Sunday, September 4, 2022

Sharing Discontent v. Sharing Joy

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Luke 15:1-10, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

For those who are interested, I have an essay on the 14th Psalm on this week's "Politics of Scripture" blog entitled "The Politics of Foolishness." You can read it here

1 ησαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν 
Yet there were gathering to him all the tax collectors and the sinners to hear him.
ησαν: IAI, 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἐγγίζοντες: PAPart npm, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another  2) to draw or come near to, to approach
ἀκούειν: PAInf, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
1. Just so we do not let the insertion of chapter divisions interrupt the flow of the Gospel, it helps to remember where c.14 left off just before this pericope. In last week's text, Luke notes that "many crowds" were following alongside of Jesus. Then Jesus says some pretty audacious stuff like this: "Whoever would be my disciple must hate your family and life itself" And this:“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” We do not know what effect that strong call to discipleship had on the many crowds. Luke now shifts from that horde to the tax collectors and sinners who are gathering to him to hear him. Are they the only ones left? 
2. I never know quite what to do with the δὲ that begins this sentence. It is one of those words that does not appear first in the text, but usually appears first in the translation. It can mean 'and' or 'but' or 'then' and I usually leave it as neutral as I can in the rough translation. Hence "yet." If, however, we think the mentioning of all the tax collectors and sinners is a contrast to the many crowds of the previous pericope, we might go with "but." That's an interpretive call. 
3. There is no mention in this verse that there is food involved. 

2 καὶ διεγόγγυζονοἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος 
ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς.
And both Pharisees and scribes were murmuring saying, “He receives sinners and eats with them”
διεγόγγυζονοἵ : IAI 3pl, διαγογγύζω, 1) to murmur  1a) either of a whole crowd, or among one another  1b) always used of many indignantly complaining 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
προσδέχεται: PMI 3s, προσδέχομαι, 1) to receive to one's self, to admit, to give access to one's self 
συνεσθίει: PAI 3s, συνεσθίω, 1) to eat with, take food together with 
1. The pairing of “all the tax collectors and the sinners” and the pairing of “both the Pharisees and the scribes” in vv. 1 and 2 seems deliberate. One pair is gathering to hear, the other is complaining.
2. The verb συνεσθίω, a combination of “eats” (εσθίω) and the prefix “with” (συν), is the first of many words having the prefix συν in this text. I’m going to make them red to spot them more easily.
3. I wonder how different life would be if the primary complaint against the church was “They receive sinners and eat with them.”
4. The word διαγογγύζω (murmuring) is used here and in Luke 19:7, “And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying that he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.” It is the LXX word for those events when the people of Israel “murmured” against Moses and God during their wilderness journey. See my commentary below about it. 

 3 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων,
Yet he spoke to them this parable saying,
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 

 4 Τίς ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ὑμῶν ἔχων ἑκατὸν πρόβατα καὶ ἀπολέσας ἐξ αὐτῶν ἓν οὐ 
καταλείπει τὰ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ πορεύεται ἐπὶ τὸ ἀπολωλὸς ἕως εὕρῃ αὐτό;
“What person out of you having a hundred sheep and having lost one out of them does not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he might find it? 
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀπολέσας: AAPart nsm, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  … 2a) to lose 
καταλείπει: PAI 3s, καταλείπω, 1) to leave behind 
πορεύεται: PMI 3s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer  1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered
ἀπολωλὸς: PAPart asn, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  … 2a) to lose 
εὕρῃ: AASubj 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
1. I’ve often heard this choice to leave the ninety-nine and seek the one represented as a sign of God’s extreme and unique love for the stray. But, the phrasing of this question/parable seems to imply that anyone in such a predicament would the same. Am I wrong on this? Is there some kind of Greek linguistic play here that would suggest that this shepherd is doing what no one else would do? On the face of it, Jesus' point seems to be that this is exactly what a shepherd would do. Yes?

5 καὶ εὑρὼν ἐπιτίθησιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους αὐτοῦ χαίρων,
And having found it places it on his shoulders rejoicing,  
εὑρὼν: AAPart nsm, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
ἐπιτίθησιν: PAI 3s, ἐπιτίθημι, 1) in the active voice  1a) to put or lay upon 
χαίρων: PAPart nsm, χαίρω, 1) to rejoice, be glad
1. I have supplied “it” as the object of the verbs, following most translations. 

6 καὶ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὸν οἶκον συγκαλεῖ τοὺς φίλους καὶ τοὺς γείτονας λέγων 
αὐτοῖς, Συγχάρητέ μοι, ὅτι εὗρον τὸ πρόβατόν μου τὸ ἀπολωλός.
And having come into the house calls together the friends and the neighbors saying to them, ‘Rejoice together with me, because I found my sheep that has been lost.’
ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
συγκαλεῖ: PAI 3s, συγκαλέω, 1) to call together, assemble  2) to call together to one's self 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Συγχάρητέ: APImpv 2p, συγχαίρω, 1) to rejoice with, take part in another's joy  2) to rejoice together, to congratulate 
εὗρον: AAI 1s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
ἀπολωλός: PerfAPart asn, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  … 2a) to lose
1. I know that “rejoice together with me” is a bit redundant, but it is part of my effort to be attentive to the συν (and sometimes συγ) words of this text.
2. We have συγκαλέω (call together) and συγχαίρω (rejoice together) as συν words in this verse.
3. I’m hearing the invitation “rejoice together with me” as the antithesis of the criticism, “he receives sinners and eats with them.” 

 7 λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὕτως χαρὰ ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ἔσται ἐπὶ ἑνὶ ἁμαρτωλῷ μετανοοῦντι ἐπὶ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα δικαίοις οἵτινες οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν μετανοίας.
I say to you that likewise joy shall be in the heaven over one sinner that repents rather than ninety-nine righteous who do not need having repentance.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
μετανοοῦντι: PAPart dsm, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent
ἔχουσιν: PAI 3p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
1. Many persons in the church today follow a fairly Pauline approach to sin: Doctrines that begin with ‘all have sinned,’ ethics that begin (as Karl Barth’s writings on ethics began) with the phrase “No one is good but God alone,” or worship liturgy that regularly involves confession and pardon, etc. To persons within that tradition, language like this – “ninety nine righteous who do not need repentance” – is a bit jarring. It is tempting to think that Jesus is being sly or facetious and intending us to hear, “ninety-nine supposedly righteous who think they do not need repentance.”  I think, however, there is just a different understanding of sin or use of the word “sinner” at work here. It began with the narrator’s language of v.1, making reference to tax collectors and sinners. That reference does not reflect the more Pauline language that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
2. The language of this pericope is more at home in the kind of Arminian/Semi-Pelagian context where I grew up, where “sinners” are those who have not yet come to Jesus repenting, being forgiven, and receiving new life. The lost sheep, so to speak. To be sure, after that penitential encounter there are struggles with sinfulness, but within those traditions that is more a matter of sanctification than being a “sinner.” 

 8   τίς γυνὴ δραχμὰς ἔχουσα δέκα, ἐὰν ἀπολέσῃ δραχμὴν μίαν, οὐχὶ ἅπτει 
λύχνον καὶ σαροῖ τὴν οἰκίαν καὶ ζητεῖ ἐπιμελῶς ἕως οὗ εὕρῃ;
Or what woman having ten drachmas, if she were to lose one drachma, would not light a light and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
ἔχουσα: PAPart nsf, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀπολέσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  … 2a) to lose 
ἅπτει: PAI 3s, ἅπτω, 1) to fasten to, adhere to  1a) to fasten fire to a thing, kindle, set of fire 
σαροῖ: PAI 3s, σαρόω, 1) to sweep, clean by sweeping 
ζητεῖ: PAI 3s, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find
εὕρῃ:  AASubj 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
1. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant, recently, I was struck with how significant it could be to “light a light.” First, candles or oil lamps have not always been as easily attainable as one might imagine today. Second, many poor communities lived in housing that were interlinked in some way, either built with shared walls or built into the side of the same hill. In one scene from The Buried Giant, the community refused to allow an older couple to have a candle because they seemed a little unsteady and forgetful, and a moment of unsteadiness or forgetfulness with a candle could mean disaster for the community. The lack of a candle was a great hardship for the older couple.
2. Likewise, the OT and NT have several stories about lighting lamps, where having or lacking oil is of great significance. For this woman – no other family is mentioned – to burn a precious commodity like oil to search for the missing coin shows how desperate she was to find it. Imagine having only one AA battery for the year, and using it in a flashlight to search all night, instead of waiting for the morning sun. That is a sign of urgency, reminding us that the lost drachma was a real crisis for this woman. 

 9 καὶ εὑροῦσα συγκαλεῖ τὰς φίλας καὶ γείτονας λέγουσα, Συγχάρητέ μοι, ὅτι 
εὗρον τὴν δραχμὴν ἣν ἀπώλεσα.
And having found calls together the friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice together with me, because I found the drachma which I lost.’
εὑροῦσα: AAPart nsf, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
συγκαλεῖ: PAI 3s, συγκαλέω, 1) to call together, assemble  2) to call together to one's self 
λέγουσα: PAPart nsf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Συγχάρητέ: APImpv 2p, συγχαίρω, 1) to rejoice with, take part in another's joy  2) to rejoice together, to congratulate
εὗρον: AAI 1s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
ἀπώλεσα: AAI 1s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  … 2a) to lose 
1. The comedian in me says, “Hey, as long as she has already swept the house she might as well invite some people over.”
2. Again the double συν action of calling together friends and neighbors to rejoice together.

10οὕτως, λέγω ὑμῖν, γίνεται χαρὰ ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ ἑνὶ 
ἁμαρτωλῷ μετανοοῦντι. 
Just so I say to you, there will be joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repents.”
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
γίνεται: PMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
μετανοοῦντι: PAPart dsm, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent

These two parables focus on joy and specifically shared joy. The one who risked much and the one who worked diligently to find the lost share their joy with friends and neighbors. The dictums at the end of the parable declare that shared joy to be ‘in heaven’ in the first parable and ‘among the angels of God’ in the second.

Against this shared joy is the murmuring of both the Pharisees and the scribes. Murmuring is a collective action, but the opposite of sharing joy. We can almost hear the invitation, “Grouse with me, because Jesus is sitting with sinners!” There are few things in this world that can bring people together as effectively and passionately as collective complaining. Almost every political action organization fundraising letter leads with some version of “They are receiving sinners and eating with them!” Murmuring elicits passion, it elicits action, and it builds togetherness of a sort.

As I continue to reflect on this text, I think the next time I hear or give a rallying cry based on something I find objectionable, I may need to stop and wonder if there is a moment of collective rejoicing that I ought to honor. It may prove fruitless, but at least that exercise would enable me to discern whether my complaint is really “righteous indignation” or if I am simply murmuring.


  1. We often hear that Jesus hung out with the "wrong" crowd. But what if we look at it the other way around. The "wrong" crowd liked to hang around with Jesus. That should give us loads to think about what Jesus was saying to them. If he were constantly haranguing them for being sinners, they would not be hanging around for long. It seems obvious to me he offered an incredibly hopeful message to these lost folks. Imagine the punchline of the pharisee and the tax collector with this group. "Hey, we're not written off. There's a way through." Perhaps a different angle with these two parables is that Jesus is teaching them how important it is to seek for what is lost within themselves.

  2. What if the answer to Jesus' question in verse 4 is "No one!"? No one would risk losing 99 sheep to wolves, thieves, and the sheep's own wanderings by leaving them alone in the wilderness. I think the shock of this parable to Jesus' listeners is the fact they are left.

    1. This is a great question and I've often pushed it out of my mind instead of stating it as such and dealing with it. I think your answer, "No one" is precisely what we ought to anticipate as the obvious answer before we go any further.

    2. The answer "No one" seems to lessen as the parables continue. I always thought that the least convincing part of the story of Job was how having many more children in the end was somehow supposed to make up for having lost children in the beginning. It works numerically, but not relationally.
      In the parable of the lost coin there's not the dilemma of having to leave the 9 unguarded to search for the 10th. And in the parable of the sons that follows, no one pretends that having one makes up for losing one.
      So, taken separately, "No one" seems to be a possible answer to the question of v.4. Taken together,"No one" does not seem to be where this trilogy of parables is going.

  3. The wilderness is at the heart of Israel's mythology (stories that hold a community together, give it an identity etc). The 99 are left in the safety and security (and joy even) of their mythology; the lost sheep has lost that security, identity and joy. Only through repentance is that sinner restored and linked in again with the community's joy/myth/song. Repentance, then, is the sinner being found and not the sinner 'finding Jesus'.

  4. Interesting. The sheep and the coin are passive actors in the story, being hunted down by the sheep-chaser and the coin-seeker. Reminds me of the 'hound of heaven' image.

  5. de-moralizes the repentance dynamic. Which - literally translated - is 'new-mind' not 'I'm sorry.' New context, new way of looking at things... An interior reaction to an external stimulus, as Jonathan Edwards would say (The Will is much more interesting than the sermon of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).

  6. I’m learning to read scripture outside the capitalist narrative. That narrative says the pursuit of wealth through self-interest is the moral standard. Sinners are those who don’t seek their own economic accumulation. Thus we blame the poor. This reverses scripture.

    Sinners are those “add field to field”, ignore the plight of the widow and orphan (the families of peasant soldiers fallen in battle), and charge interest on loans to those suffering crop loss. Sinners impoverish their neighbors and weaken the national strength and unity of a widespread prosperous people.

    Tax collectors gained wealth through charging more than they need to return to Rome (even Temple taxes involved paying the national tribute - it’s how Herod’s family became sovereign and why Pilate was stationed with an army in Palestine).

    Jesus is eating with those who need to learn Jubilee as the way to God’s reign. The Separatists complain because they believe community purity leads to God’s reign. Jesus is redeeming the wealthy from their greed and self-interest.

    Look at the examples: a hundred sheep ranch is significant in Jesus’ day. Ten silver pieces is the annual wage of a unskilled labor - and a woman has it. The impoverished don’t have a year’s wage on hand - most not even a week.

    So imagine tax collectors not charging tolls or at least not overcharging, or lenders who do not charge interest and do not expect anything in return.

    That’s joy in heaven and on earth.

    Russell Meyer, Mdiv, Dmin

    1. That'll preach, Russell. Thanks.


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