not have thought that the sheep that goes missing was capable of being sinful. Sheep are dumb – not sinful. … Which makes the owner’s response to the lost sheep even more surprising. Instead of taking the 99 remaining sheep back to the barn, or even back to the farm, the owner leaves the 99 in the wilderness to go and find the one. To save the one, the owner leaves the other 99 very dumb animals in the wild, susceptible to danger, or perhaps wandering off themselves.
While the parable is often understood as an allegorical account about a sheep who represents a sinful person, and God and shepherd being joyous upon the sheep’s repentant return, this sheep never repented or returned, and it’s hard to imagine that God as owner would have missed the one wandering off. Instead, it seems this story is about a dumb sheep who got lost, and a reckless owner who abandoned the masses to save the one that was lost.
The parable of the woman and the coin: The woman had 10 silver coins, which, like the sheep owner, would have been considered a wealthy amount. Each coin was equal to a day’s wage. So she has, just lying around the house, a week and a half worth of salary. Perhaps not a large amount by today’s standards – but certainly a wealthy amount by 1st Century standards among women in the Middle East.
It again seems hard to realistically consider the coin as a representative of a sinful person. The coin cannot chose to sin. And, in the case of this parable, we’re told the coin’s displacement is not the coin’s fault, but the fault of the woman. Verse 9 offers the woman telling her friends, “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I lost.”If this story were an allegorical account of God welcoming home a repentant sinner, we would have to see the woman as God as the reason the coin was lost; and we would have to see the coin as having made a repentant decision to come back. Neither of these ideas seem faithful to the parable, or the gospel story at large.
In each of these first two stories, Jesus offers a one-line explanation at the conclusion of the parable. In regards to the sheep, Jesus offers, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people with no repentance.” In regards to the coin, Jesus offers, “There is joy in the presence of the angles of God over one sinner who repents.”
If the stories are not themselves a direct allegorical connection to a repentant person – for the sheep and the coin do not first commit sin and then admit wrong before returning home, they are sought by their owner after going missing – could it be that the story of the sheep and the coin are not set up to demonstrate repentance, but instead set up to demonstrate the kind of joy that exists when a person does repent and returns to God? That is the common thread among both stories: the owners, upon finding their lost items, invite their friends to celebrate the finding of what was once lost. Perhaps these first two parables are just a set-up to draw attention to heaven’s joy upon the return of that which was lost, which is best seen in the third parable?
The third parable – about the man and his sons – can be seen as having many different meanings. The story line that has been favored by the church in more recent years is the story of the prodigal son. We all love a prodigal son storyline. The story line can be seen in many Hollywood productions – from Iron Man, to Star Wars, to Legends of the Fall, to Big Fish. A son leaves his family, squanders his wealth, and then returns to his family, or at least in some way pulls himself up from his own bootstraps to gain success.
Perhaps this is the story line we prefer, because it’s the story line we love. Not only do we like the feel-goodness of such a story on the big screen, but we love to see ourselves in such a story. We love the idea that no matter how many failures we may have in our own life, God will always take us back. There’s a self-serving nature to reading this text as the parable of the Prodigal Son. But is that the most faithful read?
For starters, without question, the youngest son squandered his wealth. But to be repentant, one must have sinned. Is the son’s wastefulness really sinful? Perhaps. … But then, a better question would be, is the son really repentant?
As the son finds himself with no money remaining, he asks himself this question, “How many of my father’s hired hands have food to spare?” Then, in a very ungenerous take, he begins to think of how to manipulate his father to take him back. Amy Jill Devine offers that anytime we see a character’s inner-monologue in the Biblical text, it’s usually indicative of a conniving plot to be unleashed at a later time for self-gain. The dad has already succumbed to give the child 50% of his estate well before it was due; perhaps he’ll succumb to the youngest a second time and welcome him back home after squandering the wealth he received prematurely.
As he is cresting the final hill on his way back home, the father sees him and runs out to him. The son kicks in to his pre-conceived invitation for daddy, “I have sinned against heaven and you; I am no longer worthy to be your son …” But before he can finish the third line, inviting himself to be one of the hired hands, the dad calls for a robe – the best robe – and a ring, and sandals. He kills the fatted calf, saving no expense, and throws a community party for the son’s return.
To note, the father – unlike the owners in the prior stories – does not go looking for the son. However, he is there to welcome the son upon his return in a most extravagant way. Such extravagance mirrors the celebrations of the sheep owner and the coin owner. Such a return elicits great joy not only among the owners and the father, but is a shared joy by the whole community. … Well, almost the whole community.
The final snippet of this story does not revel in heaven’s joy for the lost being found. The final piece of this story is about the father and the elder son. The elder son is the son of privilege in the history of the Jewish people. While there are many Biblical stories about the younger son getting the birthright privilege, like Abel, Isaac, and David, in the Jewish teaching, the elder son is promised double the trust of a younger son. The elder son is expected to be the one with the parental favor. Yet, this is not true in this story, and the elder son is not pleased.
The text offers that there are two responses to the father’s reception of the younger son. You can share in the joy, or you can be resentful. The elder son is resentful, feeling like his hard work is being overlooked – or even thought of as worthless. “Father, how many years have I toiled like one of your hired hands. And yet, I have never received such a reception.” Don’t forget that this story is being told to the Pharisees and scribes whose entire life is built around toiling hard as servants of God within God’s house. Which character in the story might they best identify with?
When taken in tandem with one another, these three stories seem to speak little about us as people of faith, but instead, offer a great deal about God as owner, as mother, and as father. Jesus doesn’t seem to be speaking of us as much as he is speaking about the heart of God.
What we find in these stories is that God rejoices – extravagantly – when the lost return. God is willing to put at bay the faithful to search for the wayward. God is willing to upset those who have always been present and working to ensure those who are missing are feel welcome upon their return. God celebrates the return of the lost with abundance, for God cares about each and every one of humanities created.
This should not only lead us to know that we are welcome – no matter how many years we’ve been toiling in labor, or how many opportunities we’ve missed for faithfulness – we are all invited to the celebration of heaven’s joy. But these stories also beg the question, who is missing? What person – what persons – what sections of the community have been left out or lost over the years? Where have we failed to welcome the stranger who has returned to the fold? Where have we kept out, or intentionally excluded those who were seeking to be welcomed into the community?
Each story speaks of an unexpected demonstration of extravagant love. And perhaps above all, the point of these three parables is that the risks of God are as real as the love … and the love is impossible to subdue. And maybe such a love – a love that seeks the lost, that welcomes the prodigal, that celebrates the found, that risks everything for the few that are missing – perhaps such a love might change the world. Amen.