Before the Sermon, Luke 15:1-10: Jesus the Heretic?
Framing the Discussion
It is unfortunate that historic Christianity has demanded certainty for so much of our ecclesial history. Blood was spilled over an iota—the Greek letter that made a formidable difference through its absence when, in the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, the word ὁμοούσιον (homoousion), “of one substance,” became doctrine and the rival candidate, the iota-laden ὁμοιούσιον (homoiousion), “of like substance,” was declared anathema. Subsequent Councils of Bishops in places like Constantinople and Chalcedon were not about a free-wheeling, respectful exchange of theological and Christological ideas. These meetings were about taking away choice; our English word heresy comes from the Greek word αἵρεσις, (h)airesis, which translates literally to "thing chosen.” To be a heretic is to make a choice. Christians don’t like choices, historically, but Jesus certainly did.
I say it is unfortunate that Christianity took such an authoritarian character for a variety of reasons, most importantly because of the unfathomable amount of blood and suffering it produced, but at a fundamental level, authoritarian certainty runs contrary to how Jesus himself taught. Jesus was a skilled rhetorician; put more simply, Jesus knew how to speak truth to power while staying on the right side of the Romans, at least until he entered Jerusalem, knowing what was to come. In this way, Jesus was a heretic: he made a choice.
The gospels, canonical and otherwise, reflect a rich diversity in teaching methods that were prevalent during the first two centuries of the common era, including those from within the Jewish tradition and those without.* Jesus chose to teach largely in parables. The word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή, parabolé, a tricky word that has been used to describe what we might call proverbs (wise sayings), as well as describing stories in which the meaning could not, by definition, be found in a literal reading. Instead, parabolé in this sense requires the listener/reader to examine the elements of the story and engage in allegorizing.
Biblical scholars are divided, often in terms defined by the eras in which they conduct their work, as to how beneficial looking at texts allegorically is to understanding the meaning of the text. There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start by making sure we have a shared vocabulary. The English word allegory comes from the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoria), which was first defined by the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus** as “speaking one thing and signifying something other than what is said.”** When we speak of allegorizing a text, we mean looking at the setting, characters, language (in terms of Greek and in terms of substance), plot, etc. to draw parallels between the story world and the “real” world, whether that be in Jesus’ time or in our own.
Confronting the Questions
Jesus purposefully used parables because they helped him preach a radical message on the sly, one that is best summed up by the preeminent biblical scholar J.D. Crossan who in numerous books, articles, and interviews, has said some version of the following: “Whenever Jesus speaks about God’s Imperial Rule or the Kingdom of Heaven, he is asking a profound question: ‘What would it look like if God sat on the throne of Caesar?” If Jesus had been that blunt, he would not have had a ministry that lasted two Sabbaths. His fate would have been the same as that of John the Baptizer. Parables can provide coded language that allows peasants to speak truth to power without feeling the full weight of the Roman sandal on their necks
I think more importantly, though, Jesus used parables because they require investment from the listener/reader. There are no easy, concrete answers with a parable. To be sure, we should not say that anything goes, but Jesus uses the parabolic form—the literary device of parables if you will—and fills it with shocking language. Take, for example, Mark 4:30-32, where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. A mustard seed?! Mustard is a weed. It grows rapidly and can overtake a garden. And a mustard seed that grows branches so that birds of the air can build nests and beasts of the field can find shade?! Leaving aside the Hebrew Bible references that underlie these examples, we see that Jesus took things people knew about—horticulture, fishing, shepherding—and then said something outlandish to get their attention.
This week’s passage is a perfect example. Jesus has gathered around him a group of people who have been listening to him preach and teach. Jesus lets them know that they better pay attention. With what scholars call “wisdom directionals,” Jesus will say, “Let every one with ears to hear, listen!” Y’all best listen up, because I’m dropping knowledge. I always imagine Jesus doing this with a twinkle in his eye, perhaps a mischevious grin. Like Jacob wrestled with the angel, so, too, must we wrestle with Jesus’ teachings.
“Which one of you,” he says in Luke 15, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until they find it?” Notice how Jesus phrases the question. The underlying assumption is that, of course, you abandon the ninety-nine and search for the one, while any shepherd in the room would probably be bewildered, rolling their eyes, and/or starting to think through why they wouldn’t abandon the ninety-nine. You’ll lose the whole herd! You expect to lose some, but the important thing is to protect the majority! You don’t know what you are talking about!
What Does This Say About God?
See, if we take the parables literally, they make no sense. Further, parables bring us into the process of allegorizing—how we might do so and to what end is up for debate—and in-so-doing, we must face our own assumptions about who we are and what God is; here, God is a shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine to find the one. That raises questions: are the ninety-nine vulnerable there in the wilderness? Does God not care about them? Who are the ninety-nine? Who is the one? And, wow, that is a much different sort of kin-dom than the one offered by Rome, that’s for sure.
The purpose of these blog posts aren’t to then go into the allegorizing itself; there are lots of things to consider there, and it really is up to the individual to read, pray, discern, wrestle, and resolve. What we should not do—and this is the last unidentified thing to unpack that we started above—is seek and demand one solid, immutable, unbending, eternal interpretation of a parable. Because if that is what Jesus had intended to happen, he never would have been a heretic who used parables.
Loving God, as we hear again the stories of lost sheep and coins, help us to take into our hearts the depth of our profound, shocking love for us; help us to see the face of Jesus in every person we meet; help us see the faces of others so wholly different from us when we picture Jesus; be with us as we take these parables into our hearts and allow them to make us into heretics, into those who make choices based upon our experiences and knowledge of you, confirmed by biblical witness. Help us not look for certainty where you lay before us hope. Amen.
*Philosophies and rhetorical styles from India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and other places, sadly, have been lost to history because of Christian destruction of libraries (such as the Library of Alexandria, which held 700,000 scrolls), philosophical schools, and other repositories of culture. (For those interested in knowing more about this, I highly recommend The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixby. She is a consummate scholar with an eminently-readable writing style.)
**F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43. Heraclitus is well-remembered by Christians, particularly theologians and historians, for laying the foundation of logos theology, which I’ll have to take up in another post.