Black sheep

black sheepLook, look. He’s doing it again. That’s just wrong. How can someone who claims to speak the words of God hang out with people like that?

The scribes and Pharisees are muttering and grumbling to themselves (Luke 15:1-2). To them, Jesus is surrounded by undesirable characters: people who, unlike themselves, care little for keeping the laws of purity. Among them are the worst of the worst — the tax-gatherers, those who are actively selling out their own people to make a living off the Roman Empire.

But not only is Jesus surrounded by such black sheep, he actually seems to enjoy being with them. He even (gasp!) eats with them, sitting down at the same table, as if they were one big happy family.

How disgusting!

Jesus, apparently, knows what they’re saying. Luke doesn’t tell us how. Maybe it was divine insight. Maybe they were gossiping among themselves loudly enough for Jesus to hear — in the way that we do when we want someone to know what we think without having to confront them directly. Or maybe all Jesus needed to do was to read their body language and the expression of scorn on their faces.

So Jesus responds with a story — three stories, in fact. In all of them, something or someone is lost, and then found. And in all of them, the finding is cause for joyous celebration.

This post is the first in a short series on Luke 15 (I’ll get back to John’s gospel after). Jesus’ three parables are often known as stories of the lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost (and prodigal) son. Those are, in fact, the headings by which the NIV subdivides the chapter.

But the CEB does something different. The entire chapter is given but one heading: “Occasions for celebration.”

I think that’s better. And it’s not because I’m a party person. It’s because that heading is more appropriate to the reason Jesus is telling the stories in the first place.

Again, Jesus is responding to the disgusted grumbling of the Pharisees. I can imagine some of them pointing fingers: Look at that guy — he hangs out with those people. It would be no problem and no surprise for Jesus to tell stories suggesting that the people surrounding him were lost and needed to be found.

But that’s not the punchline of the stories. Jesus’ point isn’t about how lost these people are, or how they got that way. His point is to put before these sour-faced Pharisees an image of the God who rejoices in finding. Indeed, by the time he finishes the third story, the implication is, My friends, if you don’t enter into God’s joy, then you’re lost too.

I’ll say something about each of the parables in turn. For the moment, however, it’s worth asking ourselves to what extent we might find ourselves in the place of the Pharisees.

We all have our prejudices. There are people we consider black sheep. There are “those” people — people with whom we would not want to be seen, for the sake of our reputation.

And yet, in Jesus’ first two parables, these are also the people whom God seeks diligently and rejoices — rejoices! — to find.

Who are “those” people for us? And what needs to change about how we understand our own righteousness with respect to them?