This is third post of a four part series in which David Williams shares some historical and theological observations on the Bible passages studied in the Urbana12 business track. The earlier posts of the series are The Call (Luke 5:1-11) and The Kingdom (Luke 10:1-24). The series concludes with The Found (Luke 15:1-10). ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN.
The Lost (Luke 15:1-10)
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees probably derived their name, Perushim, from the Hebrew verb parash, “to separate” or “to set apart.” Taking their inspiration from the book of Leviticus and other parts of the Torah, the Pharisees primarily understood “holiness” (qodesh) in terms of separation — separating clean from unclean, holy from unholy, righteous from unrighteous, Sabbath from workweek. They believed that Israel’s long exile and subjugation under pagan rule was a direct result of their forebears’ failure to properly keep Torah (see, e.g., Lev 26:27-35 and 2 Chron 36:20-21) and so they attempted to apply Levitical purity regulations (many of which originally pertained only to the priests and Levites) to the everyday lives of everyday people in the hopes that God would act to restore Israel to its former glory. The Pharisees understood their promotion of precise fidelity to Torah as a sort of mission to rescue exiled Israel from herself.
Jesus, as it turns out, was on a rescue mission of his own, one which he launched not by citing Leviticus but rather by reading aloud the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) in his hometown synagogue:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When he had finished reading the passage he sat to teach (as rabbis customarily did in those days). But instead of expounding the text verse-by-verse he simply announced that the day about which Isaiah had prophesied had finally come. The time for good news, the time for liberation, the time for rescue, recovery and healing, the year of the Lord’s favor had at long last arrived.
For the Pharisees, table fellowship — who you ate with and how you ate with them — was a big deal. Of the 341 texts attributed to the foremost Pharisaic rabbis of Jesus’ day, Hillel and Shammai, 229 pertain specifically to matters of table fellowship. The table was for them the central place for the practice of holiness as they understood it, a place for exemplifying Israelite life as it was supposed to be lived: free of Pagan rule and defilement. As such, for them maintaining the holiness of one’s fellowship was as much a political as it was a religious act (in fact, those two categories could hardly be disentangled in the first century).
Hence the Pharisees’ scandal at Jesus’ dinner company. Jesus, it seems, made it a point to have dinner with all the wrong people, with “tax-collectors and sinners,” as our present text says. The term “sinners” should not be taken to mean non-Pharisees. Pharisees could and did eat with non-Pharisees. “Sinners” here does not denote just anyone who failed to keep Pharisaic protocols, but rather flagrant offenders of Torah: tax-collectors and prostitutes (groups which were in bed with the Roman occupiers, as it were), idolaters, extortionists, Sabbath-breakers, drunkards, gamblers and the like. These sorts of people were, according to the Pharisees, precisely the problem for Israelite society: they were the reason God tarried in rescuing his people.
Jesus saw things quite differently, however. God was not tarrying in rescuing his people. In fact, as we have seen, Jesus proclaimed that the great day of rescue had come and that the Kingdom of God was near at hand. In fact, his mission “to seek and to save the lost” was the divine rescue mission! The very thing that the Pharisees had hoped to bring about by their stringent Torah-keeping was being played out before their very eyes, though they lacked the eyes to see it.
The Pharisees’ misperception of Jesus was, at bottom, a misperception of who God is and what God is about. Such misperceptions tend to deeply rooted in strongly held convictions, cherished traditions, and years, perhaps generations, of personal investment. Such deeply rooted misperceptions are not usually deracinated by delivering withering point-by-point theological critiques, but rather with winsome alternative visions of world. What was at issue here was the way the Pharisees imagined God and Israel’s future, and our imaginations — including our theological imaginations — are shaped far more profoundly by art, literature, and music than they are by discursive argument.
And so Jesus asks them probing rhetorical questions and tells them compelling parabolic stories. He tells them stories of a lost but cherished coin, a wandering sheep, and a wayward son. He suggests through his tales and his tell-tale table fellowship that the lost are not lost causes, that sinners’ vices do not diminish their value, and that God’s rescue of Israel would not come in spite of the lost but precisely in and through the finding them. Jesus narrates and embodies an alternative vision of God and of God’s purposes. “This, this is who God is and what God is about,” says Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, may we be a provocative people, living in such a way as to raise the big questions of who God is and of what life is all about. May we be a questioning, story-telling people, subverting the misperceptions which govern our world. May we be an all-embracing people, seeking and saving the lost, and rejoicing over each one that is found.