What do we usually miss behind the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2)? How would Christ’s response hit much lower than we realize when he told of the lost sheep and the lost coin? When Jesus next tells about the Prodigal Son, how would the older son’s actions enrage the Pharisees more? This 3-part series covers these things with cultural differences.
TABLE FELLOWSHIP IN THE MIDDLE EAST
To understand what Jesus was doing in eating with “sinners,” it is important to realize that in the east…to invite a man to a meal was an honor. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood, and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life….From Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
In the East today, as in the past, a nobleman may feed any number of…needy persons as a sign of his generosity, but he does not eat with them. However, when guests are “received” the one receiving the guests eats with them. The meal is a special sign of acceptance. The host affirms this by showering his guests with a long series of compliments to which the guests must respond. Jesus is set forth in the text as engaging in some such social relationship with publicans and sinners….
The accusation, “This one receives sinners and eats with them,” is closely parallel to Mark 2:15f. In this Marcan text, Jesus is clearly the host for the meal…. If this is the intent of [Luke] 15:2, it is very significant inasmuch as the guest is assumed in any Oriental banquet to be bringing honor to the house in which he is entertained. The host begins by referring to the honor brought to his house by the guests. The guests can then respond either by invoking the honor of God on the noble host or by affirming that they, too, have received honor by being in the host’s presence …it can certainly be affirmed that for Jesus to host sinners…a much more serious offense to the Pharisees than merely to eat with sinners informally…as in the case of Zacchaeus of Jericho.
…Jesus’ meals with the publicans and sinners…are an expression of the…eschatological meals, anticipatory celebrations of the feast in the end-time (Matthew 8:11), in which the community of the saints is already being represented (Mark 2:19). The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table-fellowship, is the most meaningful expression of…the redeeming love of God.
ADDRESSING PHARISEES AS “SHEPHERDS”
Ancient Jews and Gentiles distrusted and hated shepherds. Shepherds were responsible for what their animals ate. If crops were destroyed the night before, shepherds were more naturally suspected than wild animals, and shepherds were often disreputable.
…shepherds…in the first century…were clearly…unclean. For the Pharisee, a “sinner” was either an immoral person…or a person engaged in one of the proscribed trades…[such as] herding sheep…. If we accept that the parable was addressed to Pharisees (15:1-3), then the parable begins with a shock to their sensitivities…. To show deference to their feelings…he would have had to begin… “Which man of you owning a 100 sheep, if he heard that the hired shepherd had lost one….”From Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
WHO OWNED 100 SHEEP?
…anyone wealthy enough to own a 100 sheep will…let some less affluent member of the extended family take care of them. The average family may have 5-15 animals…. The shepherd may own some of the animals and be from one of the families. Thus, in the case of a small herd of about 40 animals, the shepherd leading them may be their sole owner. The verb in question… “have a 100 sheep” can mean “be responsible for” …not necessarily…own a 100 sheep….From Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
The extended family owns the sheep…. He is a member of the extended family…any loss is a loss to all of them…the whole clan rejoices if the lost is found.
LEAVE THE 99 IN THE WILDERNESS?
Peasants, living on the edge of the pasture lands, bring the sheep to the courtyard of the family home at the end of each day. The reference to “the house” in the parable confirms…peasant shepherds. Levison writes, “I have never seen in Syria, Palestine or Mesopotamia a flock attended by a single person. 2-3 shepherds are commonly employed. When one sheep is lost and the shepherd goes to seek it, the other shepherd takes the flock home. On arrival, the neighbors would at once notice the absence of the shepherd…. Should he encounter a wild beast, a single-handed shepherd, with only his stick and sling, is in a perilous predicament. The finding and bringing home of the lost sheep is…a matter of great thanksgiving in the community.”From Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
WISDOM FROM THE TELLING OF THIS PARABLE
The Pharisees were hardened, but Jesus still shared the truth. We often don’t want to jeopardize our jobs or relationships with the unsaved, but Christ wouldn’t always clash and attack.
Jesus would tailor answers to people’s questions so they’d understand, given their background and beliefs. In fact, his answers were designed to draw those seeking (some examples: Matthew 4:19-22; 9:14-17; 19:16-22; John 3:1-21; 4:7-29; 7:25-31). He corrected and even repelled those with bad motives (Matthew 8:18-22; 9:11-13; John 6:22-59, 60-71; 7:2-9, 11-24; 8:1-11, 31-59). And he gave truth that angered when attacked (Matthew 15:1-9; 16:1-4, 21-23; 21:23-27; 23:1-36; John 5:19-47). We need to learn all 3 approaches better.