The two-verse passage I discussed in my previous post is followed in both Matthew and Luke by a parable or parable-like teaching device. Because the parables of Jesus are not doctrinal and because they are, in an ancient sense, interactive, ways of interpreting them have varied broadly. People who preach have sometimes gone wild with the images, ranging far and wide from the context and manner in which those images are actually employed in the parables themselves. I have heard sermons play with, for example, “You are the salt of the earth,” by explaining every conceivable property and use of salt without regard for the way the image of salt functions in its context. I have come away feeling more cheated than entertained, having heard far more than I cared about salt and next to nothing of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship lived in the world we actually inhabit but lived in terms of the reign of God which remains hidden to all but faith, hope, and love.
So, before we look at that parable-like teaching device in Jesus’ follow-up to his promise that those who persist in seeking will find life that is truly human and meaningful, let me use an easier parable to explain the teaching device we now call “the argument from lesser to greater.” We might also regard it as learning about the hidden and mysterious by examining what we already believe about the familiar.
The whole idea is a faith-logic that argues this way: if you agree that something is real and true in the familiar condition where it is less likely, will you not let yourself believe that it is real and true in the unseen condition (the will and way of God) where it is, indeed, more likely?
Recognizing this teaching device Jesus employs frequently in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) liberates us from the doctrinally oppressive interpretations of his teaching that take them to be allegories and from the convoluted arguments such interpretations cause, but it also raises new questions and problems as we make the leap from his time and culture to our own.
Let’s look at a fairly easy example of the faith-argument from lesser to greater.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:1-7 NRSV)
First, we need a little background information on the lesser situation. In most regions of the world, shepherds drive their flocks, sometimes using dogs to help them manage the sheep. In Jesus’ culture, however, shepherds had for centuries led their sheep, which requires a kind of bonding that trains the sheep to follow. In ancient Israel and Judah, therefore, the shepherd served as a metaphor for a leader of the people as well as for the people’s covenant God. True leadership required leading, caring, and sympathizing rather than herding, driving, and confining.
The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not be left lacking. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside calm waters. (my translation)
So, what’s the common understanding of the lesser situation in this parable of the stray sheep that Jesus uses to set up a faith-understanding of the will and way of God?
The shepherd knows his sheep, and it matters to him that one is missing. He fears for the stray sheep’s safety and will risk his own to find it. It would be wrong to assume he cares nothing for the other ninety-nine sheep, but caring knows no logic of numbers and percentages. The modern business view may be that this shepherd is a fool, and we might do well to ponder that kind of logic that regards people by numbers and can pat itself on the back for successfully writing people off as no longer useful or necessary. But for now, we need to understand that in Jesus’ culture, it would likely be agreed that a good, responsible (true) shepherd would behave just as this shepherd in the parable behaves: he would leave the ninety-nine (presumably in the care of others) and go out looking for the stray until he found it. Yes, and he would rejoice when he did find it, especially since the odds of his finding it alive and sound were not so good. A lone sheep is easy prey.
Loving parents with more than one child do not love one more than another, but their love goes out to the one in distress. That’s how love works. They do not ask which child deserves more. They do not parent objectively and dispassionately, coldly employing “carrots and sticks” to herd their children toward adulthood. They love. What Jesus is trying to explain is no great mystery to those who love.
There’s the lesser condition: the way a true shepherd would be expected to choose his course of action and his joy at recovering the lost sheep.
Now, we must deduce the greater condition, and Luke helps by giving us the context, which is the criticism of Jesus made by the pious among his people. To them, the holiness of God required that people of God keep their distance from the unclean and sinful. To Jesus, the redemptive love of God required him to associate himself with the unclean and sinful. The pious assumed God’s ultimate job to be rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Jesus insists God has no such agenda and takes no delight in giving people what they deserve. God’s will is to find and restore the lost. So, here’s faith-logic’s question: You righteous people, if you agreed that a true shepherd would care enough about a stray sheep to risk his own safety by going out into the darkness and searching until he found it, why do object when, for God’s sake, I go into the darkness to search out and find people who have strayed and gotten lost? If a shepherd will rejoice over a rescued sheep, will God not rejoice over a rescued person? Do you think a shepherd cares more for sheep than God cares for people?
That’s the way of the faith-argument from lesser to greater. In my next post, we’ll look at the somewhat more difficult parable which follows upon Jesus’ promise that God will open the door for those who persist in knocking.