Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
And so Jesus told them a joke …
Jesus told them a series of jokes actually, didn’t he – three jokes in succession in fact. It was something of a stand-up routine!
I don’t know how you envisage the scene that’s given to us in Luke chapter 15. It’s not exactly Jerry Seinfeld, is it – ‘did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep?’ I assume that it doesn’t take place in a club. I envisage this scene taking place in a tavern or something like that.
I suspect that most of us think of Jesus’ dialogues as taking place in remote rural locations, and that’s possible here. Certainly the one about the sheep has a rural theme, and it’s possible that there are sheep grazing within view of where Jesus was speaking. Even so, the only clues the passage gives us as to the location are, firstly, that “all the tax-collectors and sinners (read sex-workers, drug-dealers, traitors and criminals) were coming near to listen to Him” (Luke 15:1), which suggests to me that Jesus is somewhere near where they were working, and secondly, that the upright religious folk were grumbling because Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (Luke 15:2), which suggests that they were somewhere where food was being served. I’m guessing some first-century equivalent of a tavern.
Of course it’s possible that they are at a private house. We know that Jesus was regularly entertained by both prominent local identities and by the families of His disciples. Even so, if it were a private house, one might wonder who let all the tax-collectors and sinners in! No. I think we’re dealing with an establishment where whoever is working the door is not particularly discriminatory with regards to who they let in, and so we have sinners and tax-collectors, along with scribes and Pharisees, all sharing the same uncomfortable space, though I envisage the two groups sitting at opposite ends of the bar!
Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep? Jesus begins. This shepherd lost one of his one hundred sheep and then left the ninety-nine in the wilderness while he went after the one that was lost until he found it! (Luke 15:3-4)
Of course nobody has heard about this shepherd because this shepherd doesn’t exist, or, at least, if there were shepherds like this they wouldn’t be shepherds for very long. You don’t leave the ninety-nine ‘in the wilderness’ (Luke 15:4) where they are likely to be consumed as mutton by the next passing wolf while you search for the one that is lost. If you have any basic shepherding sense, your response to a situation like this is simply to deduct one from your inventory of sheep!
Of course it’s a joke, and we’re not expected to take the shepherd too seriously. And indeed, the character of the shepherd looks even more absurd when you put the joke in context, where the lost sheep Jesus is referring to are the social misfits hanging about at the wrong end of the bar!
We have a children’s book at home that has an illustrated version of the lost sheep parable, and it includes lovely drawings of a character dressed like a Bedouin, roaming the sunny slopes of Judea, calling out “Woolly”, until he eventually finds the cute little guy stuck in a thicket.
Putting the parable in context, let’s start by imagining an animal that is entirely feral! Perhaps it has a bad case of the mange? Perhaps that’s why it wandered off from the flock, as animals often instinctively wander off to die alone of their injuries and/or diseases. And let’s envisage the animal biting the shepherd when he tries to rescue it. That’s much closer to my experience when it comes to dealing with lost sheep!
I can’t tell you how many lost sheep I’ve dealt with here in Dulwich Hill in the last twenty-five years, but nearly all of them have turned on me and bitten me at some point. In truth, I find myself getting a bit hard and cynical as I get used to this pattern.
I think of one young man that we worked with for years. It wasn’t just us. There were a team of us working with this lad. We gave him accommodation for an extended period of time. He stayed with my family for a short time. We counselled him, worked with him, went to court with him and stood by him. Eventually he got ‘radicalised’ during one of his stints in prison and last year he was arrested for planning a jihad attack on a civilian population centre. His plan apparently included blowing up the house of one of the families who had been trying to help him!
I appreciate that lost sheep can look very warm and cuddly at a distance, but my experience is that they tend to be quite feral and mangy when you get up close!
“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?” (Luke 15:8)
I confess that I feel far more drawn to the woman in this second joke than to the sheep in the first, primarily because she reminds me of my dear friend, Ruth Paddle.
We lost Ruth many years ago, but I can see her turning her house upside-down, searching for some useless trinket that she’d misplaced somewhere. The problem with dear Ruth was that she was a hoarder. She hoarded so much stuff that she couldn’t sleep on her bed because it had too many boxes of stuff stacked on it, and she couldn’t cook in her kitchen as even her sink was stacked full of things for which there was no space anywhere else!
Ruth used to sleep on a corner of her couch and she’d eat what was delivered to her by ‘Meals on Wheels’. She never overcame her hoarding problem. Even so, she was a godly Christian soul and I loved her dearly.
The point, at any rate, is that this woman Jesus depicts is struggling with an obsessive compulsive disorder or something similar. No fully functional person behaves like this – sweeping house from top to bottom, searching for one stray coin!
Jesus adds that the woman holds a party when she finds her lost coin. I could see Ruth doing the same, though the party would have to be in the church hall as there wouldn’t be room in the house.
Now again, let’s keep in mind the context in which Jesus tells these jokes. Whether it be lost coins or lost sheep, the point of reference are the social misfits who are sharing a meal with Jesus. These are people that civilised societies can do without!
If I might extend the image of the obsessive woman, we might say that these people are the social refuse that we like to sweep under the rug. We generally manage that in our society by putting people in prison. Incarcerating someone is a very effective way of sweeping them out of sight, and out of sight is out of mind!
I don’t want to launch into a crusade against the prison system today, and I do appreciate that there is a lot of good work going on within Correctional Services. Even so, there are deep problems in our system, and the privatisation of our prison system is something I think we should all be concerned about.
From the latest statistics I could find, Australia has the largest percentage of its prisoner population in privately-run prisons of any country in the world! This should concern us.
Whatever else these prisons achieve, the private-prison system is a very efficient way of moving public money into private hands and, of course, the more people incarcerated, the more money made! I can think of any number of kids I’ve worked with over the years who aren’t contributing much to society and, of course, they are worth nothing to the big corporations. Even so, once you put them in prison, they can be generating $30,000 to $40,000 each for these companies that are running the prisons, and will continue to do so for as long as they are kept locked up!
It’s a win-win really. The GEO group and Serco Corp make a killing, and a stack of worthless coins get swept under the carpet and out of sight!
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:11-12)
Now this is where Jesus’ routine gets less funny. As I say, I envisage these jokes being told in some sort of tavern where food is being eaten and where you can hear a hum of activity in the background, with plates being stacked and glasses clinking, along with gentle chuckling as Jesus depicts His zany characters. Even so, at this point the jokes start to get a bit close to the bone, as no doubt many of Jesus’ listeners had had their own family dramas.
All of us who are parents experience dramas of one sort or another with our children, and I’m sure that some of those listening to Jesus –scribes and Pharisees and tax-collectors and sinners alike – had had their struggles with their sons and daughters.
We know how the story goes. The son takes his inheritance, runs off and wastes it all, thus bringing disgrace upon his father and his household, and yet the father never gives up on the son. He waits for him to return, and when he does return …
I don’t doubt that there were people listening to Jesus who were ribbing each other, saying ‘sound familiar, Abe?’, for it is a familiar story. Even if the details of the story don’t exactly fit our stories, the depiction of parental love is something with which we are all familiar, and while, at one level, the behaviour of the lovesick father is as irrational as that of the crazy shepherd and the mentally-ill woman, it’s an insanity that we understand, as we’re all a bit crazy when it comes to our own children!
And that brings us to the heart of the problem. In the end, the problem we have with Jesus, I’d suggest, is not so much why He ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’. Our problem is with how He managed to think of these people as His sons and daughters! It all sounds very light-hearted and whimsical when it’s just a part of a joke, but if you’ve had your own prodigal son or daughter then you know that it is no laughing matter! And if it’s not your son or your daughter, why should you bother?
As I say, I’m getting a bit hard and cynical in my old age, I think, and I’ve found myself getting into arguments lately with my dear colleague, Terry, who manages our bush camp at Binacrombi. I’ve been very critical of Terry lately for the way, from my perspective, he’s let some people we work with walk all over him! People take his time and energy and money, and then they abuse and threaten him, and I’ve been lecturing this brother (who is old enough to be my father), telling him ‘you’re not doing them any favours by letting them walk all over you!’
I’ve personally established quite explicit limits with the people I work with. If someone threatens me physically, or most especially if they threaten my family, I cut them off! If they cross that line I refuse to have anything more to do with them, and I’ve been trying to encourage Terry to take a similar stance. The only problem I have with this is that the more I argue this line, the more I sound like the older brother in Jesus’ final joke, whereas Terry sounds more and more like the loving father!
I mentioned earlier that other young man we worked with who planned to blow up the home of one of the families that was trying to support him. That family hasn’t given up on him but still wants to work with him! Are they insane? Well … was the shepherd, was the woman, was the father?
“Then the father said to [the older brother], ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)
Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on September 11th, 2016