Flinders, looking south to Wilpena Pound November 2014

Eating in the Wilderness

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Gospel: Luke 15

15:1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 (εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων)  So he told Literally: then he said to them this parable saying: 4‘Which one of you, having - ἔχων a hundred sheep and losing - ἀπολέσας one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness - τῇ ἐρήμῳ (cf Exodus 16:3 τῇν ἐρήov in the Septuagint) and go after the one that is lost - ἀπολωλὸς  until he finds it? 5When he has found - εὑρὼν it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice - Συγχάρητέ with me, for I have found - εὗρον my sheep that was lost. - ἀπολωλός” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy - χαρὰ in heaven over one sinner who repents - μετανοοῦντι than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance - μετανοίας.

8 ‘Or what woman having - ἔχουσα ten silver coins, if she loses - ἀπολέσῃ one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds - εὕρῃ  it? 9When she has found -  εὑροῦσα it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice - Συγχάρητέ with me, for I have found - εὗρον the coin that I had lost. - ἀπώλεσα” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy - χαρὰ in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents - μετανοοῦντι.’

11 (Εἶπεν δέ · Ἄνθρωπός τις εἶχεν δύο υἱούς.)  Then he said, ‘There was a man who had - εἶχεν two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with* the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”* 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate - εὐφρανθῶμεν; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again - ὁ υἱός μου νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν; he was lost - ἀπολωλς and is found - εὑρέθη!” And they began to celebrate - εὐφραίνεσθαι.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate - εὐφρανθῆναι  and rejoice - χαρῆναι, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life - ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν; he was lost - ἀπολωλὼς and has been found. - εὑρέθη” ’

 

Eating in the Wilderness

The wider context
Luke 15, as a chapter, continues themes based around meals and banquets, around who is acceptable to synagogue (13:10ff) and society, and around who will refuse to come to feasts. In Chapter 14 it is made clear (vv15-24) that none of those who were invited came to a feast; there was jockeying (vv7-11) over the places of honour at another meal, where Jesus was watched closely in the Pharisee's house; it is not unlikely he was invited mostly to see how he would react towards a sick man on the Sabbath. (14:1)

Chapter 15 also begins with meals, but meals of which proper society disapproved. Jesus seems quite at home at these meals. And it ends with a celebratory banquet where an invited one, of whom the host says, "all that is mine is yours," refuses to attend, at least initially. Like many of his village, perhaps, he found the celebration quite improper. The story leaves us to imagine what he chose to do.

 

The Lectionary selection from Luke 15 for this week is problematic. The last part of the chapter is read in Lent, although it is obviously written to be heard (and contrasted) with the beginning of the chapter. This separation does violence to Luke's message which is woven from three stories within the chapter (although, of course, he was not thinking of chapters.)

We can see the connections begin in the Greek of verse 3 which begins as a response to the Pharisee's criticism of Jesus' feasting with sinners. The verse begins with: "then he said." In this section he tells two similar and brief stories. He then tells a longer story beginning in verse 11, and in the Greek we can see that this longer story has the same beginning words as verse 3:  Εἶπεν δέ; that is, "then he said." We are meant to see that stories one and two are linked to story three, and they are both an answer to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisess. This linkage is made undeniable by a repetition of words and phrases across the three sections of the text, which NRSV does very well to reflect. I list them below.

Have: (had) in verses 4, 8, 11, regarding sheep, coin and son. The key players are a shepherd, a woman, and a father.

Lost:  Repeated twice in verse 4 for emphasis regarding the sheep; then in verse 8 and 9, repeated for emphasis regarding the coin; then in verse 23, and repeated in verse 32, for emphasis concerning the son.

Found: Repeated in 5 and 6 for the sheep, and 3 times for the coin 8, and 9 (twice). Notice that the woman is already at home so that Luke does not need "when she comes home" and so repeats "find" to balance that. In the case of the father, his the son is found twice. 

The Community: The shepherd "calls together his friends and neighbours," and the woman "calls together her friends and neighbours," and this seems, at first, to be absent in the parable of the father. The father gets the servants to set up the feast, but the guests are assumed, and unnamed; instead, the older brother hears music and dancing. When the father goes to his "friends and neighbours," he goes to... the elder son, who is not able to see his father as his friend and neighbour!

Repents: Significantly, the pattern is broken with this word.  In the story of the shepherd, verse 7 has the root μετάνοια (metanoia) twice, for those who repent, and for those "who need no repentance." The woman's story has the word once in verse 10. In these stories, there is "joy in heaven" and "joy in the presence of the angels of God" "over one sinner who repents."

The word repent is completely absent from the Father's story. It is not clear that the son does repent! He comes home, but as many commentators note, there is something calculating and perhaps even less than honest, about his approach to his father. We do not even know if he repents in the end. "We never find out if the younger son was genuine or not!"  Someone comments on Arland J. Hultgren's post at Working Preacher

As Alan Jones puts it: Christ counted no one for whom he died to be unworthy of his suffering. That's really grace. After all, who of us does not turn to the Father out of the same motives as the younger son? Do we not first turn to save our "lives?" The amazing thing is that our lives are given abundance--and that's what enables us to repent.

In contrast

Although we say God is a God of love, we tend to make that love conditional. It is conditional on our repentance; it depends on our keeping the rules, rules which are too often somewhat arbitrary habits that support our local prejudices. We use the rules to bolster our own status and position.

That quotation is from my post of 2013, where I say "Luke is pointing us toward a fundamental mind shift in our understanding of God." There is a movement, a progression, in the understanding of repentance. Even if we repent no more than a sheep or a coin (neither of which can repent,) and even if we are more calculating than repentant, God's love still seeks us out, waits for us, and runs to us in welcome.  

Rejoice: (and joy) Despite the calculating nature of the younger son, there is rejoicing in each story. The shepherd's story has the word twice (verses 6 and 7, the root Greek word is χαρὰ  - chara; the woman's story has the identical words for joy and rejoice in verses 9 and 10, but the χαρὰ  root for joy is only present once (vv32) in the story of the father, but not because the joy is diminished. "Rejoice" in verse 32 makes sure that we understand that the pattern across the three stories continues, and is amplified. For in this story, we celebrate (24, 24 and 32) three times.  And why not, for not only is the lost found, (repeated twice) but…

(Dead and alive:)  … "this son of mine was dead and is alive again." And here is the closing point: this brother of yours was dead and has come to life." We might note that the older son does not even consider the younger son as a brother; he calls him "this son of yours." In saying this brother of yours, the father is correcting the older brother— directly contradicting him, and in this Jesus is correcting the Pharisees and scribes way back in verse 1. Even this younger son is your brother.

All this so far, is to say we surely do violence to the text if we do not read the three stories together.

 

The third story is the Parable of the Father, not the Parable of Prodigal Son
Eric D  Barreto says,

If the pattern of the first two stories holds, the father is the main character of the [third story], not the prodigal. This is not the story of a lost son but [the story of] a father who never ceases loving his ungrateful child. It is he who searches and yearns for his son’s return.

Perhaps our problem is that we make the story about us, put ourselves at the centre, and therefore think we are worth more than those who have not yet come back. Which means we miss that God loved us before we repented, and waited for us before we repented. Or worse still, we make the story about others, mightily minimising or even forgetting that we, too, are sinners.

 

The Shepherd
The Shepherd leaves the flock unattended in the wilderness, which seems to be the most ridiculous thing to do, risking the loss of all his sheep! What does that say about the love of God for those who are lost?

 

The Woman
Women get a place here. The story of the woman echoes the story of the shepherd. And she stands as an illustration of God's persistence in seeking us when we are lost. But Luke is no 21st century feminist. The story is shorter; it takes place in the home. She is dealing with 10 drachma (about the same as a denarius, a day's pay for a labourer) while the shepherd has 100 sheep, which is a sizable flock. The Shepherd and the Father do outrageous things; the Woman does only as you would expect. Of course you would search for the coin. To vary some words from Jesus elsewhere in Luke, the woman has been given the lesser part. (cf 10.42)

 

What would normally have happened to the younger brother?
Alyce McKenzie explains:

The younger son could expect that the townspeople would conduct a gesasah1 ceremony on his return. This is not a reception in the fellowship hall with a "Welcome Home" banner and a sheet cake. This is a ceremony for a son of the village who had lost his money to Gentiles or married an immoral woman. They would gather around him, breaking jars with corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village. His entry into the village would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions (Stiller, 111)...

 

The Father
The father, however, welcomes home and honours one who should be shunned. Indeed, some suggest that

the father, scandalously, hikes up his robes and runs to the gate to get to his son before the townspeople do to prevent them from shaming him in the act of gesasah. (Here)

The father risks his farm (as opposed to the shepherd risking his flock) by inviting upon himself the shaming and exclusion that propriety demanded be visited upon the son. Instead, he honours his scandalous son: "He offers him a kiss (a sign of forgiveness, 2 Sam. 14:33), a robe (a mark of distinction), a signet ring (a sign of authority), and shoes (worn only by freemen)." Alyce McKenzie

 

The Nature of Community
99 and 9 are numbers which fall short of the perfect 100 or 10. They are symbols of incompleteness. There is also an incompleteness in the Father's house. It is linked to disapproval.

And it's the elder son who makes his disapproval, and his distance, plain. "This son of yours…" is not only a distancing from his brother, but also a distancing from his father. The elder brother is estranged not only from his brother, but also from his father, ]and clearly disapproves of him.] Do you notice that both sons are outside the house on the day the young one comes home? It's the older one who can't come in. (Andrew Prior)

In the case of the banquet of Luke 14, the excuses of those who declined to come are also statements of disapproval, and they are linked to status and exclusion. Malina and Rohrbaugh say

The refusal of those first invited to the great banquet (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:18-21) is similarly a statement of social exclusivism among the elite, while the invitations in those stories to the "poor, crippled, blind and lame" are evidence of inclusive Christian social practices that are reflected in their meals. (Meals, 2:15-17) [and]

The excuses [of those who refuse to come to the banquet], much beside the point, are an indirect but traditional Middle Eastern way of signalling disapproval of the dinner arrangements. (Textual Notes Luke 14:1-24)

Exclusion is to approve something less than the banquet God offers us in the Kingdom, and to behave in that lesser way.

 

Where will my community be?
The Shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament  commonly used in Palestine in Jesus' time, uses the Greek word (eremos) for the wilderness of the Exodus wandering and the wilderness of 1 Kings 19:4 into which Elijah flees from Jezebel and Ahab... and then has God appear to him. It's the same Greek word used by Luke.

Perhaps we get to choose which sort of wilderness we are in; the one of the lost Exodus wanderers, or one where we find ourselves again, and in which God speaks to us. This second place can be romanticised as a place of spiritual renewal. But is also a lost kind of place: Elijah was in fear for his life; he thought he was the only faithful one left. Eremos is a dying, baptising, and being reformed, kind of place which can appear to be far across the Jordan.

In my city, the church is in the wilderness. We are, after all, human beings, and this is a wilderness time. We are all lost. Even the very rich are discomforted; they, the powerful, maintain the scapegoating and prejudice and exclusion that so many of us follow instead of the way of Christ. They too, are afraid.

If we choose the wilderness of the rich, then as Christians, and as church, we will exclude. We will make Christian acceptance and inclusion dependt upon class, and according to our own behavioural shibboleths. We will inevitably be like the Pharisees and the scribes with whom this part of Luke begins. We will grumble about the people with whom Jesus eats and socialises. Luke and Jesus are clear about the consequence of this.

The Father will wait for us, he will stand at the door faithfully, scanning the horizon for our return. And will run to meet us.  But as long as we expect a certain standard of behaviour and a certain sort of person that Jesus and his Father will choose to love, we will decline the invitation to return. We will decline the invitation even if the party is right next door to our pig pen. And not because we are ashamed of what we have done, or where we have been. Sitting in the sty, we will think God and the Banqueting Kingdom are beneath us. Jacob Morris says

In this parable, Jesus is pointing to a reality that is already present, where he is already present, tearing down walls and trespassing boundaries, embodying the radical love and hospitality of God and God’s kingdom.

The tragedy is that when we build walls between people we may not even see the party happening.

There is another wilderness. That is the wilderness where we leave our comfort zones, go outside our class boundaries, sit with the people who make us afraid, and with whom we fear we have nothing in common. It is a dying and baptising kind of place.  And it is where Jesus is. It is also where I have begun to realise just how much God loves me.

Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also in One Man's Web
Luke 15:1-10 - The God of the One Percent (2013)
Luke 15 - Not without David (2013)
Luke 15: 1-2, 11-32 - Free Beer (2013)
Luke 15:1-10 - We'll all be rooned (2010)
Luke 15: 11-32 - Meditations on a Prodigal Father (2010)

 

Footnotes

  1. KEẒAẒAH

KEẒAẒAH (Heb. קְצָצָה; "a severing of connections," lit. "cutting-off "), a technical term used in the Talmud for a ceremony, whereby a family severs its connection with one of its members who marries a person beneath his social rank (Ket. 28b), or when one sells part of his estate (tj, Kid. 1:5, 60c). In both of these instances the keẓaẓah acts as a kind of publicity for the act done. It would seem from the Jerusalem Talmud that the keẓaẓah was at one time a form of kinyan ("act of possession"), but even in early times it fell, as such, into disuse. The Talmud gives the following description of the keẓaẓah. "How is the keẓaẓah performed? If one of the brothers married a woman unsuitable for him, members of the family come and bring a barrel filled with fruit and break it in the town square, saying, 'O brethren of the House of Israel, give ear, our brother so-and-so has married an unsuitable woman and we are afraid lest his seed mingle with our seed. Come and take yourselves a sign for the generations [which are to come], that his seed mingle not with our seed'" (Ket. 28b). A similar keẓaẓah took place when the renegade divorced his unsuitable mate, or when the estate which had been sold was repurchased (tj,ibid.). bibliography: Freund, in: Festschrift A. Schwarz (1917), 179f.; Krauss, Tal Arch, 2 (1911), 33; 3 (1912), 188.


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