11 Sep 2022

Welcome to the Party: Jesus, His Bible, Enemies & Women (Luke 15.1-10)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Mission, Patternism, Precision Obedience, Women

This afternoon I’ve been reading the Psalms and reflecting on our Rabbi in the Gospel of Luke. I began meditating on Luke 15 especially and soaked in the brilliant portrait of Luke’s extremely Jewish Messiah.

Contrary to much popular teaching, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are among the “most Jewish” documents in the New Testament. Numerous scholars have even argued that Luke-Acts is so Jewish that Luke himself (the author) was himself Jewish or proselyte at the very least. A few of these scholars are Jacob Jervell, Donald Juel, and Greg Sterling. Rick Strelan even argued, at length, that Luke is a priest in his 2008 study, Luke the Priest: The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel. For more on the Jewish character of Luke-Acts see my article: Luke the Priest? Was Luke Gentile or Jewish? Regardless whether Luke is Jewish or a priest or not, the Jewish character of the writing is deep and important for interpreting the two volumes. On to Luke 15.

The Setting

The story in Luke 15 reveals Jesus, and Luke, to be a deep student of his Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures/Septuagint) and reveals how deeply embedded his teaching is with it. Jesus breathes the Hebrew Bible. The story before us also reveals how scandalous our young rabbi was. It is not merely the gospel that is a scandal, Jesus is the scandal. It is worth remembering that Jesus is only in his early 30s (between 30 and 33).

Luke 15 is saturated with echoes and allusions to Jesus’s (and Luke’s) source material, the First Testament. We miss so much in Jesus (and the rest of the apostolic writings) when we are not formed by Israel’s worship and Scriptures as they themselves were.

Luke sets the stage by drawing allusions to Israel’s foundation narratives in the Torah. He does this through three primary images or the use of biblical idiom:

  • “coming near/drawing near,”
  • “grumbling/murmuring,”
  • welcoming/eating with tax collectors and sinners.

First, “coming near/drawing near” is typical liturgical language of coming into/entering into God’s Presence. Coming Near/drawing near and eating are brought together in one of the most remarkable passages in the Hebrew Bible in the very core of the Exodus story, Exodus 24.1-11 (a text I never heard of growing up).

The Septuagint Exodus (LXX) uses the same roots as Luke 15.1, Yahweh says only Moses is to “come near.” After the covenant is enacted Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the Seventy Elders go up the mountain. What is described in Exodus is stunning. There on the mountain this Assembly encounters the God of Israel and “eat and drink” in the presence of God, and they “saw the God of Israel” and God did “not raise his hand against them” (24.9-11). It is worth actually quoting.

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him … Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24.1-3, 9-11).

God “welcomed,” even ate with, sinners. Drawing near and eating with God indicated a restoration of God/human communion on an Edenic level. That is they “saw God,” they communed with God at the table. Luke tells us that “tax collectors and sinners” came near/drew near and ate with Jesus and they were “welcomed” by him. Jesus is doing what Yahweh does. Jesus extends Jubilee fellowship with the rejects (Lk 5.27-33; 7.33-35; 15.1-2). Jubilee is significant motif in Luke-Acts.

Second, Luke draws listeners of his Gospel story into the foundational narrative of Israel through the murmuring/grumbling motif. Throughout Exodus and Numbers, the rebellious, ungrateful, people of God are constantly grumbling and murmuring. They grumble against Moses. They murmur against God. In the face of astonishing works of grace, they “grumble.” Luke tells us in 15.2 when Jesus does something as remarkable as Yahweh (welcome the unworthy by letting them come near) they respond as did their ancestors in the Wilderness, they grumble.

At this point we must grasp the import of “tax collector” and “sinner.” Tax collectors are not simply IRS agents. They were regarded as the enemy (literally). They are agents of Rome. They fund the occupying imperial army. They weren’t just dishonest, they are enemies. Philo of Alexandria gives us a glimpse into how notorious a reputation tax collectors had. He tells the story of a tax collector who had the authority to sell families into slavery or exile because they did not or could not pay their taxes (it is a lengthy text so I will not quote it, but see Philo, On Special Laws 3.159-63 in The Works of Philo translated by C. D. Yonge). Tax collectors are “sinners” indeed, but they are worse than sinners. They are (if you are Republican) Antifa. Or Aryan Cowboys (if you are BLM). You get the picture. Sinners are all manner of less than desirable people that religious people habitually look down their noses on (gays, Lesbians, divorced, Muslims, Marxists, Capitalists, the poor, you get the idea, see Luke 10.25-37).

The “riff raff” are “drawing near” to Jesus who in turn is welcoming and eating with the enemies.

The brotherhood watch dogs are incensed by Jesus’s flaunting of the Bible (in their view). But Jesus is only starting.

Jesus’s Radically Biblical Response

Luke tells us that Jesus defends himself by responding to the grumbling on the part of the “shepherds” of God’s people with a parable. The Shepherds of God’s people have been tasked with taking care of the very people Jesus is “welcoming.” Their job is seeking and rescuing but instead they “grumble.”

Mere Orthodoxy, it would seem, is not equated with faithfulness.

Jesus draws from one of the most prevalent motifs of the Hebrew Bible, God is a Shepherd. This image goes back to Jacob/Israel who says “by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel” (Gen 49.15; cf. 48.24). God led Israel as a Shepherd in the wilderness (Num 27.17). Ezekiel records Yahweh chastising the Shepherds of Israel precisely because they did not “bind up” the broken but are self-centered. So, God himself will seek the lost sheep (Ezekiel 34 and 37).

For thus says the LORD God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness … I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak … I will feed them with justice” (34.11-12, 16).

Isaiah adds his voice to the image of God as Shepherd saying that, “the LORD God who gathers the OUTCASTS of Israel …” (56.8; see also Sirach 18.13; 2 Esdras 2.33-34; 5.18 and famously Ps 23, etc.).

Not a listener who heard Jesus missed his image. Jesus placed the leaders in the position of the false shepherds of Ezekiel who have ruled with ‘harshness” (34.4) and thus the sheep were “scattered/lost.” (Interestingly, Luke has a woman set this agenda, Jesus’s own mother, in Mary’s Song, (1.52-55) of bringing down the powerful but exalting the lowly). God will seek the scattered sheep, the “outcasts,” and place his servant David over them as Shepherd (Ezekiel 34.23-24; 37.24-25).

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken” (Ezekiel 34.23-24).

Jesus is clearly claiming to be the Davidic representative here. He does what God does. But more than that, he rejoices over the very things that the God of Israel rejoices about. The Shepherd places the lost sheep on his shoulders and “rejoices.”

This is not the sheep’s joy. Rather it is that of the Shepherd’s (the Davidic King/God) joy. The calling of the friends and neighbors to join the celebration is a rebuke of the Pharisees and scribes. They, the watch dogs, are invited to the party however. They should be partying with the Davidic representative but instead they have joined the murmuring generation in the wilderness by grumbling against God and his anointed (I have not decided if this could be a subtle allusion to Psalm 2.2).

Then Jesus lowers the boom on the grumblers with the woman and her coin. Here Jesus compares God to a Woman! Women were among the most despised of the “outcasts” that God will gather to himself. They are, perhaps, worse than “tax collectors.”

But Jesus, with none of the hang ups of modern Evangelicals, stunningly applies the image of a gendered woman to God. Of course, even here there is biblical precedent for Jesus’s action.

You were unmindful of the Rock, that bore you:
you forgot the God who gave you BIRTH” (Dt 32.18).

can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49.15).

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you …” (Isa 66.13).

God frantically searches for his lost coin (the enemies and sinners) as desperately as a woman who has lost one of her coins.

Again, the joy in the parable is not the coin’s joy. The person rejoicing is the Woman/God! The Woman calls her friends and throws a lavish party. Treasure has been found. God welcomes the enemies, the outcasts, the sinners.

Concluding Reflections

Jesus does not tolerate the outcasts. Jesus, as the Davidic Shepherd, welcomes them. The difference is huge. Jesus does what the God of Israel does. While the Pharisee Shepherds believed that they served God by abstaining from fellowship with undesirables, Jesus smacked that down by showing that God has a party and has called Jesus to announce Jubilee to the very people the scribes “marked and avoided” at all costs.

But the invitation is extended by Jesus to the Pharisees … they are welcome at the party. But to come one must welcome those who you think are not nearly as precisely obedient as themselves.

Jesus loved, and blessed, the “enemies” (tax collectors) and sat eating and drinking with them. Jesus loved the “sinners” and sat and welcomed them … he went out to find them.

And then the Son of David partied with them.

Welcome to the party.

Leave a Reply