Lost Sheep and Lost Coins


That Jesus of Nazareth consorted with the wicked and outcasts is one of those historical “facts” upon which scholars agree. Not only did he consort with them; but he actively sought their fellowship, freely eating with them without first requiring their repentance and reform, thereby incurring the denunciation of the Pharisees. The Gospel of Mark records Jesus eating with tax collec­tors. When the Pharisees saw this they asked his disciples, “Does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). Upon hearing this Jesus responds: “Those who are strong have no need of a physician, but rather those who are ill; I came to call not the upright but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus succinctly summarizes his mission: “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 25:24). As the respected biblical scholar E. P. Sanders writes:

The one distinctive note which we may be certain marked Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom is that it would include the ‘sinners’. . . . The promise of salvation to sinners is the undeniably distinctive characteristic of Jesus’ message.”1

The significance and offense of Jesus’ table fellowship with the wicked is made clear in his interaction with Zacchaeus:

And, having entered Jericho, he was passing through, And look: a man called by the name of Zacchaeus, and he was a chief tax-collector, and he was wealthy; He wished to see “Who Jesus is,” and was not able on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. And having run ahead he climbed up into a sycamore tree so that he might see him, because he was just about to pass by there. And Jesus, as he came to the place, looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, be quick, come down, for it is necessary for me to stay in your house today.” And, making haste, he descended and wel­comed him with joy. And seeing this everyone murmured, saying that “He went in to lodge with a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7)

To be invited by Jesus to dine with him is to be unconditionally admitted into his Kingdom—no ifs, ands, or buts. The messianic banquet has broken into history. The feast has been prepared, the table is laid, the music is playing, the wine is flowing plentifully, already the guests are laughing and singing. Perhaps there will even be dancing.

Table-fellowship has loomed large in recent discussion of Jesus. His eating with tax collectors and sinners has, probably correctly, been seen as a pro­leptic indication that they would be included in the kingdom: the meal looks forward to the ‘messianic banquet’, when many would come from east and west and dine with the patriarchs (Matt. 8.11). Several parables tell us that the kingdom is like a banquet, to which many are called. And, most telling­ly, before his death Jesus looked forward to drinking the fruit of the vine in the kingdom of God (Mark 14.25//Matt. 26.29//Luke 22.18). Thus it would appear that Jesus’ eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ promised, as clearly as words, that they would inherit the kingdom; and thus it is likely that Jesus saw his eating with tax collectors and sinners as promising membership in the coming kingdom. . . . It seems to be the case . . . that Jesus offered the truly wicked—those beyond the pale and outside the com­mon religion by virtue of their implicit or explicit rejection of the com­mand­ments of the God of Israel—admission to his group (and, he claimed the kingdom) if they accepted him.2

Hence the scandal! Not even the rigorous Pharisees would have objected if Jesus were offering salvation upon the condition of repentance; on the contrary, they would have welcomed his preaching and ministry. But here was this Nazarene (who does he think he is‽) promising the Kingdom to the unrepentant.

And this brings us to the Parable of the Lost Sheep:

Now drawing near to him to listen to him were all the tax-collectors and sinners. And both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured a great deal, saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And he spoke this parable to them, saying, “What man among you, owning a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that has been lost until he finds it? And finding it he joyfully places it on his shoulders, And entering the house he calls his friends and neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Re­joice with me, because I found my sheep that had been lost.’ I tell you that such will the joy be in heaven over one sinner changing his heart, more than over ninety-nine upright men having no need of a change of heart. (Luke 15:1-7)

Robert Capon observes that the decision of the shepherd to abandon his flock to search for one lost sheep is just bad shepherding:

This parable can hardly be interpreted as a helpful hint for running a successful sheep-ranching business. The most likely result of going off in pursuit of one lost sheep will only be ninety-nine more lost sheep. Accord­ingly, I think it best to assume that Jesus is parabolically thumping the tub for the saving paradox of lostness. He implies, it seems to me, that even if all one hundred sheep should get lost, it will not be a problem for this bizarrely Good Shepherd because he is first and foremost in the business of finding the lost, not of making a messianic buck off the unstrayed. Give him a world with a hundred out of every hundred souls lost—give him, in other words, the worldful of losers that is the only real world we have—and it will do just fine: lostness is exactly his cup of tea. (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 185)

Such is the exuberance of Christ to save all who have fallen into darkness and evil. He is willing, apparently, to risk the all to save the one and thus save the all. “For the Son of Man has come to save the lost” (Matt 18:11).

The point, of course, is that the shepherd refuses to abandon the one lost sheep. He will search for it; he will find it; he will bring it home. He does not ask its permission. He does not ask our permission. He simply shoulders the sheep and restores it to the fold. As the Lord states in the Matthean parallel: “So it is not a desire that occurs to your Father in the heavens that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt 18:14). God will save all!

Jesus reinforces the reckless relentlessness of divine grace in his Parable of the Lost Coin:

Or what woman possessing ten drach­mas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek dili­gent­ly till she finds it? And find­ing it she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Re­joice with me, be­cause I found the drachma that I lost.’ Thus, I tell you, there is joy in the pres­ence of God’s angels over one sinner changing his heart.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Once again, God drops everything to search for the one lost soul. But what about contri­tion, repen­tance, conversion, restitution? we always ask. Sure­ly these are minimal precondi­tions for reconciliation with our Father. The question of repent­ance nags our conscience, yet neither sheep nor coin possess the capacity. They are simply found and restored.

It is usual, when expounding the word metanoeein (repent), to go about the job etymologically. Since the word is a compound of meta (after) and noeein (think), its root meaning is to change one’s mind or, better said, to change one’s heart about one’s sins. That approach, however, does not serve well here. Neither the lost coin nor the lost sheep was capable of any repentance at all. The entire cause of the recovery operation in both stories is the shep­herd’s, or the woman’s, determination to find the lost. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin does a blessed thing except hang around in its lostness. On the strength of this parable, therefore, it is precisely our sins, and not our goodnesses, that most commend us to the grace of God. (p. 186)

Capon urges us to keep our eye on the parabolic ball. God seeks the lost. Our repentance is not at issue here, contrary to moralistic interpretations. Christ searches, Christ finds, Christ restores—this is the evangelical assertion. And it leads Capon to his provocative interpre­tation: to be lost is to be dead. A dead person is incapable of repentance, alter­ation, self-improvement, or anything else. The dead are . . . dead. They cannot save them­selves; they must be found and raised into life!

Hence if in our interpretations we harp on the necessity of a change of heart—if we badger ourselves with the dismal notion that sinners must first forsake their sins before God will forgive them, that the lost must somehow find itself before the finder will get up off his backside and look for it—we carry ourselves straight away from the obvious sense of both stories. And since that violates not only the parables but also Rom. 5:8 (“while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”), I propose to take a different tack alto­geth­er and to look not at etymologies but simply at the stories as Jesus tells them.

Consider the following propositions, all of which I think are true. A lost sheep is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep; a lost coin is likewise a dead asset. In addition (if I may look forward a bit to the parables of the Unfor­giv­ing Servant and of the Prodigal Son), a debtor about to be fore­closed on is a dead duck and a son who has blown his inheritance is a deadbeat. These parables of lostness, therefore, are far from being exhorta­tions to repent­ance. They are emphatically not stories designed to convince us that if we will wind ourselves up to some acceptable level of moral and/or spiritual improvement, God will then forgive us; rather they are parables about God’s determination to move before we do—in short, to make lostness and death the only tickets we need to the Supper of the Lamb. In all of them, it is precisely the lost (and thus the dead) who come to the party; in none of them is any of the unlost (and thus the living) in on the festivities. More than that, in none of these parables is anything (except the will of God) portrayed as necessary to the new life in joy. Neither the lost­ness, nor the deadness, nor the repentance is in itself redemptive; God alone gives life, and he gives it freely and fully on no conditions whatso­ever. These stories, therefore, are parables of grace and grace only. There is in them not one single note of earning or merit, not one breath about reward­ing the rewardable, correcting the correctible, or improving the improva­ble. There is only the gracious, saving determination of the shep­herd, the woman, the king, and the father—all surrogates for God—to raise the dead. (pp. 186-187)

It’s all about Pascha!

 

Footnotes

[1] E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985), p. 174.

[2] Ibid., p. 209-210. Also see E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), pp. 230-237.

(Go to “Mathematics of Forgiveness”)

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12 Responses to Lost Sheep and Lost Coins

  1. TJF says:

    How does one square this with matthew 3:2? I don’t know the Greek so perhaps I’m missing something. I would also point out that the prodigal son did have a change of heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The question you raise will be raised again and again as we work our way through the parables of grace. So my first response is to invite your patience. Read through each parable and test Capon’s exegesis. You may (or not) find that it becomes more persuasive as you wrestle both with the parables and with Capon’s arguments. In either case, your understanding Christ will be deepened.

      Matthew 3:2 (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) raises the interesting question regarding both similarities and differences between St John the Baptist’s preaching and Jesus’ preaching. Consider, e.g., this critical difference: John is still looking toward the future and the coming Kingdom, but in Jesus the Kingdom has, in some real sense, arrived and is present in Jesus’ words and actions. This alone compels a change in the meaning of repentance. What does it mean to summon to repentance when there’s no more time to repent?

      Regardless, neither Sanders nor Capon is denying the theme of repentance in Jesus’ teaching, but they are reinterpreting it in light of Father’s unconditional love and grace as taught by Jesus (so they believe).

      So hang in there and let’s see how matters develop in the posts ahead. And I’ll be sure to keep your question in mind as I read Capon.

      Liked by 3 people

      • TJF says:

        I will be circumspect.

        Like

        • Derek says:

          A couple insights that I can take no credit for:
          1) the Greek word translated as “lost” throughout Luke 15 is ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi), which typically means “to destroy/perish” (the very same word used in Matthew 10:28 – “fear the One who can ἀπολέσαι both body and soul in Gehenna”). This lends weight to Capon’s line of thought, but has some interesting connotations for Matt. 10:28 as well (God goes searching to restore the one who has perished).

          2) The Father does, in fact, go searching for the Lost son… at the end. The self-righteous older brother who is weeping and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness, the Father seeks and finds.

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    • jesslederman17 says:

      It’s not at all clear to me the prodigal son had a change of heart; he’s simply desperate, and any position at home will be better than the pig sty. He’s got a speech prepared to deliver to his dad; but Dad has no interest in hearing what will likely be BS. If the change of heart were important, the Father would have been all ears. But it’s not; the Father simply welcomes his lost son back into his arms.
      One might challenge this by asking, if that’s the case, why didn’t the Father go out and search for him, like the shepherd after the lost sheep? Because he had to have hit bottom first. He had to be utterly lost before he could be found.

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      • brian says:

        Jess, I think one can consider the Prodigal’s introspection as a kind of twilight to repentence. On the one hand, he makes a purely prudential calculation based on mundane criteria. On the other, he places himself on the path where the Father’s never ending love may be tangibly encountered. One might further speculate that the wandering lostness of the Prodigal opens him up to greater intimacy, whilst the Elder son lives out a kind of rote obedience that results in bitter sclerosis of soul. Yet one has to read the parable very carefully to discern the mystery of triune life which is the implied message of the kingdom. The Eldest Son still thinks in terms of finite realities, the either/or of individual merit and utterly distinct goods. In this life, only one fella gets the girl. But the wedding feast of the kingdom is radically different, living out the generosity of eternal plenitude. The Father, in telling the Eldest Son that the entirety of the kingdom is his inheritance desires has angry boy to pair this statement with joy at the recovery of his brother into the realm of explicit familial love. The point is that the kingdom flourishes as the ever greater participation of persons who are ontologically constituted by relations. The first Son’s share is increased, not divided when the Prodigal returns. (And that is the “repentance” — knowing in the Spirit — that is most required to grasp the scope of the gospel.)

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Calvin says:

    Mmmm… then why the constant repititions of “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” and “Unless you repent, you shall likewise perish.”? Indeed, the whole reason given for eating with sinners is that he means to call them to repentence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I would say that the story of Zacchaeus best demonstrates what is actually going on here. Zacchaeus is a sinner; Jesus invites himself to dinner and, following this, Zacchaeus repents of his sinful ways. Zacchaeus is forgiven first, and invited into table-fellowship with God, and it is as a consequence of that forgiveness and table-fellowship and knowing that he us not rejected but sought after by God that he repents. That’s the controversial bit: the usual model was other way around, to offer forgiveness only as a reward for, and subsequent to, repentance.

      Liked by 2 people

      • dep says:

        Forgiveness is already There. It isn’t transactional–be really really sorry for your sins, obey the commandments and God will forgive, hopefully.
        Turning to, trusting in Christ who brings in himself the kingdom of forgiveness, life, and salvation is itself repentance.

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  3. Danny Klopovic says:

    So how does the open commensality (John D. Crossan) of Jesus comport with the practice of closed communion advocated by most Christian communities with respect to the Eucharist? Is there not a contradiction here?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question! An answer would require us to identify the differences between Jesus’ unique prophetic ministry to Israel and the Pentecostal creation of the Church as a worldwide missionary community. The Eucharist is not identical to Jesus’ table fellowship.

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