22 November 2021

The Lost Sheep and Lost Coin Story.

Luke 15.1-10.

Jesus loves sinners. Not just because he loves everybody without discrimination, because God is love, but because he knows the most effective way of getting a sinner to repent is by loving ’em. Show them grace, and they respond with gratitude. Unless of course they’re entitled jerks who think of course they deserve God’s kingdom… like we see in a lot of Christians nowadays, and like we see in the scriptures whenever Pharisees have a problem with Jesus being too liberal with people who deserve hate, scorn, and explusion.

In the gospels, two groups tend to be singled out for Pharisee ire: Taxmen, who were natives of the Galilee and Judea who worked for and with the occupying Romans, and were considered sellouts and traitors and unclean apostates; and “sinners,” by which Pharisees meant irreligious people.

For some reason people tend to naïvely assume everybody in ancient or medieval times was religious. Every Egyptian believed in the Egyptian gods, or every Israelite believed in either the LORD or one of the Baals, or every Roman believed in the Greco-Roman gods, or every medieval European was Catholic or Pagan or, later, Protestant. Nope. Same as now, lots of people consider religion to be unimportant or irrelevant, or were even nontheist—but kept these feelings to themselves, ’cause it’d get ’em in trouble with the religious majority. Even in countries with freedom of religion, people who believe in nothing try to stay under the radar. Just look at all the hypocrites in the Bible Belt, who claim they’re good Christians but vote like racists and social Darwinists and greedy Mammonists.

So when Jesus hung out with taxmen and sinners, it really triggered ’em. “What’s the rabbi doing with pagans? Why’s he going to their homes? Why’s he eating with them? You know they don’t follow our exacting standards for ritual cleanliness; he could be eating bacon for all we know! In fact I’ve never seen him wash his hands…” And so on.

For them, Jesus had two parables. Same punchline, ’cause they’re about the same thing. I don’t know whether in real life he actually told them one right after the other like this, or whether Luke just bunched ’em together in his gospel for convenience. Only literalists think it matters; it does not.

Luke 15.1-10 KWL
1 All the taxmen and sinners were coming near Jesus to hear him,
2 and some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling, saying this:
“This one befriends sinners. And eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable, saying,
4 “Any person among you have 100 sheep,
and upon losing one of them,
don’t leave the 99 in the middle of nowhere,
and go after the lost one till you find it?
5 One places the found sheep on one’s shoulders, rejoicing,
6 coming into the house together with friends and neighbors,
telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I found my lost sheep!’
7 I tell you this is like the joy in the heavens over one repentant sinner,
rather than over 99 righteous people who didn’t have any need of repentance.
8 “Or some woman who has 10 drachmas, when she loses one drachma.
Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house,
and carefully seek till she finds it?
9 On finding it, she gathers her friends and neighbors,
saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I found my lost drachma!’
10 I tell you this is like the joy found among God’s angels
over one repentant sinner.”

Losing valuable things.

Jesus is telling the same story twice, but there is a contrast between them. One’s of a relatively wealthy person, and one’s of a poor person.

Back then people didn’t measure their wealth in money, but in land and property. Particularly in animals. Y’notice in Job, when the book describes how rich he was, it says nothing about how many boxes of gold he had buried in his field: It measured his wealth in animals. Job had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 cows, 500 donkeys, and this is what made him the wealthiest person in the middle east. Jb 1.3 Which he lost—and God later restored his fortune with literally twice the animals. Jb 42.12 Still, owning 11,500 animals made you the ancient equivalent of a billionaire.

Owning 100 sheep didn’t therefore make you like a millionaire. But it did mean you weren’t considered poor. That’s a lot of animals! That’s a lot of wool, a lot of milk, and when they were fertile, eventually a lot of baby sheep.

Also a lot for one person to watch. People can lose their minds just watching 30 children, and sheep are much dumber than children. But people might steal them, predators might eat ’em, and sheep need rescuing from time to time. You’d need help managing a flock that size.

Okay. So in this story Jesus talks about losing one sheep in a hundred. And someone with 100 sheep can easily afford to lose one sheep. Heck, the realistic shepherds might even expect to lose a sheep here and there. Every business has its losses. But that’s seldom how responsible business people think: Inventory shrinkage always needs to be diagnosed and stopped before it grows. If you lose a hundredth of your inventory, that’s too much, and not acceptable. You go find that inventory.

And they would. Shepherds would find a relatively safe place for their sheep to graze (and sometimes have another shepherd watch them—if they could even find one) and go find the stragglers. Did they get stuck? Get killed or injured? Either way they needed to find that sheep. Which is why Jesus pointed out, “Any person among you having 100 sheep don’t leave the 99 to go find it?” Of course they did.

Nowadays Christians like to make a great big deal of the fact God, who’s like this shepherd, would leave the 99 to go find lost sinners. Because he cares so much about us. But that’s not as unique as we like to put it. The aberration is a shepherd who wouldn’t go rescue the stragglers. Who’d figure, “Meh, I still have 99.” That’s a shepherd who sucks at his job, and will eventually have no sheep at all. Yeah he can afford to lose one sheep, but he knows better than to be complacent about it.

Now for the contrast: A woman with 10 coins, who loses one.

A drachma is the ancient Greek dollar, which was usually 4⅓ grams of silver, or 0.15 ounces American. Worth $3.38 in today’s money, but ancient money’s value fluctuated wildly, and sometimes it could purchase way more than we can get for $3.38. Regardless, in Jesus’s story the woman had just 10 of these coins… which means she’s poor, this $33.80 is all the cash she has, and she can’t afford to lose one. No wonder she sweeps the house for it. No wonder she shouts out to her neighbors in joy when she finds it.

A sheep is worth 60 drachme or more, and the difference between the shepherd’s wealth and the woman’s is pretty large. But either way, when they lose something valuable and find it again, they rejoice.

Same as when God rejoices because one of his wayward kids repents.

Eating with sinners.

Pharisees considered themselves holy, and therefore figured they just couldn’t do as anyone else did. Certainly not as pagans and “sinners” did. So you couldn’t hang out with them lest you found yourself doing as they did… and ritually defiling yourself, intentionally or not.

Christians get that way too, and tend to use the excuse, “We gotta “avoid even the appearance of evil. People might assume we do the same things they do.”

Well that all depends on your character and your reputation. Do people know you well enough to know you wouldn’t do such things? Or do they believe you’re a giant hypocrite, who totally would when nobody’s looking?

People who knew Jesus, knew he wouldn’t sin. Jn 8.46 Didn’t matter who he hung out with. Didn’t matter who he ate with. He could go to an orgy and be the only one there sipping wine while everyone else is in the smush pile, and you know he wouldn’t join in; it’d never even cross his mind. That’s who he is.

That’s also who we have to be. No, I’m not saying we should therefore go to orgies; eww. It’s just a worst-case-scenario example. But if our friends ever heard a rumor we went to one, they should know us well enough to know we went there for any other reason than to join in. “Well she must’ve been there to rescue someone.” Exactly. ’Cause that’s why Jesus would go.

But if you’re a hypocrite, you can’t risk doing any such thing. Because people know you well enough to know you’d totally partake if you had the chance. Because people know you have a character made of balsa wood, and your “holiness” isn’t real enough to carry you through tempting situations. And those Christians who brag their character is totally strong enough, and they can go anywhere and never be tempted, same as Jesus… are totally lying, and are a danger to weaker Christians who really shouldn’t take such risks.

But back to Jesus’s point: The people at these dinner parties he attended were lost. Knew they were lost, and weren’t pretending they weren’t; it’s why they had the rabbi over. And Jesus was probably the only rabbi who responded to their invitations! They had questions; he has answers. They wanted to repent, like Zacchaeus in another story, Lk 19.1-10 and Jesus gave ’em a chance where Pharisees never would. His holiness was not weaponized as an excuse to be a snob. Jesus did come to seek and save the lost, after all.

Because while these Pharisees didn’t consider taxmen and sinners valuable, God does. He wants ’em to repent and become his children. That offer still stands. Take it.

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