LOST—THE PARABLES, NOT THE TV SHOW— Lk. 15.1-10
If I were to ask you what the opposite of lose is, you would immediately reply—win’. But suppose I was to ask you what is the opposite of ‘lost’? If you said found, you would be right. Did it ever occur to you that often when we are lost, the only way out is to be 'found'? Have you ever been truly lost? I mean in a place where you had no clue either where you were or which way to go? I’m not talking about the kind of lostness you feel when you wake up from a vivid dream and are disoriented, and can’t figure out where you are for a moment. I’m not even talking about the lostness you may feel when you are in a strange building and someone turns out the light--- like in that great thriller with Aubrey Hepburn—‘Wait until Dark’. Men in particular, when they get behind the wheel of a car, have a hard time admitting they are lost. “Well this looks familiar… well, I think I have been here before…. Well I am sure we will come on something recognizable soon…” I’m not even talking about the kind of lostness represented in the popular recent TV show LOST-- on ABC.
Most human beings seem to think, almost innately, that when they are lost, they can find their way out of it, finesse their way out of it, talk their way out of it—but alas, our parables for today suggest this is really not so, at least if we are talking about a kind of lostness that a GPS device cannot cure. For in our parables for today, someone has to go out and rescue the lost sheep, or diligently search until she finds the lost coin. There is a kind of lostness that can only be overcome when someone rescues you. You see neither the lost sheep, nor the lost coin knew they were lost. There is no evidence they cried out for help. They were not looking to be found or rescued, nor were they hoping for a self-help scheme to come along so they could take care of themselves and have ‘their best life now’. These two brief vignettes are parables about how it is with us, when it comes to lostness, real lostness, spiritual lostness.
B. LOST TALES
Jesus told parables as his modus operandi for public ministry. The interesting thing is that the Greek term we translate parable could be a proverb, it could be an aphorism, or even a one liner (physician heal thyself is called a parable), or it could be a more extended analogy or metaphor in the form of a very brief story. The essence of the parables is that they are figurative or metaphorical speech meant to tease the mind into active thought. They are the ancient equivalent of brain teasers in some case, though the meaning of some of them seems to be a no brainer. In fact all the parables are parables of or about the
One of the things scholars have noted about these wisdom sayings called parables is that Jesus seemed to like to tell them in pairs. In this case we have the parable of the lost sheep, paired with the parable of the lost coin, and in fact the real meaning of these two parables is basically the same—God seeks and saves the lost. But why tell that story in these two different ways? One reason, clearly enough is that Jesus was a radical. He is the first Jewish teacher we know of that had both men and women as disciples, and indeed not just casual disciples, traveling disciples (see Lk. 8.1-3). Strikingly, in the first of these two parables God is portrayed as like the male shepherd, leaving behind the 99 sheep to go and find the one lost one, whereas in the second parable he is said to be like the woman who is frantically sweeping the dirt floor of her house looking for a lost coin. We have here God portrayed as both a man and a woman seeking the lost. This must have surprised quite a few people in Jesus’ milieu, to say the least. It doesn’t surprise me though—not only was Jesus an equal opportunity redeemer of all sorts of people, both male and female, God, who in the divine nature is Spirit, neither male nor female, has no problems with being said to be like either a man or a woman who seeks to find what is lost. It’s some of us that get hung up on such a notion.
I like to ask my students—now what part of this parable seems odd to you, not really true to life? Immediately some will say, well, what shepherd in his right mind would leave the whole flock apparently unattended to go find one lost straggly sheep? Excellent question. Just so. The parable does not say the shepherd had helpers or a sheep dog named shep even. It simply says he left the 99 and went after the lost one. If you find the element in the parable which is NOT true to ordinary life, you will find the way in which it is commenting on our extraordinary God and his divine saving activity.
Now if you know anything about sheep, they are not notably smart. They do quite readily wander off when not supervised. Did you ever wonder why Jesus kept saying his followers were like sheep—this is not exactly the most flattering thing one could say about one’s disciples. Have you seen that commercial where there is a herd of sheep in the middle of the road, and the family van is stuck because the sheep won’t move out of the road? The father in vain gets out of the vehicle and tries to shoo the sheep into moving—then suddenly he has a bright idea, makes a few clicks on his picture phone, and suddenly a snarling wolf shows up, and the sheep hear it and run off—as in the background we hear a country singer singing “overcome the big things…” Yes sheep are not notably smart, and when they get lost, someone has to go and find them and rescue them. And the saddest part is that often the sheep do not even know or recognize they are lost.
In regard to the parable of the lost coin, Joachim Jeremias tells us that women wore their dowry in their headdress—perhaps you have seen such a picture on TV with a middle eastern woman with coins hanging from her headdress. Those are not fashion accessories, or baubles, bangles and beads. No, that’s her precious dowry which she keeps on her all the time. It’s her emergency bank account. In the parable this woman is frantically searching for the lost coin, because to her, it is exceedingly precious, worth a lot, and she can’t afford to lose it.
Now we need to stop for a moment and ask—is God really like the shepherd and the woman in these parables? Does God indeed see us as so precious, so valuable, so needing to be saved, that he would search frantically for us, even take great risks Are we really that needy, really that lost—and would God really take the trouble to make an all out search to find and rescue us? Does God really care that much about me, even me? Maxie Dunnam once said God love’s you as if you are the only person in the whole world he had to love.” Look at the emphasis in the parable about joy in heaven when one lost person is found. But to better answer that question let’s consider three stories. Since Jesus preached using stories, I figure that is one rather remarkable precedent for doing so.
C. STORIES OF BEING FOUND
C.S. Lewis is certainly one of my heroes, one of the great Christians of the 20th century or any century. And you can read the story of his coming to Christ, or better said, Christ’s coming to him, in his book ‘Surprised by Joy’. The title of the book is deliberately ironic, not only because he ended up unexpectedly marrying a woman named Joy, but even more unexpectedly, God found him. Now Lewis’s background was
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vista-ed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --
THE HOUND OF HEAVEN
This is the way it was with Lewis, and when finally he gave in to the relentless knocking on the door of his heart by Christ, he said thereafter—“I thus became the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom”. You know sheep, don’t much want to be rescued—until they are, and finally the need for it dawns on them. And coins—they don’t care at all who finds them. Are we like that--- that lost, that insensible to the divine overtures?
I have a second story, and it is my own. I went off to
I looked around, and there was no one there. No one at all. No one even close. But I had heard the voice so clearly and distinctly. Later I remembered what Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “I know my sheep, and they know the sound of my voice, and I call them by name”. That in fact is true—sheep know the sound of the voice of their shepherd, and in Jesus’ world shepherd’s named their sheep, so precious were they to him. You see this image above me in that window--- that’s the Jesus I encountered that night. He had come for me, and I didn’t even know I was lost. He had come for me, even me. I wouldn’t be here this morning, were it not for that dark chilly night in 1972.
This experience was just the opposite of the time when I got a form letter from Time magazine asking me to renew my subscription. They had left the typing of my name into the letter’s gaps to the computer. The computer read my name Dr. Ben Witherington, III and figured it was too long to fit into the space, so it simply read as follows (I kid you not):
Dear Dr. Third:
Your magazine subscription is about to run out and we wanted to make this personal appeal to you Dr. Third to renew your subscription to our great American news weekly. Surely, Dr, Third, you will not want to miss a single issue and keep abreast of foreign and domestic affairs, so please sign your name at the bottom—DR. THIRD, and you will continue to get our great service without interruption.
I was very tempted to write them back a letter which began—“Dear Inc.” You see when the world tries to be personal it treats people like numbers and things, but when God is personal, he comes after you, and calls you by name, as he did with me.
I have one more story to share, and this one is from one of my favorite preachers—Fred Craddock. Fred and his wife Nettie were in the
Fred said: ‘Good evening”
The man said “Are you on vacation?”
Fred replied “Yes,” (but under his breath he was saying ‘it’s none of your business’).
‘Where are you from?’ the man asked.
‘What do you do in
Under his breath Fred was saying ‘leave us alone, we’re on vacation and don’t know who you are’, but out loud he said—‘I am a Christian minister’.
The man asked--- ‘Which church?’
Fred said ‘The Christian church’.
The man paused and then said: “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church.’ (Clearly this man was relentless and did not know when to quit).
At that point the man pulled up a chair and sat down next to the Craddock.
Fred said feebly—“Yes, have a seat.” But in his mind he was asking—‘Who is this person?”
The man said: “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. I was what was called in those days an illegitimate child, in fact they called me that ugly name—a bastard. In those days that was shameful, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who my father was. At school the children said ugly things to me, so I stayed to myself at recess and at lunch.
In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Spring Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a deep voice, and a heavy beard. I went to hear him preach, I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. But I was afraid I was not welcome, since I was, as they put it, a bastard. I would go just in time for the sermon and then quickly leave before someone could ask me—what’s a boy like you doing here? One Sunday however I got trapped in the aisle, there were too many adults in front of me leaving, and I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. It was that minister. I caught a glimpse of his beard and face and knew. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could look me in the eye, and seemed to be staring at me for ever so long. I knew what he was doing—he was sizing me up in order to guess who my father was. A moment later he said--- “well boy you are a child of…” and he paused there. I just knew what was coming, I just knew I would have my feeling hurt—again! I knew I would never go back to that church again. But then he said ‘Boy, you are a child of---- God! I see a striking resemblance, boy.” Then he swatted me on the bottom and said ‘Now go claim your inheritance.’ I left church a different person that day. In fact really that was the beginning of my life. I had been found, and found out, and I found out who I was.”
Fred Craddock says that he was so moved by the story that he asked the man “What’s your name?”
The man said “Ben Hooper”
Fred then said—“I suddenly recalled that my own father had once told me when I was just a child how the people of
You see, that one straggly sheep had been worth rescuing and God puts his hand on that little sheep that day and claimed him, and the rest, as they say, is history. God is a God who diligently seeks and saves the least, the last and the lost
And all God’s people said--- AMEN.
well that's just creepy, I taught on these 2 parables at our community this morning....not as intellegently as you have here but none the less...crazy hehe Thanks for posting this Ben :)
Thanks for the reminder of showing how superlative was my lostness and how supreme was the Father's love to search, seek and find a sinner such as I...
In regard to the comment that seems to have gotten lost as to whether there are scholars who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, in fact there are a lot of them. Indeed there are many Christian colleges and seminaries that require their faculty to sign such a statement. The issue however is who gets to define what counts as an error. You may want to look at my new book that comes out next month-- The Living Word of God.
Dear Dr. BW3
i write from Italy and my name is Jonathan. I write these two lines in order to say to you how much i appreciate your writings and your blog. You may be happy to know that i'm really encouraged, challenged and edified in reading your books, sermons and thoughts. I will try with the Italian book publisher i work with (GBU),to bring you here in Italy: it's a sort of a dream by now but i hope it will be possible, because i think we will be blessed by your teaching.
May God bless you and keep on using you as instrument of grace in the lives of many others.
Warm italian greetings in Christ
Jonathan S. Benatti
Dear Dr. BW3,
just two lines from me (My name is Jonathan and i'm 25; i'm from Italy).
I want to write you in order to tell you how much i appreciate and enjoy your sermons, your books and your posted thoughts in the blog.
I'm really challenged in my walk with the Lord by your teaching as well as encouraged and built up.
I will try with the Italian book publisher i work with, to bring you here in Italy so that many others will enjoy and receive benefit by your preaching and teaching. I know by now it's a sort of dream but i hope it will be possible.
I eagerly pray that God keeps on to use you as instrument of grace in the lives of many people.
Blessings and warm Italian greetings in Christ
Jonathan Simone Benatti
This coming Friday I am teaching these two parables to a group of underprivledged elementary school kids. Your post has been insightful and refreshing as I study and prepare.
It has also been a much needed reminder that God is the one who does the saving, not me. That applies to many current situations in my life.
Thank you one and all for your very kind comments. I happen to be very found of Italy Jonathan, and would love to come again. Indeed the plan is for me to bring a group to Greece and Italy for two weeks in May 2009.
I know this isn't related to your current post, but I am so thankful for your work (you, Craig Evans, Craig Blomberg, N.T. Wright, etc.)
I attend Samford University (I am a senior majoring in religion) and unfortunately, they have succumbed to the worldview of scientific materialism in so many ways.
I am currently having to walk through "Jesus the Jew" by Vermes and Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” in my “Jesus and the gospels” class.
I have no problem thinking critically and asking tough questions and being exposed to certain types of literature but I am finding a lot of so called scholars (and professors) nowadays are succumbing to some form of scientific materialism and that is driving their findings and conclusions (and yes, I understand we have to watch our biases also to make sure we are not making the data fit with our own beliefs).
Anyway, I am being bombarded with that on all sides but I am so thankful for books like "What have they done with Jesus? By you, "Fabricating Jesus" by Evans and Greg Boyd’s "The Jesus Legend." (This is an excellent book if you have not read it) I am so thankful for those who are still hanging on yet are not afraid to ask the tough questions, investigate the tough questions, and respond to certain types of literature. I don't have the time or the resources to dig into these things in college (while having to study) but I really appreciate you all leaving the ivory tower for awhile and thinking about the rest of us...thanks Ben...(a million times)....Michael
P.S. I really wish you would compile up a “reading list”…too many books to think about, eh? (grin)
Dear Dr. Witherington,
I've been watching your blog for the last few months. It has always been exciting and enlightning. Usualy I come to your blog to feed my mind, this time (to my surprise) I got food for my soul.
It's so good to know that I've been found by the good sheperd! It's so good to know that he is still looking after me. It's so good to know that he is still out there searching for people to find them. It's so good to know that he uses us to carry out his search by living and preaching the gospel. S.D.G.!
Thank you very much for the sermon! Thank you for so much gospel in these little stories!
From one sheep in Christ to another sheep in Christ,
P.S.: The German theologian Michael Herbst from Greifswald University wrote about Lk 15: "Gott macht sich auf die Suche. Nicht der Mensch wird hier von Jesus als eifriger, frommer Gottsucher gemalt. Nein, Jesus beschreibt Gott als einen eifrigen und nimmermüden Menschensucher. ... Es ist die Leidenschaft Gottes, der nach verlorenen Töchtern und Söhnen Gottes sucht. … Die Kirche ist der von Gott ins Leben gerufene Suchtrupp. Kirche ist Kirche, weil und solange sie sich aufmacht und Menschen sucht, die ohne Gott für Zeit und Ewigkeit verloren sind. Wie Jesus vom Vater gesandt wurde, ist nun die Gemeinde Jesu zur Suche verlorener Menschen gesandt und bevollmächtigt. ... In vielem ist die Kirche ersetzbar; darin aber ist sie unvertretbar." (Und sie dreht sich doch!, Asslar 2001, S. 10-14.) Isn't God great?
Have you written anything on the Lord's (Disciple's) Prayer? I am sorry to post that here, but I had not idea where else to ask.
Yes indeed--- see my commentary on Matthew with Smythe and Helwys.
I have been using the "Deeper Connection" DVDs in an adult Sunday School class I'm leading. We have done "The Parables of Jesus" (in which you did the teaching on The prodigal/lost son) and just started "The Prayers of Jesus." The class has really enjoyed them. They are very well done.
As for the story about Ben Hooper attributed to Fred Craddock, I did a search on snopes.com and that story seems to be a blend of fact and perhaps fancy. But I've used the story myself -- if it's not completely true, it should be!
I thought about asking Craddock about it when he was here in Texas last March but I didn't want to bother him with it.
Thanks for your blog. I get a lot out of it.
I'm a UM pastor in North Texas.
I heard you speak about the James ossuary a while back at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas.
You might want to come to the Jesus in Primetime event next Monday--- its at DTS and Darrell Bock and I will be discussing major things. As for that story, it is absolutely true-- see the book Craddock Stories pp. 156-57, and don't trust that online source, ever again.
Dear Dr. Witherington,
I have no idea how I stumbled upon this blog. I guess you could say that it found me. Not a theological statement I would normally affirm. Ironic, as well, is the fact that today I was reflecting on my need to do theological musings within a community.
I saw your name on the top of the site and wondered if this was the scholar by the same name so often cited in my NT seminary classes. So I started reading.
Your message was inspiring both emotively and cognitavely. You are very right that the most real and poignant lostness is to be so and yet blind to it.
If you ever have time between your busy teaching, writing and speaking schedule, I would be honored if could offer some insight to me. I blog at www.derekknoke.com.
Firstly, thanks for the enlightenment and encouragement you have brought to me thus far through some of your commentaries,plus "Women in the Earliest Churches" etc. I tend to read other commentaries first then come to you because you make much more sense to me!
Anyway, I've only recently discovered this blog so enjoying going through some bits and pieces. I discovered this 'Lost' one as I seached for entries on judgment, eschatology. I'm about to begin an essay, theoretically on the pneumatology in Revelation. I've ordered your commentary but it's a while away yet - do you address pneumatology? More pressing right now is the violence in Revelation. The story ends so beautifully but does the end justify the means? I understand the apocalyptic genre but even so, can you help me with the ethics of violence in eschatology question?
(Sorry for being long-winded!)
Thanks and blessings,
I understand why you are disturbed by the violence in Revelation. If we examine the judgments in the three sets of 7s, the interesting thing is that they are not punitive, but rather disciplinary, in hopes the lost will repent. When we get to final judgment at the end of the book, notice again we are not talking about human injustice, but divine judgment-- executed by the rider on the white horse. In other wordfs, the message of this book is to leave justice and vindication in the hands of God. Most interestingly, there is no battle of Armageddon. If you read the end of Rev. 20 closely you see that when the wicked armies assembly, fire from heaven falls and deals with them. In short, the message of this book to Christians is that they should be prepared for persecution and suffering, and should resist the temptation to return violence for violence. "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay is the message of this book.Even the saints under the altar in Rev. 6 are reminded of this fact.
Thanks so much for the super fast reply and for the pointers. I understand that in the past people have taken judgment into their own hands ie if God is going to destroy them anyway, then we'll just do it for him. That's definitely not what the text of anything in the NT at least tells us. I guess what I'm having trouble with (and I didn't used to but am somewhat less fundamental than I used to be which may help explain the question), is the the God of grace and the God of wrath. How can it be that we are told to love like Christ, to respond to God's unconditional love, yet this same God dispenses not only justice but violence?
Or should Revelation only be read in the apocalyptic genre of an oppressed people seeking God's justice to prevail over their oppressors and this is their best possible scenario rather than being any kind of eschaton picture?
Sorry - I'm hoping this doesn't turn into a major faith crisis for me!!!
Perhaps it will help to see the fact that God is a God of holy love, not holiness without love, and not love without holiness. Thus we must talk about redemptive judgment. When we experience the one true God, some of us experience it as judgment, some as redemption. Remember the burning bush and the warning, remember what happened to Uzzah when he touched the ark when in a state of uncleanness? I would suggest you read through Romans 12 and see how Paul talks about both vengeance and love in the same context. Maybe this will help.
P.S. Put another way, God's wrath is nothing more than relating to God's righteousness in the wrong way. Its not as if God has changed his character or way of relating to anyone.
I like the term "redemptive judgment." Even in judgment God has redemptive purposes so that in judgment God is keeping covenant not breaking it. Whether curses or blessing, God is keeping covenant with a persistent redemptive focus.
I have struggled with the idea of covenant throughout the Scriptures. It seems to me that the nature of covenant (at least in the cutting of covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 as a fountainhead out of which future covenants expound upon--not to mention the nature of God as One who finishes what He starts in creation).
Anyway, it seems to me that God does not break covenant ever and that covenant never looses a claim on our lives even if we violate its terms. This brings me to my point.
Besides for a couple of places in Ezekiel and Jesus' own declaration of a New Covenant, I really see one continuous covenant. If I am hearing you right (about redemptive judgment), then how do I understand Jesus' words about New Covenant along with the traditional categorization of New Testament/Covenant?
Thank you for these comments. I understand your confusion, but actually you are completely wrong about this. The new covenant is not simply a renewal of the old one. That's not how ANE treaties or covenant's worked. Once the covenant was broken, then the curse sanctions would be instigated, and then the maker of the covenant, in this case God, has a decision to make, whether to begin a new covenant with that person or persons, or not. If God did decide to do this, then it would have some new stipulations, new sanctions etc. Furthermore, many of the benefits or blessings or promises were conditional on the response of the persons with whom the covenant was made. For example notice the conditional nature of "if my people who are called by my name will repent and turn to me.... then". If they do not, God is under no obligation to himself or anyone else to fulfill his part of the deal.
I will do a post on this shortly, as it is a source of major confusion in Evangelical Christianity.
Thanks for your posts. Today I have read through Revelation in entirety - makes such a difference reading in bulk! Thanks for your suggestions and yes I re-read Rom 12 as well. From my reading of Revelation it does seem there are so many opportunities for repentance. It makes me wonder just how many will really remain 'lost'...?! One thing (amongst many) I was unsure of is whether all will be judged, or whether only the saved will be judged? It seemed those who didn't make into the book didn't make it to judgment. Anyway, I'll head to the commentaries for this one but it was something that sruck me. This is based on a 'saved by grace through faith, judged by deeds' type theology.
Blessings on you Ben,
PS I see from a Morling brochure that you'll be in Oz next year. Are you going to any other cities other than Sydney?
Alison--- No I am only in Sydney this time around for a preaching conference.
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