Have you ever thought that some of those pictures of Jesus with a sheep in his arms are kind of sicky-sweet? How many children were taught this fairy tale version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15:1-10? At best we read this parable at the level of the obvious as a commandment to rescue drug addicts, homeless people, and teenagers at risk. Without a doubt, caring for the homeless is important. On the other hand, if its that simple, then why, in a so-called Christian society, are there so many homeless people in the streets, people without jobs, without health insurance, high school drop-outs without hope for the future?
To begin with, we are reading the parable at a surface level as a sort of ethical imperative. When Jesus eats with sinners, this activity alone is not the cure; it is the result of a far more profound and dynamic action. Taken simply at a surface level, we will dismiss it too readily and move on. Without realizing it we may end up just as clueless and thick skinned as the Pharisees. We are left making excuses: “After all those problems are too complex to solve; we are doing the best we can, but we can’t possibly get to the root of the problems…”
In fact scholars agree that Jesus’ parables are full of ironic twists and slights of hand, which are unprecendented in their sophistication and artistry: imagine Chris Rock, Colbert Report and Robin Williams all wrapped up into one. Jesus rarely states the obvious without a trick up his sleeve. He directs his critiques of the status quo not just at the educated and elite but at everyone who hears or reads it. For he, like the best comedians, knows that our senses are so dulled that nothing but an ingenious wit will awaken our imagination.
So what is Jesus really up to? Or Colbert for that matter?
Without engaging in violent language, that which always condemns the opponent, Jesus seeks to expose and transform the violence hidden at the basis of Israel’s political and religious systems. Jesus works not just through direct action, but first and foremost at the level of meaning: shedding light on all the unspoken cultural assumptions which structure our collective life.
Listeners at the time would have recognized some obvious jabs at some of their most ancient and revered rituals. But like someone two thousand years from now trying to understand the Daily Show, we miss the cues. However, if we compare the Parable of the Lost Sheep to Leviticus 16:7-26, which describes the institution of Israel’s sacrificial rituals, we get a look at what the parable is targeting.
In Leviticus God commands Aaron to confess all the iniquities, all the transgressions, all the sins of the people of Israel over the head of a live goat. With his hands on the head of the goat he is to transfer all the sins onto the goat and then send it out into the wilderness to Azael (a demon).
Israel’s society, and they are hardly unique in this, had become dependent on scapegoating. Over the centuries it had developed rituals, social practices, bureaucracies, an entire Temple apparatus, which institutionalized this practice.
In his parable Jesus chooses a lost sheep instead of a goat, thus connecting the goat in Leviticus to the sheep slaughtered in the Temple. In this version of the parable Luke has intentionally chosen a different word. In Matthew, the writer is concerned with “little ones” in the community going astray (Ringe, Luke, 204). Luke has chosen the Greek word for destroy, to put away, to kill, to abolish.
ἀπόλλυμι appollymi ( ä-po’l-lü-mē )
1) to destroy
a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin
b) render useless
c) to kill
d) to declare that one must be put to death
e) metaph. to devote or give over to eternal misery in hell
f) to perish, to be lost, ruined, destroyed
2) to destroy
a) to lose
In this parable alone the verb appears five times in verses 4,6,8,9. In the Gospel of Luke it appears 31 times. What does the definition sound like? Is it just about misplacing a valuable item or losing track of a sheep? This is distinctly sacrificial language, which draws attention to those excluded by the Temple system.
Therefore when Jesus leaves behind the rest of the sheep and goes into the wilderness to find the one that is lost, he is performing the reverse action of the scapegoating ritual (see Serres excerpt).
Next Jesus refers to a lost coin, and explicitly states that it is one out of ten, a direct reference to the tithe, the traditional temple tax of 10%. Those unable to pay, especially women, were excluded from the Temple and marginalized. This, however, is only part of what Jesus is getting at. Notice that Luke again uses the word “to destroy”. The tithe was originally formulated as a substitute for the sacrifice of the firstborn. The woman who lost her coin, did not let centuries of Temple bureaucracy get in the way. In contrast to the denial of the community which scapegoats, she immediately understood that something valuable was to be irretrievably lost.
The reason we are unable to find the coin, is that like Aaron laying the sins of the community on the head of the goat, we all too often fault the excluded for bringing their fate upon themselves. At the very least, we excuse ourselves from responsibility by claiming the problems which create outcasts are too entrenched to sort out. The widow however, had the clarity of vision to understand that the house, which in Jesus’ brilliant ironic style, represents the Temple, had become too messy, so she simply swept the obstacles out the door, all the layers of ritual and bureaucracy, and was able to find the coin. Her action actually shines a light on our obtuseness in response to the parable of the lost sheep.
The result of this activity is to bring people together to rejoice. Instead of a celebration in the temple around the slaughter of sacrificial victims, we have a celebration in response to the opposite scenario in which Jesus restores the sacrificial victim to the community. He does this not only by going out and bringing the lost sheep back into the Temple, he sweeps away all the institutionalized scapegoating which leads to their marginalization in the first place. Jesus exposes the injustice of labeling some people expendable. When he goes into the desert to find the scapegoat he deprives us of the mechanism, which is only ever effective if it is hidden or denied. In doing so he leaves all the rest of us in the wilderness, not to condemn us, but so that we’ll finally have to take responsibility for our sins.
Indeed heaven rejoices when the sinners, which were labeled as such not by God, but by the sacrificial system, have been redeemed. Jesus says, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repentance is better than the righteousness of the Pharisees, which secures salvation at the expense of the weak (see Bailie excerpt). Neither does it take the form of self-condemnation.
μετανοέω (Greek) metanoeō (me-tä-no-e’-ō)
1) to change one’s mind, i.e. to repent
2) to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins
On the contrary, the ultimate victory comes when that person who has been unjustly designated as the scapegoat, upon whose heads the sins of the community were laid, is able themselves to reject that designation and reclaim their full humanity and their place in the human community.